If Obamacare never gets fixed, it might just sour the single best relationship the Democratic Party has: its love affair with the young.
To understand why, it’s important to understand the basic paradox of millennial politics. Millennials are the product of what Chris Hayes has called “the fail decade.” Because they came of age watching a Republican president fail massively in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and the financial crisis, millennials are predisposed to favor Democrats. Because they’ve entered adulthood in miserable economic times, they’re more likely than their elders to feel that capitalism itself has failed, which predisposes them to favor government intervention in the economy. A November 2011 Pew study found that young Americans were more than 20 points more likely than the middle-aged, and a whopping 30 points more likely than the elderly, to favor a bigger, more expensive government over a cheaper, smaller one.
But the same failures that have made young Americans eager for government help also have left them dubious that government can provide it. When a 2009 Center for American Progress study compared millennials to previous generations of young people, it found them significantly less likely to trust government to “do what is right most of the time.” A 2009 National Bureau of Economic Research paper suggests that this paradox is typical of people who enter adulthood during rough economic times. “Recession-stricken individuals on the one hand ask for larger involvement by the state in redistribution,” observed authors Paola Giuliano and Antonio Spilimbergo, “but at the same time are more skeptical of the state institutions’ ability to intervene effectively.”
During Obama’s first term, this contradiction only grew. According to pollsters, young Americans were far more supportive of Obamacare than their elders. But between 2010 and 2013, their faith in government continued to fall.
Until a month ago, it seemed possible that when health-care reform took effect, and young Americans began to feel its positive results, the gap might close. Now it seems likely to widen further. I doubt that means young people will shift toward the GOP in significant numbers anytime soon. Among millennials, the Republican Party’s brand remains horrendous, and almost everything the party has done since Mitt Romney’s loss has made it worse. More fundamentally, few millennials embrace the right’s basic contention that a larger welfare state threatens their freedom and that an unregulated free market will solve their economic woes.
Instead of re-aligning young people, the Obamacare debacle is more likely to de-align them. It validates the Occupy movement, which took its grievances directly to Wall Street because it lacked any faith that Washington could redress them. A couple of months ago, I suggested that the frustrations that Occupy voiced would eventually find their way into presidential politics, just as the anti-Vietnam movement spawned foot soldiers for the campaigns of Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, and later, George McGovern. Obamacare’s failure, unless reversed, makes that less likely. It makes millennial politics less predictable and less mainstream.
What kind of politician can speak to a generation that feels betrayed by big corporations, big government, and high finance, by deregulation and regulation, in both war and peace? As the post-Obama era dawns, we may be about to find out.