In two previous columns, I argued that the views and voting of Americans ages 50 and older have become deeply disturbing, to the point that a majority of seniors now support candidates who would quite literally dismantle the United States as a coherent society. This is no joke. The views of most aging Americans reveal a scary, last-stand backlash that defies political discussion and even their own rational self-interest.

Exit polls in 2008 were troubling enough: seniors were the only age group to support McCain/Palin over Obama. Exit polls in the 2010 midterm elections sounded major alarms. Voters 65 and older backed the most crazed, reactionary extremists in state after state, even normally Democratic ones, by landslide margins: Christine O’Donnell in Delaware (by 9 points), Sharron Angle in Nevada (by 12 points), Ken Buck in Colorado (by 7 points), Carly Fiorina in California (by 9 points), Linda McMahon in Connecticut (by 4 points), and House Republican candidates across the country (by 19 points).

If you think today’s debt-ceiling chaos and endless Beltway battles are menacing now, imagine a Republican-controlled Senate with a half-dozen more Tea Partiers in charge, a House with over 300 GOP members, and Obama’s impeachment (amid countless lunacies) looming as real threats. That’s what America’s senior citizens—and by lesser margins, middle-agers—voted for. A semblance of progressivism survives, weak and vacillating, only because under-40 voters wisely overruled their elders.

All bad enough, but the latest polls show seniors still remain firmly committed to helping the far right win again in 2012, elevating a Mitt Romney or even a Michele Bachmann to the White House. This even long after Tea Partiers have proven time and again that they fully intend to enact their destructively reactionary agenda—including slashing or eliminating Social Security and Medicare, pushing draconian moral regimes at home and holy wars abroad, and laying waste to the social services, education, job, and infrastructure on which their own grandchildren depend.

As long as Republicans promise to exempt current seniors from cuts, grandma and granddad don’t seem to care. Around the country, local and state governments are forced to exempt seniors from taxation to keep them from voting against vital school and civic improvements. The information gap is as dramatic as the demographic one. Media analysts report the average age of Fox News viewers is over 65 (considerably older than other broadcast news viewers); Rush Limbaugh’s emblematic dittohead is a 67-year-old man.

“One of the most fundamental tensions in our politics,” wrote The Nation’s Christopher Hayes, “is that senior citizens are, simultaneously, the demographic group that most benefits from the welfare state and the one most sympathetic to the right-wing push to abolish it.” Others have been blunter still. “Greedy geezers?” asked The New Yorker’s James Surowiecki, deploring seniors’ “I’ve got mine—good luck getting yours” mentality that led elders to oppose all efforts to extend Medicare to younger ages.

This isn’t how senior welfare was supposed to work. The ideal was that universal benefits for the aged would provide a model of success—and Social Security and Medicare certainly have been that—for extension to other groups in society. Yet, “the happy experience of Medicare has made seniors less, not more, open to a generous welfare state,” puzzled Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein. “It hasn’t created advocates for more single-payer health care; it has created advocates just for Medicare” and “fear that health-care reform will endanger Medicare.”

The failure of Democrats, at least so far, to win back seniors with loud pro-Social Security and -Medicare chest- thumping demonstrates that elder attitudes and voting are not motivated by policy considerations. Rather, the old, are driven by gut-level fear and anger at increasing racial diversity and change.

Unbelievably, a half century after the civil rights era, in a time in which “almost all Millennials [those born after 1980] accept interracial marriage,” a 2010 Pew Research Center poll found just 36% of whites age 65 and older (and a bare 52% of white Boomers age 50-64) “would be fine with a family member’s marriage to someone of any other race/ethnicity.” The “generation gap on immigration” is gaping, a May 2010 New York Times/CBS News poll found; Boomers’ “no newcomers” stance is in stark “generational conflict” with younger ages’ “welcome all” attitudes. A July 2010 Arizona Republic poll  found 18-34 year-olds oppose that state’s draconian anti-immigrant law by a 16-point margin while older voters support crackdowns on Latinos by 35 points.

Republicans have long proven eager to exploit racism and nostalgic fear. Conservatives’ larger political plan, Hayes noted, involves “bribing… current seniors, whose votes [Republicans] need” by allowing them “to enjoy the benefits of social democracy” led by “the very popular single-payer version of Medicare as currently constituted” while, leaving those younger than 55 to suffer “lousy healthcare and no jobs” under a selectively austere government whose shrinking taxes and regulatory inefficacy also benefit Republicans’ aging, wealthier constituencies.

If Democrats are going to survive the next couple of decades as the racial and social division between heavily-White elders and soon-to-be-all-minority younger generations reaches its endgame, they need to give up trying to win seniors back and, instead, become advocates for the young. By that, I don’t mean working to cut senior welfare, which would hurt the poorer segment of elderly most likely to vote Democratic even if politics (as opposed to humaneness) were the only consideration.

Rather, I would hope progressives aggresively begin to use the term “entitlements” to include not just senior benefits, but measures to reduce child, youth, and family poverty, tax subsidies for universities and education grants, and universal social insurance. Is a 73 year-old any more entitled to America’s resources than a 3 year-old or a 19 year-old? Why, then, do we pretend that the arbitrary political decision to fund seniors’ income and medical support by taxing 15% of payrolls creates a sacred obligation to the “entitled old” while the failure to create similarly dedicated funding for Medicaid and child and young-family support means the young are unentitled and subject to ridicule and cutoff?

Yet… again… we see Democrats, led by the Obama White House, as well as many progressives engaged in the very neglect and fear mongering against young people and the modern era that reinforces visceral right-wing paranoia that cultural degeneration is so advanced that we must empower reactionaries to “take America back” to safe, pre-Sixties times. Inflammatory demographic divisions are clear; now, the “culture war” as a right-wing bonanza to exploit them deserves intensive scrutiny.

Mike Males

Mike Males

1 Comment