Our times, they are a-changin’

The recession is changing some important aspects of American public opinion. Just as the worldview of survivors of the 1930s Great Depression was forever changed by the crucible of that economic downturn, our own contemporary values and attitudes are being transformed, perhaps permanently, by this severe and lingering recession. I’m convinced we’re not even consciously aware, sometimes, of how deeply our opinions are being altered. Candidates and parties who don’t pay heed to these changes are going to make some major political miscalculations.

My first example of these changes is the evolution of attitudes toward homeownership. American public opinion has for decades prodded us toward policies that reflect a broad consensus that homeownership is a birthright for most every American. This shared belief even empowered and emboldened financial institutions to push us collectively toward the mortgage crisis in which mortgage debt exceeded our financial means.

Now that’s changed. Homeownership, once a widely shared goal of most Americans, is no longer necessarily a goal we aspire to. Even smart money managers are suddenly suggesting that, for many, homeownership isn’t necessarily a great thing. For years, home values constantly appreciated, propelling most all of us into the market. Politicians noticed and passed enabling legislation to court us with a never-ending supply of financing options. Home-flipping became an avocation, sometimes even a genuine vocation. Suddenly, it all blew up on us, forcing people to rethink their values. Perhaps renting isn’t just a legitimate option. Maybe it’s the best choice for a lot of us. Watch politicians start rethinking some policies. Even the sacrosanct deductibility of home mortgage interest might suddenly find itself being questioned as more renters abandon the universal goal of homeownership.

In a related transformation, I find that many Americans are connecting dots between the mortgage debt crisis and public debt. Voters who might never have previously questioned bonded financing of public infrastructure projects like schools or roads suddenly tell me in focus groups and surveys that we should be just as wary of public borrowing as private. And, of course, this sentiment is spilling over into opposition to the massive borrowing our federal government must do to pay for stimulus spending and other Keynesian adventures that once upon a time didn’t incite much more than a few raised eyebrows. 

Another fundamental change is occurring in attitudes toward the essentiality of a college education. The space race and Cold War of the 1960s and ’70s propelled us toward a world in which we all supposedly needed a college education. At first, what we really needed was people trained in science, engineering and math. They would help us launch our own Sputnik, to catch up with the Soviets.

Everyone got excited about college. The National Defense Student Loan program started us realizing that federal aid could induce students to attend college. Somehow this hurled us into an alternative universe wherein everyone needed a college education for every conceivable job, even those that had nothing to do science or technology. Politicians, at the federal and state levels, responded to our demands to even make money available for art history majors.

As with challenges to the birthright of cheap mortgage money, we now reflect that college for everyone doesn’t necessarily make sense. This sentiment is snowballing in response to, or as a driver of, policymakers’ efforts to reduce state funding to colleges and universities while allowing them to raise tuition to levels that the public would not have tolerated in past eras of enthusiasm for higher ed. And grant and scholarship money is not being proffered to alleviate the family burden. The message seems to be that college is not essential and that if you disagree, you alone should pay. As Dylan would have said, “The times, they are a-changin’.” Indeed.

Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.