The Boomer Vote and the Demographics of Defeat

With mid-term Congressional elections now less than two months away, and the implications of that event looming ever larger with each new presidential Twitter-rant, guilty plea, tyrant summit and judicial appointment, it’s a good time to step back and assess what if anything was learned from the shocking election of Donald Trump, and what can be inferred about the electorate that will vote this November on whether, in effect, he should be encouraged or contained.

In thinking about the temper of the national electorate, we should never forget that it did not, in fact, vote Donald Trump into office; the Electoral College did. At the end of the day, Clinton beat Trump by over three million popular votes in an election where Democrats, led by a lackluster candidate, stayed away from the polls in droves. It’s only because of the geographic vote subsidy imposed by the Electoral College system that we have the roaring anomaly of a President Trump. Never forget that fact when pundits loudly complain about undemocratic resistance to our “duly elected” president, or how his tenure in office is the result of “the will of the people.”

But still, the 100,000 or so votes that delivered the upper Midwest, and therefore the presidency, to Trump were knowingly cast for him rather than his opponent, and ever since we’ve been asking why. I think I know at least part of the answer, and to find it I had only to look in the mirror: the American electorate is old, and getting older, particularly in the heartland states where Trump’s supposed base largely resides.

I’m a member of the Baby Boom generation, born between the end of WWII and the early Sixties. In that period, over 65 million children were born in the United States, and throughout our lives we’ve been the proverbial pig in the python, a huge population bulge moving through the age brackets, distorting everything around us to suit our whims and buying power. Just as we commanded, by our sheer numbers, the world’s rapt attention to our youth, so we’ve indentured it to our old age, the culture and national politics keeping us company just as they did in our teenage tyranny those many moonwalks ago.

I’m old enough to have voted in 12 presidential elections, only five of which went the way I wanted them to. The first was in 1972, and while I have no specific memory of it, I’m fairly confident that I voted for George McGovern over Richard Nixon, and in ensuing elections for Carter over Ford, for Carter over Reagan, and for Mondale over Reagan. I have trouble believing that I voted for Dukakis over George H.W. Bush in 1988, but I may have, and have actual memories of voting for Clinton over Bush, for Clinton over Dole, for Gore over George W. Bush, for Kerry over Bush, and for Obama over McCain and Romney. And needless to say given that record, for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. A lot of elections.  A lot of years.

Donald Trump is 72 years old, and in this he is in good company: over 51 million Americans are age 65 or older, and they constitute almost a quarter of the voting age population. Most of them long ago moved out of the cities and into less stressful, slower-paced communities, and away from the coasts and into the more-affordable heartland (with the glaring exception of Florida, which is a giant, income tax-free geriatric ward). That is to say, they tend to live in places that are most disproportionately empowered by the Electoral College vote subsidy. They’re mostly retired with not a lot to do, and never miss a chance to vote, unlike some of their distracted, hard-working children.

But why should advancing age correlate with support for a narcissistic real estate tycoon with no experience in public service, particularly when the age cohort in question – the Boomer generation – was once, back in the Age of Aquarius, synonymous with passionate opposition to everything Donald Trump represents: privilege, authoritarianism, isolationism, materialism?

An old maxim holds that anyone under 30 who is not a liberal has no heart, and anyone over 30 who is not a conservative has no brains. There is abundant scientific as well as anecdotal evidence that people become more conservative as they age, for reasons ranging from the economic (older people have more to lose than younger ones) to the psychological (we lose our sense of curiosity as we age, and find comfort in uniformity of experience and like-minded company). Recent Pew Research Center studies of party affiliation consistently show that the percentage of the population that self-identifies as Republican grows with age, regardless of other factors like race, religion, income, or education.

I suspect my generation was always less liberal than popular media liked to portray us, and that much of our social activism, particularly in response to the war in Vietnam, was motivated as much by self-interest (that is, fear) as by principled idealism. Certainly we were spoiled, having been raised in the lap of post-war luxuries and doted upon in a way that children of pre-Spock parents never were. And we were perhaps the last generation to experience presumptive upward mobility over our parents’ circumstances, which turned us, inevitably, into successful little capitalists more worried about our individual tax rates and governmental regulation of our wildly successful livelihoods than about anyone’s social agenda.

One can argue that my generation’s disgruntlement with government is the result of watching it fall short repeatedly over our adult lives, in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan, in the war on drugs and the war on crime and the war on poverty, despite the constant growth and expense of the Federal bureaucracy. But only a hardened cynic could fail to credit big government with critical improvements in my generation’s daily lives, in transportation, communication, health standards, and national defense, to name just a few.  And don’t even think of touching our Social Security and Medicare.

But now we are old, and annoyed by the pace of the changes that we set in motion in our youth, and not so interested in defending free love when it’s the same-sex kind, and comfortable in our golf clubs and retirement enclaves, and all too happy to assume that the wealth we’ve amassed will trickle down through our philanthropy and estate planning and doesn’t require mediation by the pesky redistributive state. We distrusted the government when it was run by Nixon, and we distrust the government now, albeit for different reasons, and rather than vote for a seasoned if flawed functionary to run it, most of us voted for a nostalgic slogan with a demagogue attached.

Much as we might deny it, we’re not as bright as we once were, nor as optimistic, nor as generous or loving. Always rebellious, we’re skeptical of the prescriptions of supposed experts, since we were those experts until recently. We’ve contracted into our skins, into our tribes. For we are old, and resent that the economic luck we enjoyed might have to be shared, resent that the jobs we filled for our entire adult lives no longer exist or no longer matter, resent the youthful enthusiasm of the “resistance” who remind us too much of ourselves when we too took to the streets those decades ago.

There are two ways to defeat us at the polls: wait a little while till we begin to die off, and are replaced by the even larger age cohort that is now in its twenties and largely leans leftward. Or simply overwhelm us by turning out in those numbers that were missing in 2016, when Trump’s defeat was a foregone conclusion and our vote for him was just another raised middle finger to establishment politics.

Numerous though we are, and used to having our way, we are not the majority of voting age Americans, and our numbers are steadily dwindling. The actual American majority may find its voice this November, and begin the slow but welcome eclipse of the Boomer generation’s political influence.

7 thoughts on “The Boomer Vote and the Demographics of Defeat

  1. Keith,

    This is Paul. Ingrid just read me your latest Mortal Coil. You’ve turned into an old crazy guy. Analysis to follow.

    Paul

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