Obama the Conservative vs Trump the Revolutionary

I was thinking about this topic this morning and I wanted to run it by you. The genesis of it all was an interview I did with Rohan Grey and Kevin Muir on Real Vision regarding MMT. And one conclusion I drew – partially motivated by the debate – is that Millennials face a very different world than Gen X or baby boomers did. I think that means their receptivity to change is different. So I wanted to sketch out how I am thinking about some of these things using Obama and Trump.

The generational backstory

I’ve been mulling this over for quite some time. In the past, I had seen surveys that say Millennials are more open to socialism than any generational cohort in recent memory including Gen X and the baby boomers, who make up the rest of the working-age population.

Looking this up, I see various takes on that idea.

All of these takes are anti-socialism pieces written by Gen X and Baby Boomer writers. And in some sense, this fits my narrative. The way I am looking at it – as a biased Gen X’er – is as Baby Boomers enjoying the fruits of the labor of the Greatest Generation. But then, Baby Boomers had their freedom, their youthful fight against authority, their protests, their free love and free drugs as the security of the post-war period gave way to the Civil Rights era, Vietnam and the inflationary 1970s. The result is a Conservatism in which socialism is almost an epithet, an evil only contemplated by dimwits.

Gen X’ers saw almost none of the ‘good ‘ol days’ except the older ones, as infants and toddlers in the 1960s. Instead, they came of age as Reagan, Thatcher and Schroeder crushed the old ‘socialist’ models of the post war and as the USSR crumbled and shareholder value became ascendant. We fully embraced all of this as the norm, almost unquestioning, because it was all we knew.

Millennials have come of age during a great economic trauma. And so, they are naturally more questioning of the status quo than either of the two previous generational cohorts. And so, that makes them understandably more receptive to socialism.

That’s my narrative here. And notice, I’m not saying anything about socialism one way or the other. I’m just talking about receptivity to change, socialism being a part of that.

Obama the Conservative

So that brings me to Barack Obama. I would argue that he ran for President in 2008 on a slogan – Change You Can Believe In – which very much fits his generation, late baby boom reaching across to the early Gen X’ers.

“Change you can believe in” is a moniker designed to evoke a sense of technocratic tweaking, of taking a good system and making it more efficient and more fair for all citizens. It is not a call for revolution. What Obama was saying was essentially, “I am going to take the system we have – the best that man has created – and make it better.” He was not saying, “the system is rigged. The system is broken. And I’m going to burn it down and build up something better.”

Obama’s message was a conservative message. It was a message that was steeped in the status quo, with the change coming only at the margin. It meant continuity in policy and a bevy of tried and trusted policymakers to get us to the next destination. Even Obamacare is a tweak of the existing policy. It is not a fundamentally different healthcare system controlled by different healthcare providers.

Defining the Term ‘Intervention’

So, in one sense, despite massive intervention by the Federal Reserve and policymakers to bail out the banks, the policy orientation of the Obama Administration was geared toward LESS intervention, not more.

The way I am thinking of intervention is this: Anytime you are forced to make a policy decision to change the status quo, that’s intervention – irrespective of the motivation for doing so. And the goal of Obama’s policy was to not intervene unless necessary, to keep the status quo unless forced to change. Two conditions were critical: either they needed to intervene to return us to the status quo ante (bank bailouts) or they needed to make the system more efficient and fairer (Obamacare). All other intervention was unnecessary and unwanted.

That’s Conservative.

Trump the Revolutionary

Donald Trump doesn’t think that way. Norms only matter to him to the degree they move his personal agenda forward. He’s a pretty simple guy in this sense. If a policy choice or a norm helps Donald Trump, then he’s for it. If it hurts him, he’s against it. It’s as simple as that.

But, that’s not conservative …at all. Trump may message “Make America Great Again”. But, his process is more about bending and breaking rules, damn the consequences.

Back to socialism

None of this is to say that Millennials would support Trump over Obama because they want change. It’s more that Obama’s ‘change you can believe in’ approach was a very incremental, status quo-oriented conservative approach that has disappointed Millennials. They want still more change – not a bend and break the rule kind – but a fundamental systemic change.

What does that mean about the next economic downturn? Personally, I think it means that — when people living in precarious at-will employment, with insufficient healthcare coverage, saddled by student debt, unable to purchase homes to build wealth feel the full bore of an economic downturn — they will be willing to burn the system down. They will have no allegiance to the status quo and will vote accordingly.

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