(Photo by Daniella Heminghaus)
The impact of the 2022 elections has not yet been fully felt in Washington. But that has not prevented pundits from beginning their ritual of anointing the next election as the most crucial in American history.
A recent essay in the New York Times made that claim while asserting older voters will play a key role in determining the outcome.
The authors, founders of an organization called Third Act which focuses on getting older Americans involved in progressive causes, feel those over the age of 60 are growing more likely to cast their ballots for Democrats instead of Republicans.
Numerous issues such as climate change, abortion, and the threats to democracy were identified as important to older voters. The future of Social Security and Medicare also made the list, but the emphasis was on concerns impacting the future of the entire nation, not just the senior population.
The key point made to younger people in this essay was older voters are no longer your parents’ grandparents. Polling conducted by AARP and cited by Third Act shows older voters evenly divided between Republican and Democratic candidates in the most competitive Congressional Districts.
Increasingly, the 60-plus population is made up of those who came of age during the late 1960s and 1970s. Third Act argues the expectation this group will become more conservative as they age is not proving to be as true as for previous generations.
A key difference in the younger baby boom population from their older cohorts is in education. The percentage of Americans with a high school diploma reached its highest level in U.S. history beginning with those born around 1950, and has remained fairly steady.
But what began to change as the years went by was the quality of the public education many of these baby boomers received. Teaching became an attractive career for many of the immediate post-WWII generation. Younger, more highly educated teachers brought new ideas and more critical thinking to many schools. At the same time some states began to invest more resources in public education.
The end result was a generation better educated than any which came before it. But such advances were not universal across the nation, and human nature being what it is, better education is not a recipe for progressive ideas in everyone. Many of those infatuated by power and money have warped the lessons they learned.
This group gravitated to the Republican Party and turned it toward even more regressive policies while using inflammatory social issues to influence those who cannot or will not adopt critical thinking skills. Their actions have increased the gap between the wealthy and average Americans to levels not seen since the gilded age of 1890s and sparked the deepening partisan divide now impacting the US.
The even partisan split among older voters which Third Act celebrates looks at the situation in a glass-half-full manner. From a glass-half empty perspective, the AARP survey was conducted in a relatively small number of competitive Congressional districts and even there half of older voters continue to support Republican candidates who have embraced the destructive approach of the GOP in the Trump era.
Nevertheless, Third Act’s viewpoint does not totally miss the mark, because in an evenly-divided nation, even a small shift in voting patterns can have a significant impact. But the reason for this shift may have less to do with changes in the views of older voters than changes in who those older voters are and who they are voting for.
We have talked about how today’s 65-year-old is not the 65-year-old of 15 years ago. Additionally, however, many 65-year-olds who voted for John McCain in 2008, and who will be 81 in 2024, are likely to vote for the Democratic candidate for President in the next election.
That does not mean they have become “more progressive”. But it does mean they have used their critical thinking skills to recognize what has really changed since 2008 is the Republican Party, its candidates, and its commitment to democracy.
Former President Donald Trump and his ilk have had a profoundly negative impact on the United States over the past decade and too many Americans continue to blindly support this authoritarian approach to government.
But as the 2022 elections showed, the conventional wisdom that his older followers represent the views of a vast majority of older Americans is grossly exaggerated – and may indeed offer hope for the latest “most important election in US history.”
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