Thursday, March 14, 2019

Is An Intergenerational Coalition The Key To Social And Economic Progress In America?

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A couple of days ago, Huffington Post published an interesting essay by Michael Hobbes, America’s Defining Divide Isn’t Left vs Right. It’s Old vs. Young, that offers an alternative frame with which to look at American elections. "Voters over retirement age," he predicted, "will continue to dominate U.S. politics until at least 2060." As a group, millennial voters (woke millennial voters)-- even more than voters of color or of class-- were responsible for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's earth-shattering win against establishment mainstay Joe Crowley in a vibrant and changing Bronx/Queens congressional district. That, however, may be a glaring exception to an old political rule. "The U.S. electorate," wrote Hobbes, "is the oldest it’s ever been and will keep getting older for at least four more decades. Researchers call it the 'demographic transition.' Americans over 65 are now the fastest-growing age group in the country. The U.S. Census projects that by 2035, the population past retirement age will outnumber the population under 18 for the first time in history. While younger, more diverse generations have captured the media narrative about U.S. politics, its defining feature in the future may be its oldest participants."
“As much as diversity is growing in the U.S., the baby boomer generation still has a lot of financial power, political power and consumer power,” said William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “There’s a lot of focus in the media on the younger generations, but in fact, the younger population is growing more slowly than seniors.”

America’s current demographic makeup, Frey said, is unprecedented. Due to rising longevity, falling birth rates and the sheer number of baby boomers (currently between 55 and 73 years old), today’s older Americans have held onto power longer than any previous generation. In 1950, as the boom began, just 8 percent of Americans were over 65; the United States had more people under 25 than over 45. By 2010, when the boomers began to retire, those numbers had flipped and the share of the population over retirement age had increased by 50 percent.

Their power goes beyond raw numbers. Older Americans are more likely to vote than millennials and Gen Xers, particularly in midterm and primary elections. They are three times more likely to donate to political campaigns. Plus, they are clustered in rural and sparsely populated states, giving them disproportionately large Senate and Electoral College representation. This partly explains why the average member of Congress is now 58.6 years old, roughly a decade older than they were in 1981 and two decades older than the population at large.

Without a dramatic increase in immigration or a sudden doubling of the birth rate, this is likely to be a permanent shift. The elderly population will continue to grow until at least 2026⁠. By 2050, demographers expect the number of Americans over 65 to roughly triple and the number of Americans in their 20s to decline.

This trend has profound implications for every American institution, but perhaps none more so than politics itself. Older voters have unique characteristics and specific interests that transcend the Democratic-Republican divide. From their economic circumstances to their demographic makeup, the concerns of older voters are only going to become more prominent as the baby boom generation enters retirement.

This creates a paradox for the candidates vying for the presidential nomination in 2020 and beyond. Though the most high-profile policy ideas-- subsidized childcare, paid leave, universal health care-- address the concerns of younger generations, the election itself may be determined by voters unlikely to reap their benefits and wary of paying their costs.

“To a great extent, older voters are still setting the agenda,” said Andrea Campbell, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist. “They’re incredibly important to both parties’ coalitions. Politicians remain reluctant to run afoul of older voters.”

And it’s likely to stay that way for a very long time.
I recollect that when I was studying civics in high school and political science in college, both in the 1960s, older voters were firmly in the Democratic Party camp. Much of that had to do with FDR, the New Deal and Social Security. That allegiance seem to have largely dissipated with time. Hobbes wrote that now older voters tend to skew Republican and that both parties will try to win a greater proportion of them "by appealing to the circumstances and anxieties that set them apart from younger generations." How? In short, economics and race.

Long before Alan Grayson (D-FL) ever imagined running for Congress, he wrote a brilliant masters thesis on gerontology and helped found the non-profit Alliance for Aging Research, serving as an officer for over 20 years. There are virtually no issues he deals with that he doesn't look at through a prism that includes retirees. I asked him how progressives are going to deal with an aging population being asked to pay for programs that Republicans paint as radical, impractical and unrelated to their own lives. He didn't hesitate for a moment: "By expanding Social Security benefits, which haven’t increased in 40+ years, and by extending Medicare to cover all healthcare needs, including eyes, ears and teeth. That’s social justice for seniors, and demonstrates the commitment to younger people that they’ll get the same consideration when it’s their turn."

Ro Khanna (D-CA) took a slightly different approach in answering the same question. He told me we have to root a progressive agenda "in the context of American history and American culture. We must present a compelling vision for the change we need to prepare for a 21st century economy, but in language that appeals to America’s sense of inventing the future and imbued with a deep patriotism about America’s role in the world. Progressive policies have to be seen as common sense solutions to maintain American leadership and to maintain a cohesive body politic."
Older voters have strikingly different wealth and income profiles than younger voters. Four out of five older families own homes, compared to just one in four younger families. Most own stocks and a large plurality are business owners. Nearly 1 in 9 older households are millionaires and, according to a 2015 study, are the only age group in America whose net worth has increased since 1989.

Politically speaking, this means older households have a profoundly different narrative of the U.S. economy than every other cohort. Gen Xers and millennials, who have seen their incomes stagnate and their living costs explode, are gravitating toward candidates who prioritize issues like student debt and income inequality. Older voters, by contrast, will be more likely to vote for candidates who promise to boost the stock market, lower taxes and push up property values.

