Viral Politics

Long after the pandemic has receded, its long-term impact on our society and political life will continue. Just as plagues past have reshaped the trajectory of cities and civilizations, sometimes with fearsome morbidity, COVID-19 is already having a profoundly disruptive impact on our political future.

Rather than uniting humanity against a common foe, the pandemic seems to be widening the internal political chasm between nations and within them. The “battle,” “war,” or “crusade” against the novel coronavirus has not to date reprised the London Blitz, Pearl Harbor, or the World Trade Center attack in 2001, during which people closed ranks, even if they thought little of their country’s leaders.

Democrats like party strategist James Carville and Speaker Nancy Pelosi insist that Trump has “blood on his hands” and one of Pelosi’s more excitable colleagues has suggested that Trump be tried in The Hague for his handling of the pandemic. On the Right, meanwhile, the pandemic has engendered, in the US and elsewhere, a predictably anti-China and nativist tone, which have sometimes drifted into overt racism, particularly in Italy. Some journalists toss around terms like “Manchurian media,” a regrettable throwback to McCarthyism.

This is no way to handle a global pandemic. Most Americans, according to a recent survey, would prefer a more collaborative approach. They have so far been disappointed. At a time when we need a rational discussion of policy alternatives and a thoughtful debate among experts, including not just epidemiologists, but also economists, psychologists, and social scientists, we are seeing an escalation of finger-pointing, blame-shifting, and character assassination from both sides.

The globalized politics of the pandemic

Throughout history, pandemics have periodically devastated great cities like Rome, Constantinople, and Cairo. Repeated exposure to sickness slowed the recovery of European cities throughout the Middle Ages and ravaged the great cities of the Renaissance. Diseases imported from the West devastated the once proud cities of Meso-America and Peru, making them more easily overcome by the Hispanic conquistadors.1 Later on, the disease-ridden slums of the industrial age helped to spark socialist insurrections almost everywhere, and in Russia, at least, to grievous political effect.

Today’s global pandemic is far less lethal, but it is rearranging global politics nonetheless, most obviously through the growing conflict between the world’s two dominant powers, China and the United States. The conservative press, President Trump, and Boris Johnson have blamed China for the pandemic. In response, Beijing claims their approach has been more successful, and demonstrates that authoritarians are able to deal with crises more efficiently than less ordered and obedient Western democracies.

Read the rest of this piece at Quillette.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute — formerly the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017). His next book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, is now available to preorder. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin

Reference:

1 William McNeil, Plagues and Peoples, (Garden City, NY, 1976). pp.2, 13, 207, 208

Photo credit: The White House via Flickr.

Oligarchy and Pestilence

It’s January 21, 2021 and President Biden’s first full day in the White House. Surrounded by cheering key Democratic Party constituencies and financial backers, the new president proclaims a “climate emergency” – something proposed in the primaries by Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee and Bernie Sanders – placing essentially the entire economy under Washington’s control.

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Outbreak a Wake-up Call About Need to Decouple from China

For the past half century, China has gone from successfully exploiting global markets to seeking to impose its own authoritarian system on the rest of the world. This winter is all about much of the rest of the world saying, “No thanks.”

The poor handling of the coronavirus represents the third element in a hockey-like hat trick of remarkably embarrassing failures. The virus story tells of a litany of filthy market conditions, incompetent governance and bureaucratic languor. This simply amplifies the pattern seen in other awful actions such as the suppression of Uighurs, complete with concentration camps and forced labor, and the brutal suppression of Hong Kong’s democracy protesters.

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California Democrats Exit Planet Earth

This past week, in most states, America’s liberal party voted for a doddering, but non-threatening old man, rejecting a strident socialist from Vermont. But second thoughts about socialism appear not to be on the agenda for California’s Democrats, who almost single-handedly kept Bernie Sanders’ anti-capitalist crusade from an untimely implosion.

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Moderation’s Limits: Centrist Democrats Short-Term Triumph

Moderate Democrats are celebrating Joe Biden’s big Super Tuesday, but their joy may reflect a short-term triumph of the party’s past over its longer-term future. The sudden consolidation of the moderate vote around Biden, paced by the relative inability of Michael Bloomberg to spend his way into relevance, has elevated the creaking former vice president to the top of the pack, mainly as the most likely alternative to socialist senator Bernie Sanders. Moderation may have triumphed for now, with help from African-American and older voters, but the Sanders–Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party remains the choice of rising demographic groups of the future Read more

Democrats Risk Blowback with Leftward Turn

With progressive Democrats in almost total control of California, and easily winning the money race, there’s no compelling reason to expect that they will face much opposition soon. Yet at a hearing I attended last month, I may have gotten a glimpse of potential blowback against the party’s ever accelerating leftward lurch.

