Republicans and Democrats alike insist it’s time to stop piling debt onto future generations, yet political observers say the electoral clout of seniors may prove the biggest obstacle to reining in government spending. And just as in the 1960s, when many older Americans stood on the sidelines of the civil rights and women’s movements, polls show seniors are the least enthused about allowing gays to serve openly in the military or get married.
“On social policy, we have a generation that consumes a huge portion of the federal budget yet doesn’t approve of other Americans receiving benefits,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “On cultural issues, there is a huge disconnect between retirees and much of the rest of the country.”
Democrats got a shellacking on Nov. 2 in nearly every demographic group . But no group was as peeved at President Barack Obama and his party’s priorities as voters over 65. Fueled by the tea party movement, which skews older and whiter than the general population, seniors voted for Republicans by a 21-point margin.
In 2008, elderly voters were the only age group to vote for Sen. John McCain in a year when young people turned out in force for Obama. This year, young people stayed home, giving seniors, who normally vote in high numbers anyway, even more say in the outcome.
“You really had a wave of the past, not a wave of the future,” said American University professor Leonard Steinhorn, author of “The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy.” “This election did not represent the mood of the country. It represented the mood of the voters–that’s a truly different demographic.”
Obama, the first African-American president, represents something older people “don’t like culturally” and which encouraged them to come out en mass to vote, Steinhorn said. “The impact is that the voices of the younger generation, the future, tend to be washed over by the perspective of the older generation, people who are more rooted in the past” and more conservative positions.
Older Americans weren’t always so conservative or Republican–a recent Gallup poll found the most conservative members of the GOP are 55 or older. Many of the parents of today’s aging baby boomers weren’t so bothered by government spending. Many of them are dead.
The generation “whose identity was forged in Roosevelt’s New Deal era–when many Americans saw the value of government in times of crisis–is being replaced by a generation of elderly voters who were moved by Reagan-era conservatism,” Zelizer said. “These elderly voters are still benefiting from the Roosevelt era, through Social Security and Medicare, so it makes these positions doubly striking and hypocritical.”
Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Center, said most of today’s seniors “were socialized to politics during a relatively more conservative period of the late 1940s and the 1950s,” and that contributes to their world view.
Another factor is the homogeneity of seniors, he said. “Younger generations of Americans are much more racially and ethnically diverse than the older generation and, of course, diversity is related to political attitudes.”
Gans said the concern and clout seniors show over economic issues doesn’t mean they don’t care about other generations or society as a whole.
“Their primary goal is to protect their own,” he said, but “there’s selfishness involved with everybody. Unfortunately, it’s been a very long time since our politics had any sense of national duty or altruism.”