American politics has been defined by gender gaps, racial gaps, geographic gaps and the gap between the religious and the secular. Now comes the geriatric gap. As the population ages and the nation faces intense battles over rapidly rising health care and retirement costs, American politics seems increasingly divided along generational lines.
No American with half a political brain is surprised that age-related interests are playing into any healthcare debate. What is kind of funny is that the retirees, so famed for their unmoving support of government-funded healthcare for themselves, are the main opponents of it. The GOP is similarly confused and, as the opposition party, is marketing itself to the discontented; thus suddenly crowning itself the supporters of Medicare.
But I digress. Let me ask a question to step back on track: how does a massive voting block of loafer-wearing, hearing-aided, pants-up-to-your-belly-button flagwavers fit into our national political self-image? We’ve no problem with twenty-something war protestors, and none of us really thinks college students doing street environmental surveys is weird or unusual to American polity. We understand these things.
It is not hard to think of geriatric stalwarts threatening school budgets, voting Republican, or stopping entitlement reform. But what happens when they step into non-traditional issues? Well, as in the quoted Times article, their motives can be chalked up to bigotry (“It may also be harder for some older voters to adjust to the novelty of the first African-American president”), because they are outside of the political mainstream when it comes to conceptualizing public discourse.
I bring this up because it relates also to the Tea Party protest in Washington DC this past weekend; with perhaps 75,000 people, it has been called the largest conservative protest in history (though Russell Kirk might claim that mantle for the Revolutionary War). This event, also, does not fit into our national self-image. It’s not the way conservatives usually fight.
Two ways to take this. First, maybe we are seeing political realignment (a la 1932, 1980), or even a shakeup in political engagement. I think this can only happen in periods of intense emotion and significant uncertainty, combined with a coherent platform. These don’t even have to happen at the same time: FDR’s 1932 election did not gain its real significance until he actually laid out a plan and idea of government in the 100 days (the same may one day be said of Obama’s vague 2008 mandate and his actual 2009 agenda).
Second interpretation. I see the intense emotion and perceived uncertainty, but the coherent platform is not new. It is the same agenda conservatives have been working on for decades. I have previously noted the strength of this ideology, and maybe it is taking on a new character as a very emotional and vocal opposition. But I don’t think the political realignment is going to happen because there is not that introduction of a new coherent agenda to the public discourse – something people don’t have to associate with previous politicians or platforms. This is why Reagan’s neoconservatism could be seen as something new and refreshing in 1980, something traditional Democrats might be willing to try out. Also, the perceived uncertainty is not really clear. People are still concerned about the economy, but it is not on the verge of collapse. The uncertainty is actually often self-generated within conservative circles, meaning it is not as much of a broad, national uncertainty – many Americans do actually see the present as a cause for opportunity. This is in some ways parallel to liberals’ self-generating guilt. The political movement has found its emotional catalyst; psychologically speaking, it is just too alluring not to appeal to, even if conservatives aren’t trying to, because it’s where the immediate results are. I’m not demeaning the protests or the political positions thereof – but as the movement is going, I’d like to draw my line of caution.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.