“A 2008 election widely regarded as heralding a shift toward the more government-friendly public sentiment of the New Deal and Great Society eras seems to have yielded just the reverse.”
So writes William Galston, Brookings Institution scholar and deputy domestic adviser in the Clinton White House, in the New Republic. Galston, one of the smartest political and policy analysts around, has strong evidence for this conclusion.
He cites a recent Gallup poll showing that while 82 percent of Americans think it’s extremely or very important to “grow and expand the economy” and 70 percent say it’s similarly important to “increase equality of opportunity for people to get ahead,” only 46 percent say it’s important to “reduce the income and wealth gap between the rich and the poor,” and 54 percent say this is only somewhat or not important.
In addition, by a 52 to 45 percent margin, Americans see the gap between the rich and the poor as an acceptable part of the economic system rather than a problem that needs to be fixed. In 1998, during the high-tech economic boom, Americans took the opposite view by the same margin.
As Galston notes, these findings suggest that Obama’s much-praised speech at Osawatomie, Kan., decrying inequality, “may well reduce his chances of prevailing in a close race.” Class warfare politics, as I have noted, hasn’t produced a Democratic presidential victory in a long, long time.
Where Galston misses a step, I think, is that he seems to regard the move away from redistributionist politics in this time of economic stagnation as an anomaly in need of explanation. He seems to share the Obama Democrats’ assumption that economic distress would make Americans more supportive of, or amenable to, big government policies.
That, after all, is what we have all been taught by the great and widely read New Deal historians, and that lesson has been absorbed by generations of politicians and political pundits.
I believe that historians have taught the wrong lessons about the 1930s. And I believe there is a plausible and probably correct reason why economic distress has apparently moved Americans to be less rather than more supportive of big government.
To understand the lessons of the 1930s, you need to read the election returns. Franklin Roosevelt’s big victory in 1932 was a massive rejection of Republicans across the board. Republicans lost huge ground in urban and rural areas, in the West and Midwest and most of the East, even in their few redoubts in the South.
In 1936, FDR won re-election by a slightly larger margin, but with a different coalition. The rural and small town North returned to its long Republican allegiance, while Democrats made further big gains among immigrants and blue-collar workers in big cities and factory towns.
The New Deal historians attributed these gains to Roosevelt’s economic redistribution measures: high tax rates on high earners, the pro-union Wagner Act, Social Security. These laws — the so-called Second New Deal — were passed in 1935. They replaced the different, non-redistributionist policies of the First New Deal that stopped the deflationary downward spiral underway when Roosevelt took office.
The problem with the historians’ claims is that the shifts in the electorate apparent in 1936 also are apparent in the 1934 off-year elections. Democrats won big that year, but compared to 1932, they lost ground in rural areas and small towns and gained much ground in big cities and factory towns.
The 1936 realignment happened in 1934. It could not have been caused by redistributionist Second New Deal legislation because it hadn’t been passed before November 1934.
So why should voters be leery of economic redistribution in times of economic distress?
Perhaps because they realize that they stand to gain much more from a vibrantly growing economy than from redistribution of a stagnant economic pie. A growing economy produces many unanticipated opportunities. Redistribution edges toward a zero-sum game.
They miss growth when it is absent. They don’t appreciate it so much when it is happening.
Roosevelt’s 1934 and 1936 victories were won in periods of growth. After the economy shifted into recession in 1937, New Deal Democrats fared much worse, and Roosevelt won his third and fourth terms as a seasoned wartime leader, not an economic redistributor.
Lesson: If you want redistribution, you’d better first produce growth. Which the Obama Democrats’ policies have failed to do.