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The Two Middle Classes

Politicians across the Western world like to speak fondly of the “middle class” as if it is one large constituency with common interests and aspirations. But, as Karl Marx observed, the middle class has always been divided by sources of wealth and worldview. Today, it is split into two distinct, and often opposing, middle classes. Read more

The West Turns Red?

Adam Smith, the philosophical father of modern capitalism, may have been Scottish, but his ideas have long found their muse in America. Smith’s “voice has been ringing in the world’s ears for sixty years”, wrote one observer in 1838, “but it is only in the United States that he is listened to, reverenced, and followed.”

Yet today the US is shifting, perhaps inexorably, in the precise opposite direction towards an embrace of socialism. Read more

Why Can’t California Create Viable National Leaders Anymore?

Once upon a time, Hollywood and California seemed to be leading the country, for better or worse, with outsized public figures and sometimes compelling, or at least entertaining, ideas.

California politicians like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan achieved national power, establishing the primary strands of conservative thought.

California’s liberals were less successful, but at least they were influential. Jerry Brown never made it to the White House — he would have been our first Zen president — but he laid out many of the tracks, notably on the environment and fiscal restraint, that helped update progressivism over the past half century.

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How Different Generations are Influencing Our Politics

Race, gender and class may be shaping our society, but increasingly generational change drives our politics.

Over time this suggests a major realignment of America’s party system that could create either whole new parties or transform the current, and failing, political duopoly.

One must look just at the results in New Hampshire. Bernie Sanders won by winning roughly half of voters under 30, according to exit polls, almost twice the percentage he gained among the rest of the electorate.

In contrast, Bernie did poorly among voters over 35, who overwhelmingly chose either the well-scrubbed boy next door Pete Buttigieg, or the emergent suburban mom candidate, Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar. Both did poorly with younger voters but much better with middle-aged and older cohorts, with Klobuchar winning those over 45 and scoring particularly well among seniors.

The Millennial Moment?

According to the Harris survey, all generations are similar in their views of the country’s direction, about evenly split between pessimists and optimists. But different generations may not be dissatisfied by the same things and have different solutions to pressing problems.

For a decade now, progressives have been counting on millennials, already the largest portion of the current adult population, to shove American politics to the left. This generation follows left-leaning positions on a host of issues including gender, race, immigration and the environment. In fact, they are the most Democratic-leaning of generations, notes Pew, with almost 60 percent fealty to the Democrats.

The key issue here may not be culture but economics. Roughly two in five millennials see the current robust economy as not being on “the right track,” roughly 10 percent more than older generations. In 2012, I labeled them the “screwed generation,” and, even in the current strong economy, they continue to struggle, with wages well below those of previous generations at the same age.

Property ownership may be the defining difference with older generations. In 2016, only a third of people under 35 owned a house, far below previous generations, where that percentage was closer to half. Their noted lack of enthusiasm for capitalism is understandable; according to projections by the Deloitte Center for Financial Services, they will own barely 15 percent of the nation’s assets by 2030, when most will be well in their late 30s or 40s.

This explains the appeal of the septuagenarian, not too removed from octogenarian, socialist. If your prospects to start a successful business, buy a home and raise a family are dim, the appeal of rent control, housing subsidies, guaranteed income and government make-work are understandably appealing. Nearly one-third of Sanders backers nationally, according to Pew, are under 30, more than twice the percentage for Warren, and four times as much as Buttigieg, Bloomberg or Biden.

The big challenge for Sanders may lie in the difficulty of motivating younger voters, who tend to turn out at considerably lower rates than older generations. But Sanders and other Democrats may also be encouraged by the 2018 results, which saw a 20 percent spike over the previous off-year election; in that election younger voters cast more votes, for the first time, than the boomers and those older than them.

The X mark

Sandwiched between two giant generations, the boomers and the millennials, the Generation X, now mostly in their late 30s to late 50s, may end up determining both the Democratic and ultimately the November election.

