Before Nixon exposed the cracks and Reagan finally broke the back of the "New Deal Coalition" -- the voting groups that comprised the Democrats' electoral advantage for over a generation: big city machines, labor unions, minorities (racial, ethnic and religious), liberal farm groups, intellectuals, and white Southerners -- the Democrats were ascendant. Indeed, they held the majority, many times a large majority, in both houses of congress. It was not until 1994 when the GOP finally regained a majority of seats in the House after wandering in the political wilderness for over 40 years.
The linchpin of this Democratic political hegemony was the Great Depression. That is, the young adults who experienced this traumatic economic event in their youth had their ideological outlook shaped for life. For example, two economists (one of whom was none other than Milton Friedman) working in 1963 posited that the Great Depression "shattered" that generation's belief in free markets, capitalism, etc.
Here's some research background that can be brought to bear on this notion:
According to a vast literature in social psychology, economic and political beliefs are formed mostly during early adulthood and change slowly past this critical age. In particular, the most relevant theory in this respect, the impressionable years hypothesis, states that core attitudes, beliefs, and values crystallize during a period of great mental "plasticity" in early adulthood (the so-called "impressionable years") and remain largely unaltered throughout the remaining adult years. Evidence of significant ocialization has been found between 18 and 25 years of age.
Consistent with theories of social psychology, this paper shows that large macroeconomic shocks experienced during the critical years of adolescence and early adulthood, between the ages of 18 and 25, shape preferences for redistribution and that this effect has a strong statistical and economic significance.
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So, with that backdrop, some new research found:
We find that individuals who experienced a recession when young believe that success in life depends more on luck than effort, support more government redistribution and tend to vote for left parties. The effect of recessions on beliefs is long-lasting.
There are a number of reasons why this research is important. First, it shows that one's own economic self-interest does not necessarily compel voting for a particular party. That is, if you are betting that you're going to be successful when you "grow up," it would not make much sense for you to support redistributionist policies. But given the traumatic economic events you survived in your politically formative years, you might be willing to do so anyways. Indeed, you might attribute your success, once achieved, as simply good fortune rather than the result of all your hard work and skill (which is, in any event, the reason why many succeed). What is more, you might simply be a wealthy person who favors, for moral and ethical reasons, a more redistributionist economy. Pejoratively, you might be a limousine liberal.
So now we have a generation, mostly Millenials, who suffered through the Great Recession -- many are still suffering -- and this is going to affect how they vote in future elections. Even a small effect of 10-15 percent could rock the electoral landscape. Given the closeness of presidential elections since 2000, as the older voters who tend to lean conservative pass away are replaced with, say, 5-8 percent of the electorate that is solidly Democratic (those who saw their ideological leanings shaped by the Great Recession) then there may well be a new Democratic hegemony for another generation.