Win One For the Geezer
On the afternoon of November 4, 1980, I was sitting in a back office of a major media organization looking at exit polling results that seemed incomprehensible. Ronald Reagan was not only winning nationally, but also led everywhere in the South except for Jimmy Carter’s home state of Georgia.
I thought this was so improbable that I wondered if we had corrupted data. I knew that the “Solid South” wasn’t anymore. Nixon’s Southern Strategy had caught two emerging trends: the anger in the region over the adoption of the Civil Rights Acts, and the inherent cultural conservatism there. Carter, however, was unmistakably Southern, down to the peanut farm and the redneck brother. In 1976, he had beat Jerry Ford because of the Solid South, carrying every single state in the region except for Virginia, for an Electoral Vote margin of 143 to 12.
Carter was also a tragic figure, and pretty much everyone knew it. Objectively, people understood he had been dealt a very bad hand. The economy was in terrible shape, inflation was brutal, energy prices were going through the roof, the Russians were up to no good, and a bunch of Iranians wearing strange clothes had gone mad. But Carter was also a lousy President, all good intentions and bad execution. He beat back a strong, late, primary challenge from Ted Kennedy without making any effort to heal the split (I attended one day of the 1980 Democratic Convention, and the two strongest emotions in the room were anger and despair) and hunkered down in his bunker. He was still a Southern Democrat.
And, I thought, he had caught a tremendous break: Who would vote for Ronald Reagan, a radical, war-mongering, out-of office Governor who once starred in a movie with a chimp?
Obviously, this was wildly wrong. I (and I wasn’t alone) was working on a set of assumptions that were hidebound by obsolete certainties like the permanence of the old FDR coalition. Full-term Kennedy and Johnson Presidencies might have kept that coalition together, modernized and strengthened it. But that never happened, and liberal Democrats, emboldened by their success in opposing the Viet Nam war, failed to recognize that Nixon’s destruction of George McGovern in 1972 wasn’t an aberration, but in fact part of an enormous secular change in the electorate. Reagan just put the exclamation point on something that should have been obvious. Northern and Western Democrats had nothing to offer the South, besides a historical fact. And that, in the final analysis, was nothing at all. The region (and the entire country) just wasn’t the same anymore.
I mention this because of a very interesting study, “The Next America,” written by Paul Taylor for the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank. The country is in the midst of changing again, and Taylor identifies several long-term trends that are moving faster that our politics seems able to absorb.
The first is obvious. Our population is getting older. Life expectancy is increasing, and birth rates are declining. Older people, thanks to public health advances, can remain healthy, productive, and self-reliant. But they are also looking at longer retirements of declining physical and mental resources. In short, they need support for a much longer time than was anticipated when Social Security and Medicare were created. Our mid-20th Century system wasn’t built for this.
The second is an explosion of racial diversity. In 1960, 85% of Americans were white. In 2010, 64% were white. By 2030, it is projected to be 55%. That fits with our immigration trends. The waves of immigration that ended in the 1920s were 90% European. Now, only 12% come from Europe, and 50% come from Latin America. We are also intermarrying at a rate unthinkable just a generation ago. Our mid 20th Century culture wasn’t built for this either.
What is our future? It is already here, in adult form, in the Millennials. Per the Pew study, four in ten are non-white. They are also very different in attitudes and approach than any group that preceded them. They are doing everything slower and at a lower intensity: marrying later, having kids later, starting careers later, joining religious and civic organizations later. Even if they follow the arc that many of their elders expect; getting more conservative when they “grow up,” they are not going to replace the 65 and up group’s overall social and economic views. They are just different.
The Pew study talks about more numbers, and the single most important set is the one that both Democrats and Republicans seem completely oblivious to. 16/1 and 3/1. Those are the ratios of active workers to retired workers, measured in 1950, and again in 2010. Right now, as Taylor notes, programs that benefit the elderly take up close to half of the entire Federal budget, money that crowds out other spending. Those other expenditures include longer-term investments in education, job training, and infrastructure—all things that would do little for seniors but a great deal for younger voters. Taylor calls this disconnect a problem of “generational equity.” I think that’s a diplomatic phrase. It’s closer to generational malfeasance.
Why this lack of generational equity? It is largely a product of electoral math and intellectual inflexibility. The Democrats, as is their wont, have been using the last war’s strategy to fight the next one. Democratic orthodoxy is still tied up in FDR social contract of entitlements, and Social Security and Medicare were ostensibly the “Third Rail” which would bind seniors to them in perpetuity. But seniors are this generation’s Southern Democrats. They want stability in a world that seems to be changing too fast. They want their community, their church, their values, and their checks to be life-long. Democrats have become a threat to their way of life. But the party seems to have no other way. They have to support senior entitlements, even when seniors don’t support Democrats, because all the other social programs are indefensible when you are making Granny go without her pills. That leaves the Democrats nothing to offer Millennials besides a friendlier cultural package. That’s just not very much for a group that has their economic lives in front of them.
The Republicans are no better. They smartly latched on to senior’s fears and have sold them on a centurion at the gate strategy. The GOP will protect them—they will keep out the immigrants, keep back the unfaithful rabble, the ugly and crass, the loud music and noisy gays, and make sure that no dollar gets wasted on someone who is merely poor or young. The GOP will be the moat around Sunshine Village.
But the Republicans haven’t really changed. They are still in thrall to the social conservatives, still hostile towards a growing segment of the population. They still hate entitlements in specific and domestic spending in general. The Ryan Budget, just passed in the House, makes that clear. They will sustain their older voting block, for now, but there is no money and no plan to deal with generational equity besides their “growth and opportunity” slogan. That, as a friend is fond of saying, is a “nothingburger.”
Of course, that ratio, 16/1, or 3/1, headed to 2/1, isn’t going to go away. Just 6% of Millennials think they are going to get full Social Security benefits--half believe they are going to get nothing. That should tell both sides that the Millennials are realists who are open to global solutions, particularly if we can do this as a community, with all participating.
In short, Millennials aren’t the problem. It’s the two political parties, frightened of the short-term consequences, and trapped in past-century certainties, who seem unwilling to deal with generational inequality. Both are still trying to win one for the geezer.
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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