Xers have done comparatively better than millennials, but not nearly as well as the Boomers. Their ascent is somewhat inevitable; by 2030 they will own 30 percent of the nation’s assets, doubling their share in 2015.

As property and business owners, as well as parents, Xers are caught between their somewhat liberal social views and their interest in preserving their assets. These have grown under Trump and done so far more quickly than in Obama’s second term.

X generation voters, particularly the more affluent and well-educated, may want Obama-like changes, but not the kind of “revolution” that Sanders epitomizes. “They don’t want a revolution,” observed Matthew Walther in The Week. “They want more of the same, but without the mean tweets and with the approval of their neighbors.”

Trump does only slightly better with Xers than millennials and almost half identify as Democrats. But Sanders’ leftist agenda has done poorly among these middle-aged voters so far, and it is not inconceivable that many Xers may, albeit reluctantly, rally to the president, choosing offensiveness over catastrophic change. After all, Xers have already paid off their college debts and worked hard to buy a house; a socialist revolution would essentially devalue these investments and make a mockery of their thrift.

Boomers busted

As generational chroniclers Mike Hais and Morley Winograd point out, we owe our current dysfunctional polarized politics to the Boomers. This far from “greatest” generation continues to fight over the same culture wars that animated the 1960s and 1970s, with strong coteries on the right and left.

Traditionally Boomers divide their votes, and are about even in their partisan affiliation. Trump’s ill behavior and boorishness has offered Democrats an opportunity to gain among them, as was clear in the 2018 election. But this is also a wealthy generation — owning roughly half of all assets — besides enjoying high rates of homeownership. Although some are poor, many in this generation are middle class and overwhelmingly suburban.

Left-wing Democratic plans to increase income taxes, undermine homeownership and wipe out whole industries, such as energy, agribusiness and much of manufacturing, will not have much appeal to many Boomers who depend on these for a living. Sanders, for example, did very poorly among Boomers in New Hampshire. But with a more moderate candidate, it’s likely more people in the 30 to 50 age range will, as in 2018, abandon the GOP.

Still not silent

They may be fading in numbers, but the Silent Generation, those born before the post-World War Two boom, remain politically and economic consequential. They continue to hold some 30 percent of America’s assets and right now include three of the most likely candidates in November, including Trump himself, Sanders and “Moneybags” Mike Bloomberg.

No surprise then that Silents are the one majority pro-GOP generation. But many are still Democrats or independents and their influence will be felt through the primaries. In New Hampshire very few supported their fellow Silent generationer Sanders, opting for younger and less divisive candidates. Biden, who one would think would appeal to older voters, also did comparatively poorly there.

Even when the Silents are mostly gone, aging will continue to influence our politics. All ethnic groups, according to the Census, are now aging — more than four out of every five counties were older in 2018 than in 2010. Issues of Social Security and the “safety net” will only grow, which could provide an opportunity for Democrats given Trump’s politically deaf talk of cutting these programs.

What the future holds

Perhaps the biggest question mark, however, may be the direction of the so-called Z generation, who are just now getting to voting age. Unlike the millennials, the Zs did not enjoy growing up in the relative boom periods before the Great Recession; they and their parents went through difficult times, making them what analyst Winograd describes as a “grit generation,” a characteristic that may arguably make traditional GOP approaches more attractive to younger voters.

To be sure, Zers share many social and environmental views of Millennials, but 63 percent, according to one recent survey, identify as something other than liberal. Similar research by AEI conducted by Sarah Lawrence’s Sam Abrams found that Zers do not fit easily into the liberal monoculture.

Over time the new generational politics could be to redefine our current political parties, and even lead to the rise of new ones. According to a recent Harvard survey, over 70 percent of Americans already would like to replace every member of Congress, including their own. This could foreshadow the kind of fragmentation already happening in Europe as the Greens win over the old social-democratic constituencies while many others embrace the Trumpian politics of far-right parties.

Even if new parties do not emerge, generational politics will continue to shape our politics, dragging the Democrats to the left, particularly in the increasingly neo-feudal states along the coasts. This could nudge more Xers and Boomers toward the GOP just long enough to prevent them ending up in the near future like the 19th-century Whigs, cast into a memory hole of forgotten history.

This piece first appeared at The Orange County Register.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017). His next book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, is now available to preorder. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin

Homepage photo credit: Voting in the US by Becky McCray via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.