A Party for Baby-Boomers


The New Deal is dead at last. The drubbing dished out to poor Walter Mondale signals the end of an era. No longer will a national political party attempt to win the presidency by attempting to buy off every interest group in sight with promises of government assistance. The idea that government can—and should—solve all our problems has been decisively rejected.

If you want to understand the depth of this rejection, and get a glimpse of where this country is headed, pay careful attention to what the surveys reveal about the views of the baby-boom generation. Those born between 1946 and 1964—75 million people—constitute one-third of our population. And more than any other age group, they voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984. Why?

Republican pollster Lance Tarrance sees the baby-boomers as welcoming, rather than fearing, economic growth and change. Many younger voters rejected Mondale in 1984 because they saw the Democrats supporting those opposed to change: "Unions, high wages, protectionism—all tied to the part of the country that won't change. These people see the Democrats as locking the country in."

Former LBJ assistant Horace Busby points out how different younger Americans' priorities are. They "neither want nor expect [much] from government…[they] want things to be more private than they are [now]," and they support "more decentralization of government and business." Karlyn Keene of Public Opinion magazine underscores younger voters' "cynicism about big government, big labor—and big business."

By contrast, voters perceived Ronald Reagan as offering a vision of a dynamic, high-tech future of growth and opportunity, in which government takes a back seat to entrepreneurs motivated by lower tax rates to create new firms and ultimately whole new industries.

But pollsters from both parties also agree on what the baby-boomers were not supporting in voting for Reagan: his views on social and moral issues. Reagan-Bush deputy director Lee Atwater describes the baby-boomers as libertarians, because they are economically conservative and socially liberal. Admits GOP pollster Robert Teeter, "An increasing number of better-educated voters are tolerant of a wider range of lifestyles and may not react well to our position on some of these [social and moral] issues."

Presidential pollster Richard Wirthlin told Time that "younger voters are very individualistic in their economic views but quite liberal in their views on social issues, such as the ERA and abortion." And this description fits young Democrats, according to pollster Pat Caddell: "The younger [Democratic] voters tend to be skeptical of the New Deal, Big Government programs, more conservative on economic issues but more liberal on cultural matters."

Thus, both parties have a serious problem. To win in 1988 means capturing the imagination of the baby-boomers. If the Republicans continue their drift toward the New Right's social agenda, they will alienate this emerging near-majority. But unless the Democrats can figure out a graceful way to jettison their New Deal baggage, they cannot hope to win the baby-boomers' hearts and minds, either.

For the Democrats, the best course might be to return to their roots in Jefferson and Jackson (that's Andy, not Jesse) and become, in fact, the party of individuals and entrepreneurship. As a basic text, they could do worse than to adopt Mancur Olson's The Rise and Decline of Nations. Applying the principles of "public choice analysis" (essentially, the economic analysis of bureaucracy and interest-group politics), Olson shows how the accumulation of special-interest privileges leads a society to stagnation. The challenge of public policy in the '80s, then, is to figure out ways of flushing these accumulations of privilege and rigidity out of our society's arteries.

How to do this? Among the remedies Olson suggests for freeing up the system are free trade (exposing inefficient firms to tough competition) and free immigration (exposing overpaid, overprotected workforces to tough competition). The former is a traditional Democratic position, only lately abandoned; the latter is favored by the party's civil-libertarian wing. Other policies to encourage entrepreneurship and reduce cartelization could include abolishing the capital-gains tax and continuing deregulation of transportation, communications, and financial institutions.

In defense and foreign policy, a Democratic alternative that would appeal to the generation brought up with Missile Command and other computer games could include building a space-defense system instead of (not in addition to) new offensive missiles, being equally tough-minded with the Soviets and defense contractors, and staying out of foreign quarrels unless the security of this country is actually at risk.

What hope is there for such a reformulation of Democratic policy? At this point, it's hard to say. The leading neoliberal journal, the Washington Monthly, heaped praise on Mancur Olson's book. And many of the thinkers in Gary Hart's entourage embraced portions of the agenda sketched out above. Yet the rising star of last summer's Democratic national convention was Mario Cuomo, with his unabashed defense of New Deal egalitarianism and income redistribution.

On the Republican side, while Atwater has called for a coalition of conservatives and libertarians, the most free-market-oriented of the 1988 hopefuls have thus far wrapped themselves in the robes of the New Right preachers. What these people don't seem to appreciate is that a generation that came of age with birth-control pills, working mothers, and recreational drugs is simply not going to return to some Norman Rockwell version of America. Nor will they stand for government attempting to impose it on them.

The majority party of the future will be the party that embraces growth, opportunity, choice, and tolerance—in short, both personal and economic freedom. For 1988, that party could be either, neither…or both.