I was watching a remembrance of the Watergate affair on the Discovery Channel the other night. It was a great show incorporating newsreels, interviews and film clips from “All the President’s Men”. Among the commentators was Rachel Maddow who speculates that Richard Nixon would be considered a conservative Democrat by today’s standards. It was Nixon, after all, who signed the EPA into existence. Imagine a Republican doing that today. I think it may be fair to say that the country has become more conservative since Tricky Dick exited the national stage.
But, the reelection of Barack Obama suggests a counter trend. Republicans and pundits offered lots of explanations (read excuses) of why Democrats held their ground in the last election, ranging from the Hispanic vote to women’s issues to gay marriage. If you’re into statistics, you could use any of these examples to make that case.
However, I think a better explanation can be found in a demographic trend. As of 2011, more than250 million Americans (nearly 80%) live in or near a major city. And, nearly all major cities, including four in Texas, voted Democratic in the last election.
So, do liberals move to the city or do cities make people liberal? I am inclined to believe the latter. As Josh Kron wrote in Atlantic magazine, “The difference is [not where but] how people live: in spread-out, open, low-density privacy -- or … in-your-face population density and diverse communities …”. In simple terms, if you live and work in a diverse environment you learn that we all have the same basic needs, the same joys and sorrows and the same desire to connect with our community. It doesn’t really matter what color our skin is, where we come from or who we sleep with.
The urban environment tends to open you up. So, the hard right dialog (about immigration, gay rights, birth control) that dominates today’s conservative politics drives urbanites and suburbanites into the arms of the Democrat Party.
Liberal vs. liberal
There is a difference between the definition of the word liberal -- which can simplistically be defined as open to new ideas and willing to set aside traditional values – and Liberal as it describes a contemporary political philosophy.
The model of Liberal government embraced by today’s Washington Democrats still reflects the 1930s New Deal and the 1960s Great Society. Liberals are supposed to be progressive – forward looking. So, why do they continue to embrace an 8-decade-old political philosophy?
Today’s urban young professionals are joining small, entrepreneurial companies. The organizations are unstructured; the jobs require creative energy; and, success is based on either first mover advantage or superior execution.
Contrast that with the early experiences of the Baby Boom generation. We found job opportunities in large companies whose organizations were modeled on a military hierarchy that was embedded in our elders’ experience in WWII.
Graduate schools of business reflect this transition as well. If you went to the top B schools in the 60s, 70s and 80s, you were well prepared to work in the marketing department of Proctor & Gamble, the product planning group in one of Detroit’s Big 3 or the finance group of a big bank.
Today, nearly every top B school has a program that fosters entrepreneurship.
What’s that got to do with liberalism? Liberalism morphed into its 20th Century form driven by the abuses of large companies. The movement gave rise to trade unions, a social safety net and government regulation. Today’s hip, urban, liberal Millennial generation scoffs at the idea that the safety net will be there for them in their senior years and small entrepreneurial companies are unaffected by trade unions… and, they certainly don’t want to be regulated.
The 21st Century economy will drive changes to how we are governed. Today’s urban youth will continue to be socially liberal. But, they are unlikely to tolerate the downsides of an unsustainable model that has its roots in the experience of their great grandparents. A generation of Americans that grew up with the Internet isn’t going to tolerate public institutions that operate on a 19th Century bureaucratic model. Nor will they tolerate a healthcare system that absorbs more and more of our national income without improving outcomes, a social safety net that will collapse of its own weight or an education system that doesn’t match graduates with jobs and careers.
Going forward, the national debate won’t be about spendthrift compassion vs. cold-hearted austerity. It will be about developing a healthcare system that can care for our poor and elderly without bankrupting the country, restructuring education to deliver globally competitive graduates and ordered liberty that provides equal opportunity to all.
When that happens, I’ll be a liberal.
WHO WILL LEAD?