Seeking solutions in politics

It's hard to consume financial news these days without stumbling across some comparison between the present moment and the 1970s.  Of course there's the specter of stagflation.  Add to that an unpopular president.  Fallout from an unpopular war.  And a general disgust with government and politics.

Ah, but on that last one, the comparison falls apart.  For better or worse — likely worse — every indication is that more people will seek solutions to their economic problems at the ballot box come November than was the case during the Disco Decade.  Polling data from Pew Research indicates, "Turnout is likely to be higher this fall — perhaps much higher than in previous elections — as voter interest continues at record levels."

Depressing as this prospect is, it jibes with the thesis of The Fourth Turning, the 1997 book chronicling American history in terms of generational passings.  I offered up a thumbnail description of the concept here and here last fall.  But for the moment, it's simply worth noting that the nation is beset by severe crisis every four generations or so, and we're on the cusp of another one right now, on a par with the Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression/World War II.  Perhaps it is already underway, having started with September 11.

And sure enough, voter turnout has been trending up in presidential elections over the last two or three election cycles — a phenomenon that looks nothing like the Nixon-Ford-Carter years, but does look a lot like the run-up to the Depression.  (I draw on a couple of sources for what follows.)

In our present time, turnout has been on the upswing since 1996, when it was actually dipped below 50% — 49.0% to be exact.  A similar upswing came after the last election when turnout fell below 50% — in 1924, when it was 48.9%.

Think about it: In both 1924 and 1996 the nation was in the midst of general prosperity — albeit a Fed-fueled false prosperity, and the truly dizzying heights were still a few years out.  Turnout headed upward in the elections that followed in 1928 and 2000.  People were taking a greater interest in politics, almost as if they were anticipating some big shift to come in the following year — the 1929 crash and September 11 — the way certain animals sense an earthquake before it hits.  Turnout during the Depression continued to climb right up to the FDR-Wendell Willkie contest of 1940, peaking at 58.8%.

In more modern times voter participation began trending downward with Nixon's blowout over McGovern in 1972, bottoming out as I noted before in 1996.  (There was a bit of a spike in 1992, perhaps owing to Ross Perot galvanizing heretofore disgusted non-voters.)

Voter turnout returned above the 50% mark in 2000, and shot past 55% in 2004.  And as the Pew survey above indicates, that number will likely continue to grow this year, much as it did during the Depression.

Another survey bears out the theory that, as was the case four generations ago, people are turning to politicians to solve their economic problems.  70% of respondents to a Rockefeller Foundation/Time magazine survey say government should do more to help people struggling through current economic circumstances.  (Unfortunately, the pollsters did not inquire where this money might come from.)  Among people age 18-29, the number shoots up to 86%.  And they're the age cohort that we're told will turn out in higher numbers than has been the case in recent decades.

But it's all age groups looking for new freebies Uncle Sam can't afford:

Americans support major government investments that create jobs – including public-works projects (82%), new measures to improve energy efficiency (84%), and initiatives to expand access to high-quality health care (77%). Americans also favor investments that make it easier for people to work – for example, paid family leave (68%) and government funded child care (66%).

Sounds like that new New Deal I mentioned back in the spring.  And the generational wheel turns again.  Only this time the country's broke.  And most of its citizens don't have a clue.  Well, we're doing what we can about that.

The Daily Reckoning