"A 2008 election widely regarded as heralding a shift toward the more government-friendly public sentiment of the New Deal and Great Society eras seems to have yielded just the reverse."
So writes William Galston, Brookings Institution scholar and deputy domestic adviser in the Clinton White House, in the New Republic. Galston, one of the smartest political and policy analysts around, has strong evidence for this conclusion.
He cites a recent Gallup poll showing that while 82 percent of Americans think it's extremely or very important to "grow and expand the economy" and 70 percent say it's similarly important to "increase equality of opportunity for people to get ahead," only 46 percent say it's important to "reduce the income and wealth gap between the rich and the poor," and 54 percent say this is only somewhat or not important.
In addition, by a 52 to 45 percent margin, Americans see the gap between the rich and the poor as an acceptable part of the economic system rather than a problem that needs to be fixed. In 1998, during the high-tech economic boom, Americans took the opposite view by the same margin.
As Galston notes, these findings suggest that Obama's much-praised speech at Osawatomie, Kan., decrying inequality, "may well reduce his chances of prevailing in a close race." Class warfare politics, as I have noted, hasn't produced a Democratic presidential victory in a long, long time.
Where Galston misses a step, I think, is that he seems to regard the move away from redistributionist politics in this time of economic stagnation as an anomaly in need of explanation. He seems to share the Obama Democrats' assumption that economic distress would make Americans more supportive of, or amenable to, big government policies.
That, after all, is what we have all been taught by the great and widely read New Deal historians, and that lesson has been absorbed by generations of politicians and political pundits.
I believe that historians have taught the wrong lessons about the 1930s. And I believe there is a plausible and probably correct reason why economic distress has apparently moved Americans to be less rather than more supportive of big government.
To understand the lessons of the 1930s, you need to read the election returns. Franklin Roosevelt's big victory in 1932 was a massive rejection of Republicans across the board. Republicans lost huge ground in urban and rural areas, in the West and Midwest and most of the East, even in their few redoubts in the South.