The widening gap between the economic realities of older and younger voters could become an even more prominent feature of American politics. According to a 2018 study, the poorest Americans die an estimated 12.7 years earlier than the wealthiest Americans. This means that, over time, as the rich retire and the poor pass away, the government will be spending an increasing percentage of its Social Security and Medicare resources on its wealthiest population.

In the midst of increasing strain on government programs, America will have to make hard choices about taxation and distribution. According to Campbell, this will create a paradox between what the country needs and what its dominant voter group will accept.

Older Americans, she said, will need better and cheaper government services. Their stances on policy and their dominance of the electorate, however, will increase pressure to raise taxes on everyone but themselves-- i.e. the young and the poor.

“If you ask seniors if we should preserve Social Security and Medicare for their grandchildren, they say yes,” Campbell said. “But their presence in the electorate might prevent that.”

The largest gap between older and younger voters is on the issue of race. Nearly 80 percent of Americans over 65 are white, compared to 52 percent of Americans between 6 and 21. In a 2017 survey, 1 in 5 older respondents said they would oppose a member of their family marrying someone of another race, compared to just 1 in 20 millennial respondents.

This explains much of America’s present political situation and previews what it will look like in the future. Surveys consistently find that the racial concerns and anxieties of older generations veer significantly from those held by younger Americans. From the existence of prejudice against whites to the necessity of affirmative action, older voters score higher on measures of racial resentment and are more likely to be persuaded by explicit appeals to whiteness.

“Racial attitudes matter far more than economic evaluations,” said Duke University political scientist Ashley Jardina. “The attitudes that people have about racial groups, including their own, matter for how they make sense of politics. Older voters are more likely to adopt a white racial identity, which means that racial and cultural resentments may remain more salient than other issues.”

It’s also worth noting, she said, that older voters are unlikely to change their beliefs over time. While voters preferences do indeed evolve, this process is slow and complex. Despite America’s rapidly changing attitudes toward the LGBTQ community, for example, only one in three older Americans support gay marriage, a relatively modest rise from one in five in 2000. Other research indicates that when voters’ beliefs do change with age, they tilt toward defending the status quo.

“Social change primarily happens because generations of people die,” Jardina said. It may sound appealing to think that younger generations could convince their parents and grandparents to be more progressive over time, but white millennials are remarkably similar to older whites in their racial attitudes and anxieties. Without huge increases in cross-cultural interactions, Jardina said, “we shouldn’t expect a major change in the attitudes that older voters have about race and politics.”

Frey, who is 71, gave a much more optimistic take on the political future of his generation. On both racial and economic appeals, he was convinced that baby boomers will turn out to be more flexible than the cohorts that preceded them.

“We’re in unpredictable political times,” he said. “The baby boom generation is the most educated ever to reach old age. They lived through the civil rights movement and put more women into the workforce than any previous generation. If anyone can adjust to changing times, it’s them.”

In Congress, Tom Suozzi (D-NY) represents the Long Island North Shore district that stretches across Suffolk, Nassau and Queens counties. Earlier in his career, in 1993, at 31 he was elected mayor of his hometown Glen Cove, where he served for 8 years. “When you are young, you don’t know what you can’t do,” Tom told me yesterday, "you think you can accomplish anything. You don't worry about butting your head up against concrete walls, immovable barriers. So you get things done. I cleaned up polluted sites, fought with some unsavory characters and won, built buildings in time and on budget." Tom did things that were considered crazy to even try-- but in the exuberance of youth, he tried... and succeeded. Now he represents a district that was designed for older people. "There's a youth drain," he told me. "We have the best school systems in the country-- our schools routinely mop up when it comes to national competitions-- and then the kids move away." When they move back, they're much older. NY-03 has lots of retirees of the kind Hobbes was writing. Suozzi is an original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal. When I asked him about how he can have a dialogue with the older voters who hold a disproportionate amount of political power on Long Island he was adamant that it can't be an appeal to selfishness but about what was the right thing to do-- even what is the right thing to do beyond the interests of their own grandchildren. "We have to appeal to their better angels," he told me. "People want to do the right thing for the country, for the world. We have to lay out the case and show them why it's the right thing so that they can embrace it with enthusiasm. Whenever people try and dissuade me about what’s possible and what’s not, I try and remember what it felt like to be a swashbuckling idealist before I got beaten up in some tough political battles. That inspires me to push forward. Bobby Kennedy put is this way 'This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease.'"




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3 Comments:

At 6:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yep. I've long suspected that the problem with stupidity among the electorate was due to my generation losing their fucking minds.

And we are the last generation to get any kind of decent education.

on behalf of all us silverbacks, I apologize. We created this shithole and YOU Millenials and GenXers will suffer the consequences longer-term.

 
At 7:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wouldn't worry about this too much. Florida will soon be inundated, massive unemployment will lead to mass starvation among the elderly, and Trump will end elective governance to remain in power.

 
At 10:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

any sort of coalition that could lead to social and economic progress would, necessarily, have to start out by euthanizing the democraps and beginning a true left movement.

the democraps (the PARTY) are NEVER going to be part of any economic progress because, by definition, it would harm corporate greed. And the democraps won't LEAD on social progress since that might tend to annoy a single R voter who they still lust after (since they naturally and intentionally smother their own left electorate).



 

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