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Why Do Seniors Support Rick Perry?

Texas governor and Republican phenom-du-jour Rick Perry reiterated his belief that Social Security and Medicare are “Ponzi schemes, unconstitutional, a “failure,” and a “massive lie” ripping off younger people. One would think seniors would be furious with (and younger voters celebrating) Republicans who scheme to eliminate senior-welfare programs funded by heavy taxation on younger workers.

Yet, the first nationwide Public Policy poll to test his candidacy found exactly the opposite. Older voters—the loving beneficiaries of Social Security and Medicare—would support Perry over Democratic President Barack Obama by a 4-point margin. However, voters under age 30—the despised generation supposedly lied to into funding senior welfare they believe they’ll never collect it themselves—oppose Perry’s candidacy by a 13-point margin.

Sound backwards? If you assume elders don’t care about their kids, it makes all the sense in the world. Perry, as do other GOP candidates, would continue Social Security and Medicare intact for current seniors but would decimate these programs for future generations. It’s bribery, sure—but it wouldn’t work if today’s older Americans weren’t profoundly alienated from their society and indifferent to its future, as discussed in previous blogs.

Consider the fires of youthful resentment Perry’s demagoguery seeks to fan. First, lower income workers, heavily concentrated among the young, bear a heavy tax burden to fund senior welfare benefits. Getting rid of the 15% combined paycheck and payroll tax would sharply boost the hiring and low median incomes of workers under age 25.

Second, look at the generation-splitting trends in real household incomes (constant, inflation-adjusted 2009 dollars) by generations over the last four decades:

     Age 18-24 median income:  in 1970, $34,700;  in 2009, $29,900 — DOWN 14%.

     Age 65 and older median income:  in 1970, $24,900;  in 2009, $43,700 — UP 75%.

But before we jump on Granddad and Meemaw, consider one more trend:

     Age 45-64 median income:  in 1970, $56,000;  in 2009, $72,800 — UP 30%.

These are the widening economic chasms that spawn Mussolinis. And these aren’t the worst extremes. The average income of white (non Hispanic) middle-agers now exceeds $100,000 per year, and their median incomes ($83,600) are five times those of African American householders age 18-24 ($17,000).

But strangely, it’s not the tough-times youngsters who are rallying to the ultra-reactionary Tea Party and angry “we’re the victims!” candidates such as Perry, but the very comfortable middle-aged and the well-benefited old, both of whom are doing dramatically better.

Add in one more trend that should be infuriating young people: Seniors not only voted for low taxes for themselves, they now preserve them by voting against candidates and issues such as school improvements that would benefit the young. In 1978, California’s older voters awarded themselves massive property tax cuts through Proposition 13 while crippling schools and university funding. The biggest incentive—note well—was not onerous taxation, but California Supreme Court decisions (Serrano v Priest, 1971, 1976, 1977) that required equalized funding between rich (read “white”) and poorer (read “Latino”) school districts.

The white-elder led “tax cut” movements of the 1970s and ‘80s stemmed from the same rage as the white-elder Tea Party today against any concept of a shared, diverse society. In the recent Wisconsin recall elections, polling found that overwhelmingly white over-65 voters supported continuing GOP dominance of state government by 52-43%, while younger voters favored Democrats’ taking control of the state Senate by a 60-35% margin. Again, the issue was labor rights, school funding, and shared social responsibility over the GOP’s narrow hoardism led by lower taxes for the wealthy and corporate interests. Tea Partiers have even pushed for a return to segregation.

A recent study by Harvard public policy professor Robert Putnam finds Tea partisans “overwhelmingly white” with “a low regard for immigrants and blacks” and a fervent desire that their own brand of “religion play a prominent role in politics” in order to achieve their far-right social and economic agenda. These findings reinforce my argument that the Tea Party and today’s reactionary conservatism constitute a tribal movement concerned merely with awarding resources and privileges to its members, not a political movement with a consistent philosophy and reasoned negotiation points.

The Tea Party/Right has made its zero interest in compromise clear. From a hard-nosed standpoint, older people have no incentives to care about long-term economic, environmental, and social problems. Why should the old care about, let alone sacrifice to head off, catastrophes they won’t be around to suffer?

Fortunately, by all evidence, young people are not retaliating. They continue to support senior welfare even though they personally believe they believe they’ll never collect it themselves. I see no evidence that Perry’s phony pitch to profit from justifiable younger-voter resentment—thinly masking his plan to sabotage their present and future—will appeal to a younger electorate whose demographics are approaching 50% minority and are the best educated (and most education-loan indebted) ever.

Of course, I may be overlooking a shrewd elder conspiracy. The grayhairs have had decades to absorb the despicable Democratic stratagem of taking for granted, publicly demeaning, and routinely selling out their most loyal constituencies—African Americans, labor, students, the poor—in endlessly futile quests to placate implacable conservatives. Older voters may sense that the biggest mistake they could make would be to support Democrats en masse, which Democrats would see as a signal to dismiss the old and safely sell out Social Security and Medicare.

That’s wishful thinking; poll and voting patterns don’t reveal such a useful elder calculation. The old’s attitude and voting seem contemporaphobic (angrily alienated from the racial and technological changes in society) and nostalgic (yearning for a return to segregated, white-culture pre-1960s America), both of which lead them to flock to Republicans who have pledged to preserve current seniors’ privileges against the darkening mob. Unfortunately, many progressives are reinforcing these cultural paranoias, a point I hope to address soon.

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Mike Males

Mike Males