Over on the main site, I have a column up about how President Obama is taking a big gamble by expanding the size and scope of government so vastly, given that polls show most Americans want government to be scaled back once we’re no longer in an economic crisis. Yesterday, Kristen Soltis, who has been doing a ton of research on the attitudes of younger voters, offered a bit of a different take. She presents data that show the younger generation to be much more open to big government than older Americans, and concludes:
Messaging that focuses on the need for less government and lower taxes is not likely to be as well received or convincing to this generation. This isn’t to say these messages won’t work, to be sure. But the spectre of Big Government is not as frightening to young voters, nor is the devotion to the free market so prevalent. In order for the Republican Party to grow long-term, they must work to impact these belief structures and spend the effort convincing a new generation of the sorts of beliefs that are taken for granted among older cohorts.
I encourage you to check out Kristen’s entire piece, but I think there are a few things to keep in mind. While younger Americans may be more open to bigger government than older people, as some of the polling she cites shows, this has typically been the case. This makes some intuitive sense given that when people are young, they tend to be “takers” in that they use a lot of government services (public schools, student loans), but don’t yet pay a ton of taxes. Yet as they grow older, they move up the tax brackets, have more negative interactions with government, confront red tape as they open businesses, etc. So it doesn’t surprise me that they naturally become more skeptical about government. (Ideally, we’d have access to a longitudinal study that would track the same group of voters over time and see how their attitudes change.)
Kristen highlights Pew’s values surveys which show that in 2002/03 Americans, as a whole, had a more positive view of government than they did back in 1987/88. But if you look at the chart below, based on Gallup data and produced by USA Today, you see that Americans’ attitudes toward government were pretty volatile during the period in between, and through today.
So, while right now, the public is more open to big government than it may have been during the Reagan era, and that sentiment is more pronounced among younger Americans, it’s important to recognize how easily things can change over time. Relating this to my original point, I think that the outcome of Obama’s grand experiment with government is going to be the key determining factor for the next generation’s views on its proper role, not clever messaging on the part of Republicans. If Obama is seen as a successful president who brings wonderful health care to all at a lower price, creates environmentally friendly energy that reduces our dependence on foreign oil, and improves our education system, while solving the entitlement crisis, and he does this without raising taxes on 95 percent of Americans or running up unsustainable deficits, then yes, I’m sure younger Americans will grow up to love big government.
Of course, if I believed all of those things would happen, I’d be a liberal. But as a conservative, I believe that Obama’s policies will prove disastrous, that they will bring higher taxes and inflation, and that the younger generation will be buckling under the weight of a $53 trillion long-term entitlement deficit caused by promises made by prior generations. This will provide the next opening for believers in limited government, as well as Republicans, should they decide to be the party of limited government. Remember, the Democrats’ “Six for ’06” agenda that helped them take back Congress didn’t contain any groundbreaking new ideas – they were recycled policies on raising the minimum wage, making college more affordable, etc. They just looked fresh because the public had become so disenchanted with Bush and the Iraq War. I’m not saying that messaging isn’t important, but just emphasizing that the ball is largely in Obama’s court.