Yuval Levin argues that American politics is being distorted by the toxic nostalgia of Baby Boomers who seek a return to a golden past: Liberal Boomers want to restore the Great Society, while conservative Boomers want to revive Reaganism. All of this is true—but it obscures an important difference between the two forms of Boomer nostalgia. Liberal nostalgia, as seen in the social-democratic agenda of Bernie Sanders, demonstrates greater appeal among the young. Indeed, for the young, the Sanders agenda isn’t even nostalgia.
This might be difficult for middle-aged (or older) conservatives to understand. But we have been here before—only, we were on the other side. In 1980, Ronald Reagan talked about high taxes, the perverse incentives of the welfare state, and rising crime. Reagan’s opponents condemned him as a nostalgist who wanted to take us back to the 1920s.
That isn’t what he looked like to young voters in the 1980s. To young voters, Reagan seemed to be talking about the problems that actually existed all around them. It was Reagan’s younger opponents who seemed stuck in the past, picking imaginary fights with the ghost of Herbert Hoover. The elderly Reagan overwhelmingly won young voters.
Sanders, whatever his flaws, answers the questions many young voters are asking. Levin writes that “as individuals grow apart from one another, the need for centralized provision tends to grow.” Many young voters are growing up in a more atomized America, and Sanders’s social-democratic agenda is designed to ameliorate that atomization.
Normal people don’t look up statistics, but they know, in their bones, that many children will grow up without their biological father in the house. They know that, while there are no sure things, someone with a four-year college degree is much more likely to be in the labor force, be employed, get married, stay married, and keep their kids out of trouble.
Only a minority of Americans have such degrees, so what is the answer? Free college for everyone. People can no longer count on lifetime employment, so what is the answer? Full government-provided health insurance for everyone. Low-skill workers have limited bargaining power in the market, so what is the answer? Higher earnings legislated through an increased minimum wage.
Levin writes that the Left will have to come to terms with the reality that “large centralized federal programs … are a poor fit for how people live.” In the long run, that may be true. Economists can make (and have made) strong arguments for why the Sanders agenda has downsides that are unimagined by his supporters. But in the medium term (a few decades), a larger bureaucratic government can seem more reliable than parents who aren’t there and civic institutions that do not pick up the slack. And a great deal of damage can be done in the medium term.
What have conservatives offered as an alternative to socialism? Ted Cruz, who is almost thirty years younger than Sanders, offered pure Reagan nostalgia and perfect indifference to those Americans who would lose health insurance if Obamacare were repealed. In a contest between our nostalgia and their nostalgia, their nostalgia will win. That is why it is so much easier to find a young supporter of Sanders (or even of Trump) than of Ted Cruz.
Beating the Left will mean answering the questions people are really asking about the world they really live in. The Sanders higher education strategy is too expensive and too one-size-fits-all, and it would exacerbate the problems that have caused tuition to skyrocket in the last generation. But it is not enough to make the negative case against the Sanders proposal. If the alternative is the status quo that shuts many people out of higher education and burdens many of the rest with enormous debts, then people will still go with the Sanders plan. An expensive, ill-fitting garment is still preferable to being naked in the cold.
No one has done more to create a modern conservative agenda than Yuval Levin, and not every conservative politician is as obtuse as Cruz. Politicians like Texas Governor Rick Perry and Utah Senator Mike Lee have proposed plans to make higher education cheaper and skills acquisition more easily available.
What is true in higher education is just as true for healthcare and wages. It isn’t enough to mouth clichés about freedom. If we are going to avoid single-payer, we will need a plan that liberalizes (and cheapens) access to routine healthcare while offering affordable catastrophic health insurance to the struggling working class. If we are to avoid job-destroying minimum wage hikes, we need to reform our tax and welfare system to make work a better deal through wage subsidies to low-earners, and making work avoidance more difficult.
Winning will also mean putting aside nostalgia about our immigration system. George W. Bush was right that family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande (or any other border), but we also have to face the reality that low-skill immigrants will be entering a country whose low-skill population is already deeply troubled. It is absurd to think that those immigrants and their families will somehow be immune to the problems faced by low-skill Americans of every race and ethnic background—and yet the public rhetoric of both parties seems based on that absurdity.
The contradiction between pro-working-class conservative reform and expanding low-skill immigration is best seen in the actions of Florida Senator Marco Rubio. In public, Rubio argued for welfare reforms like wage subsidies to “pursue reforms that encourage and reward work.” In private, a Rubio aide argued for expanded, low-skill guest worker programs so that businesses would not be stuck with having to hire American workers who “can’t cut it.” Rubio’s duplicity is despicable, but the problem goes deeper than one ambitious politician. A politics of wage subsidies for low-skill workers plus expanded low-skill immigration is inherently at cross purposes with itself—and that contradiction has crippled reformist conservatism.
We are not destined to lose the young forever. The young face a more atomized world than did Americans fifty years ago, but even in young people’s support for free college, we see their hopes of entering a world with steadier employment and more stable families. We have every reason to doubt that young people will wish to pay Sanders-sized taxes to support social democracy. To beat the nostalgia of the left, we need policies that put us on the right side of that of the majority of Americans—including foreign-born Americans—who do not have four-year college degrees.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.