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Hullabaloo


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

 
Talkin' 'bout my g-g-g-g-generation

by digby

As I watch cynical Republicans accuse Democrats of hating old people because they supported cuts to Social Security I keep thinking about the fact that so many people seem to believe that's not a big deal because old people are all Republicans.  Setting aside the fact that at this point it's only old white people who are voting Republican, it seems like a good time to remind everyone that Social Security is the most successful anti-poverty program in American history and remains the Democratic Party's signature achievement. Before social security millions of elderly people lived in dire straits , often literally in the poorhouse, even before the depression. The end of the agrarian way of life that featured intergenerational support on the farm meant more of the elderly were in cities. Companies wouldn't hire them, even if they were able to work. They were barely hanging on:
Mrs. M.A. Zoller of Beaumont, Texas, begged for someone to help her 82-year-old mother, who, she wrote, was diabetic, "out of funds completely," and had "no place to go unless it be to the poorhouse."

And over the hill to the poorhouse many older people went. Financed by local taxes, poorhouses were the shelters for all of a region's indigent, and in the early 20th century, most counties had one. The best of the poorhouses provided a meager standard of living. The worst doubled as insane asylums and orphanages. "I was three miles from town but felt like I was 3,000 miles from friends and country," wrote Ed Sweeney in his 1927 memoir, "Poorhouse Sweeney." "I have ate off trays that looked like they had spent the rainy season laying on a city dump."

Germany, Sweden, France and England, among other countries, already had legislated publicly funded old-age insurance before Americans took up the debate. Proponents in the U.S. wondered why men and women who had been diligent, thrifty workers should suffer hunger and insecurity in their old age. In a letter to an editor, a postal worker pointed out that horses owned by the federal government lived out their old age on full rations. "For the purpose of drawing a pension," he declared, "it would have been better if I had been born a horse than a human being."

Opponents argued that sensible people would provide for themselves, and that universal old-age insurance would set the country on the slippery slope to socialism. Children, not the state, were obliged to care for the old, they said; without that responsibility, family ties would loosen. And if employees were guaranteed lifetime support, wouldn't they feel less incentive to work hard?

Even after the Social Security Act became law, it was vigorously challenged in America's courts.

"The hope behind this statute," wrote Justice Benjamin Cardozo for the bare 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court in 1937, "is to save men and women from the rigors of the poorhouse, as well as from the haunting fear that such a lot awaits them when journey's end is near."
It's scary even with social security. I can't imagine what it was like without it.

Anyway, the elderly, for all their prejudices and simple pain-in-the-assedness are a constituency that has the Democratic Party to thank for the fact that they are not consigned to poverty. And the Democratic Party traditionally reminded them of that every election day. Unfortunately, their recent experience tells them that the Democratic Party is more than willing to cut their benefits and that's just a shame. Certainly the Republicans are shameless enough to exploit it.

And as for their voting habits, they are not a cohort that always votes Republican. It's idiotic for younger Democrats to make that assumption and write off this group of people who are very dedicated voters:
The generational math is different than you might think.

One of my favorite bits of trivia points to the bigger picture: "From which age group did Bill Clinton win the highest percentage of votes in 1992?"

Seniors.

Indeed, if you came of age during the Franklin D Roosevelt administration, you are more Democratic than the nation as a whole. If you could first vote during the administrations of Ronald Reagan or George HW Bush, you're more Republican. Turn 18 while Barack Obama held the White House and, again, you're more Democratic. That's right: the 18-29 year-olds of today are about as Democratic as their oldest grandparents and great-grandparents.


I'm in the Nixon group up there. And we are very, very Democratic as group. There is a boatload of us --- we're the second half of the baby boom. We are also scared to death about our financial future since we just lost our shirts in the financial crisis and many of us lost our homes and our houses and we don't feel we have enough time to get it back.

This is a natural Democratic constituency. And even the vanguard boomers who tend to vote more Republican aren't nearly as Republican as the group coming up who came of age during the Reagan years.

And anyway, old people deserve to live in dignity even if they are Republicans. After all, if we're lucky, we'll all be old someday. It's kind of startling to recognize that you're there (or on the precipice) and see that the Democratic party is willing to use you as a pawn in a Grand Bargain in Washington that seems to serve no one but Wall Street and the wealthy.

And ponder this:

Many might think that these Roosevelt-generation voters are going to be replaced by more liberal Obama-era voters, but polling casts that theory into doubt. Just because today's college students are liberal doesn't mean tomorrow's will lean left, too.

UCLA has been polling freshman college students for over 40 years on their political beliefs, and has found that young people are hardly automatic Democrats.

On the eve of the 2008 election (pdf), the most college freshmen in 35 years – 30.3% of men and 37.4% of women – described themselves as liberal or left. Combined, that matches the 33% percentage of 18-29 year-olds who described themselves as liberals in 2012. In other words, the new college students of 2008 were representative of a new generation of liberals.

On the eve of the 2012 election, the percentages of liberals among first-year college men and women dropped by 4pt and 5pt, to 26.4% and 32.4%, respectively. The liberal percentage is about 10pt higher than it was during the Reagan administration (pdf), but it's a major liberal decline – nearly on par with what occurred between the 1976 and 1980 elections.

New college students are liberal – just not as liberal as freshmen were four years ago. This new class is about as liberal as young people were early in the Carter and Clinton administrations. People who turned 18 during the Carter administration ended up being somewhat more Republican than average; those who came of age during Clinton's were somewhat more Democratic. How today's college freshmen will vote likely depends on the state of the economy over the next four years.

Are the new college freshmen just a blip in a sea of student liberalism?

The polling says "probably not". Before the election, American University/GfK polled high school (13-17 year-olds) and college students. The margin between Obama and Mitt Romney for high school students was 21pt less than among all college students. (Note: there's no discernible difference between the voting patterns of 18-29 year-olds with at least some college education and those without.)

The huge fall isn't exactly surprising. The Roosevelt generation is liberal because people became politically aware when Roosevelt was viewed as a success. The Gipper generation is conservative for the same reason with regard to Reagan. Conversely, the younger Bush is mostly viewed as a failure, and as such, most young people revolted.

Obama's presidency, meanwhile, is only seen as a moderate success – as illustrated by a rather close re-election margin in the popular vote. Given past history, it's expected to be seen as somewhere between good and average, as far as presidencies go. We would expect, therefore, that people who come of age during this presidency to be about as Democratic as the nation, or slightly more so.

And that's exactly what seems to be happening.

Indeed, the generation of the next few years isn't likely to be either conservative or overwhelmingly liberal; it's probably going to be moderate. The UCLA survey found that the fastest growing group are people who describe themselves as "middle of the road". On social issues, like gay marriage, they lean lean to left; on fiscal issues, like healthcare, they lean more to the right than the majority of current 18-29 year-olds.

Overall, I doubt we're looking at a pipeline of new liberals. Far more than most young voters today, the next generation is likely to be up for grabs.

This is why relying on age demographics to magically change everything is a foolish mistake. As Perlstein reminds us in The Invisible Bridge, everyone assumed in the 1970s that the "Now generation" was destined to drag the Democratic Party to the left. One could say that in terms of the culture war that did happen at least to some extent. But on matters of war and peace and economic ideology I think it's fair to ask how that assumption has worked out for us.


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