Back in the 1980’s, in the heyday of the conservative counter-revolution against the welfare state, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously remarked that “there is no alternative” to the unfettered, unregulated free market. Government action, she said, just does not work in terms of growing the economy and solving social problems. This view, abbreviated to the acronym TINA, not only became the cherished philosophy of conservatives but exerted hegemonic influence on overall public policy for decades, depreciating the role of government and privileging market forces.
But we may be reaching a turning point in attitudes toward government. A more robust government role in the economy may be the new TINA — because the people who will decide America’s future have had enough of untrammeled, cutthroat capitalism.
First, the deregulated, unsupervised free market has disgraced itself. The liberated free market delivered the Great Financial Crisis and its baby, the Great Recession. It has also produced levels of inequality not seen since the 1920’s and decades of stagnation in middle class income and wages. Indeed, the liberation of the market has really only delivered for the rich, while doing little for the rest of society.
These policy failures, however, are not enough on their own to change American views on government. What’s really going to turn the tide is ongoing demographic shifts that are increasing the political weight of groups for whom government action is not the enemy. Instead, government is viewed as a vital necessity to solve ongoing social problems and provide needed services and investments. That does not mean of course that government is seen as flawless. Far from it. But it is seen as the only way certain goals can be accomplished. TINA, in other words.
Take minorities. Minorities have been increasing their share of voters by around 2 percentage points every four years:
That trend’s likely to continue far into the future, according to Census Bureau population projections:
And what do minorities think about government? Broadly speaking, it’s pretty darn important and we should have more of it. In National Election Study data analyzed by political scientists Gary Segura and Shaun Bowler, 86 percent of blacks, 82 percent of Latinos and 69 percent of Asians agreed with the statement that “[government should] do more” as opposed “the less [government], the better.” Whites, in contrast, were roughly split down the middle between the two statements. Similarly, 78 percent of blacks, 74 percent of Latinos and 72 percent of Asians agreed that government has gotten bigger because the problems we face have gotten bigger rather than the claim that government has gotten involved where it shouldn’t; whites were again split down the middle. So the projected growth of the minority population will mean more and more citizens who see a positive, vital role for government:
Another important change is the rise of the Millennial generation, the most pro-government generation by far in the US electorate. In the 2012 exit poll, 59 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds said government should be doing more to solve problems. Just 37 percent thought government was doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals. That is basically the reverse of the sentiment among seniors: just 35 percent of this age group thought government should be doing more, compared to 58 percent who thought government is doing too much.
Every year until 2018 we will be adding 4 million eligible voters from this pro-government generation to the electorate. By the year 2020, Millennials will be nearly two in five eligible voters. Thus the simple process of generational replacement is substituting pro-government younger voters for older voters who are far less sympathetic to government action if not outright hostile:
Unmarried women are also strongly pro-government and another important part of the new equation on government’s role. As the chart shows, unmarried women have been increasing their share of voters over time and were 23 percent of voters in the last election. Together with minorities and young voters, they are sometimes referred to collectively as the “Rising American Electorate” (RAE). And the RAE, as we would expect, has a notably friendly attitude toward government, including the need for new investment to create jobs and strengthen the economy long-term. In Democracy Corps’ 2012 post election survey, 62 percent of the RAE thought “we should invest now in infrastructure, education and technology, and re-hiring teachers and firefighters to get people back to work to make our country stronger in the long-term,” rather than cut government spending and reduce the deficit (34 percent). The rest of the electorate, by contrast, favored cutting spending over increasing investment by 53–40:
And then there is addition by subtraction. What is the most hostile group in American politics to government action? White noncollege or working class voters. And what group is declining most rapidly as a share of the electorate? The very same group, as shown by the chart below. Every Presidential election has been bringing us an electorate whose share of white working class voters is 3 points lower than the previous election:
As a final twist, data from CAP’s 2010 survey on attitudes toward government and government reform indicate that white working class Millennials are significantly less anti-government than their older counterparts. This suggests that as the white working class continues to shrink it may also become less anti-government. That would truly cut the ground out from under the anti-government forces in American politics.
Thus, we’re likely headed to a future where the argument will not be about whether we need government action but how to deliver it. For the country’s sake, that future can’t come quickly enough.