The crucial politics of age

Sam Smith

Led by phenomena like the opposing political hysterics of Fox and MSNBC, we have come to assume that what is dividing the country is deep political ideology. What is far more likely, however, is that the ideology is just the visible manifestation of what really splits us: age.

Last year, I described it this way:

The unprecedented craziness of the Republican Party leadership has been a reflection of pathology rather than of politics and what we have witnessed has been the last rites of those trying futilely to return America to a place that they thought, mistakenly, it once was and which will never be.

Real politicians, for example, don’t go out and deliberately alienate a demographic as large as women. That’s pure masochism. The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University notes: “In recent elections, voter turnout rates for women have equaled or exceeded voter turnout rates for men. Women, who constitute more than half the population, have cast between four and seven million more votes than men in recent elections. In every presidential election since 1980, the proportion [of] female adults who voted has exceeded the proportion of male adults who voted.”

There simply aren’t enough old white guys to compensate for the anger being created by the GOP among women.

And consider a few of the other constituencies that prominent Republicans have insulted:

9/11 responders, AARP members, Americorps members, bicyclists, black men, children with pre-existing health conditions, college graduates, college students, consumers, cops, disabled people, disaster victims, ethnically mixed couples, gays, home owners, ill people who need medical marijuana, immigrants and their children, journalists, latinos, Methodists, minimum wage workers, residents of DC and Puerto Rico, scientists, Social Security recipients, state workers, and unemployed workers.

What may well have happened is what sometimes occurs when a longstanding culture finds itself facing near fatal attack.

For example, during a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889, an American Indian named Wovoka claimed to have had a dream in which all his fellow native Americans were taken into the sky as the Earth opened up and swallowed all the whites upon it. The earth then returned to its natural state as a land where native Americans could live in peace.

According to Wovoka, to make this dream real, his native Americans were to follow these instructions: “When you get home you must begin a dance and continue for five days. Dance for four successive nights, and on the last night continue dancing until the morning of the fifth day, when all must bathe in the river and then return to their homes. You must all do this in the same way. . . I want you to dance every six weeks. Make a feast at the dance and have food that everybody may eat.”

The ghost dance culture would sweep across the tribes of western America as the dancers were losing their last hold on their beloved lands.

There are other examples:

– As military supplies poured into the Pacific Islands during World War II, local peoples reacted to the sudden change by developing “cargo cults” that offered magical explanations for the flow of imports. When the war ended, members of the cults built imitation landing strips and aircraft to attempt to recreate the former reality and restart the influx of goods.

– The early 20th century Maji Maji rebellion in Africa was spurred by a medium who offered medicine he claimed would turn German colonials’ bullets into water….

Central to all these reactions was a culture under major assault and from which – although few would admit it – there was no recovery.

Something similar is happening in America, only those threatened are not really defined by culture, religion or politics so much as by age. Whether they admit it or not, they know they are the last of their kind.

Recognizing this and acting upon it would dramatically change political strategy. Instead of arguing endlessly with the GOP ghost dancers, efforts might turn more usefully to organizing and activating the new majority. And what a new majority it could be.

Here, for example, is a startling chart from a 2012 article by Craig Gilbert in the MilwaukeeJournal Sentinel that shows how the young and the elderly have voted over the past decade:

Not only did the under 30s move to massively outvote the over 65s in support of Democrats, but the latter group’s percentage of Democrats went down.

Admittedly, no small part of this was due to the youth-aimed Obama campaign, but that merely proves the point: there is a huge constituency that is just waiting to be attracted to something.

This is not about appeasing grumpy old Republicans, but getting the young excited  and involved.

There are a couple of cautions. First, even in the Obama election 45% of those 65 and older voted Democratic. This is not a constituency to snub or ignore.

Secondly, the fact that there is such an age gap should not be seen as an excuse to vilify older voters the way liberals have done, say, with gun owners. Politics is not a religion and its wisest activists seek possibility in agreement more than self righteous revulsion in disagreement.

To reach and activate the young will take far more than legalizing pot and gay marriage. The biggest issues facing this powerful constituency are economic. For example, one of the most unifying concerns for young males – whether white, black or latino – is the grim economic prospect of their country, yet this rarely makes the television talk shows.

Here’s how Henry Giroux described it on the Bill Moyers show:

You have a whole generation of young people who are now seen as disposable. They’re in debt, they’re unemployed. My friend, Zygmunt Bauman, calls them the zero generation: zero jobs, zero hope, zero possibilities, zero employment.

Then there are cultural issues that we have come to accept with little question. For example, we ignore the fact that evangelicals are also having a hard time attracting the young, and for good reason. A 2011 CNN report noted:

• Seven in 10 millennials say sex between an unmarried man and woman is morally acceptable (Young Christians are as sexually active as non-Christians.)

• Most women in their early 20s who give birth are unmarried.

• More than six in 10 millennials (including 49% of Republican millennials) support same-sex marriages.

• Six in 10 millennials say abortion should be legal, a higher proportion than found in the general population. A higher percentage say abortion services should be available in local communities.

Millennials also part ways with conservative orthodoxy on wealth distribution and caring for the environment. According to a report in The Christian Science Monitor, three out of four say that wealthy corporations and financiers have too much power and that taxes should be raised on the very wealthy, and two out of three say financial institutions should be regulated more closely. In addition, most say that creationists’ view on evolution is outdated.

Furthermore, only 46% of Millennials say religion is important compared to 78% of those in the Silent Generation.

This doesn’t mean that the Millennials’ solutions are always progressive. For example, while both Silents and Millennials favor Social Security at about the same level,  86% of Millennials favor being able to put Social Security funds in private accounts (easily destroyed in the next great recession). Only 52% of Silents do.

The fact is that older liberals as well as older conservatives along with an enabling media have written a lousy political script that we’re acting out at present. But when you think about it, where would younger Americans find an opposing view within easy range? Almost all the major participants  in politics, academia and the media discuss our major economic issues from the perspective of the right.

Which is why we need not more rants about crazy old conservatives, but a youth-driven populist movement that changes the debate based on building a better future rather than the current struggle between a dysfunctional Democratic status quo and a dismal Republican past.

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