A Temporary Majority
The problem Democrats can’t solve.
Feb 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 22 • By JAY COST
For the 55 years following World War II, the American economy grew like gangbusters. Real GDP growth averaged 3.6 percent per year, and it was this fantastic expansion that created the modern middle class. However, since the recession of 2001, the economy has been in stall speed, more or less. Growth has averaged just 1.6 percent since then, and real incomes have stagnated as paychecks have not kept pace with the rising cost of health care, education, and energy.
This state of affairs shows no signs of change. Indeed, the most recent GDP number is inconsistent with where the economy should be at this point in the business cycle. We should be hitting 3 percent growth or higher, not saddled with a modest contraction. And let us not forget the second-order effects that such weak growth has on our politics. Without growth, there is no way for the United States to meet its social welfare obligations, which has in turn sparked the extremely divisive and unpredictable battle over the budget deficit.
If the Democratic party cannot bring about improvement in the economic numbers, it will not retain control of political power. It is as simple as that. No enduring majority coalition has been able to hang on to power for very long amid such widespread disappointment over the economy. And the warning signs are already there for the Democrats, if they care to look: The historically small numbers of Democrats in the House of Representatives, governorships, and state legislatures, plus the fact President Obama won fewer votes in 2012 than he did in 2008, are all signals that public patience with the party has its limits.
What’s more, the Democratic coalition is bound to have trouble doing what is necessary to grow the economy. The party of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s was a party of farmers and industrial laborers who depended on private-sector economic growth, so the Democrats of that era focused their efforts accordingly. But today’s Democratic party has many powerful constituents within it who are isolated from the ebbs and flows of the private economy. Upscale social liberals in the Northeast and Pacific Coast are so well off that they are basically recession-proof. And, what’s more, the position of the farmer-industrial working class has been usurped by unionized government workers and far-left gray-collar labor unions like the SEIU, which are more interested in expanding government than the economy.
All of this raises the key question: Can the Democrats keep these groups happy and grow the economy? The evidence to date suggests the answer is no. Witness the Democratic opposition to opening up domestic energy production, which would have been a no-brainer 50 years ago. Witness the party’s stimulus bill of 2009, which focused more on political patronage than economic growth. Witness the party’s continued efforts to push for a cap and trade system, which would kneecap economic growth. And above all, witness Obamacare, a vast regulatory system that saddles businesses with even more burdens. The Democrats have proposed all of these things since 2009, when they were voted into office to jump-start the economy.
Looking back over the last decade, it is hard to conclude that American politics looks as it did in the first decade of the 1900s or the 1930s, when one party had a decisive advantage. Instead, it looks much more like the period from 1876 to 1894, or 1966 to 1982. These were times of great social and economic tumult. The public responded back then much as it has recently, changing the partisan composition of government time and again in the hope of finding some combination of leaders who can manage the affairs of state.
As long as so many in the country are so deeply dissatisfied with the state of the union, neither party’s position is secure. And it is an open question whether the Democrats of 2013 even have the capacity to address our most pressing problem, continued economic weakness.
Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.