Well, the 2014 midterm elections are over, and, depending on where you stand politically, they were either a smashing vindication or a mega-blowout. Count me in the latter camp. That’s right, the Republican Party absolutely dominated, expanding their already swollen (and, thanks to their shady gerrymandering of districts), near incontestable dominance of the House and winning control of the Senate. And I couldn’t be more pissed off, and not just because I’m an unabashed liberal (and if you don’t agree with me, too bad, ’cause you’re wrong). No, there’s a bigger story regarding the outcome of the 2014 midterms that is both glaringly obvious and yet still underappreciated: the mind-blowing hypocrisy of old, white American voters.
Traditionally, midterm elections in the U.S. have a strong, built-in right-wing advantage, and they’re generally pretty hostile to the party that controls the White House. But in recent years, it’s become clear that there’s functionally two electorates in America: a younger, more ethnically diverse, moderately liberal coalition that votes in presidential elections (who gave Barack Obama a two-term presidency), and a much older, more lily-white, and more conservative reactionary coalition that shows up en masse to vote in midterm elections. In general, fewer Americans vote in midterm elections than in presidential ones, and the ones who do show up at midterm polls are often old, conservative, and very, very angry.
And this is exactly what happened in the last two midterms. The electorate that gave Republicans total dominance of the House in 2010 was an aged electorate: 34 percent of those midterm voters were 60 or older. This trend repeated in 2014, as seniors compromised 37 percent of the electorate that gave the GOP total dominance of the House and Senate. In modern America, midterm elections truly are a right-wing grey dawn.
Now, before I go any further, I realize that not ALL seniors are foaming-at-the-mouth Republican drones. Seniors, just like the rest of us, are individuals with individual personalities and preferences. That said, however, as a demographic group, American seniors have unquestionably made a large-scale political shift rightward. Earlier this year, Gallup noted that, “over the last seven years, seniors have become less Democratic and have shown an outright preference for the Republican Party since 2010.” Similarly, Pew Research Center observed that “well-known generational divides” characterized the 2014 midterms, as seniors overwhelmingly favored the GOP. To put it simply: not all seniors are Republicans, but these days, most Republicans are seniors.
Thus, we come to the point in this post where I get angry, because here’s the thing about many of America’s seniors: they’re entitled, self-absorbed, hypocritical, greed-driven, prejudice-prone generations, and their current voting preferences have ensured that they’ll get all the advantages of government programs for themselves even as Republican politicians work to dismantle those same programs for younger generations. Not all seniors fall into this bracket, of course, but too many of them do, and if I sound angry, it’s because I am. The generations that constitute the current crop of right-wing seniors have also played no small role in helping to build an economy and a society that is growing worse and worse for younger generations, especially Generation Y, better known as millennials (those born between the early 1980s and 2000s), among whom I count myself. So, yeah, I’m angry, and people in my age bracket have every right to be angry at the political habits of old people who have spent decades trashing the American economy, accruing mountains of debt, and generally voting to cut younger generations’ throats. This is generational warfare alright, and I’m tired of sitting in the trenches.
But before I go further, let’s define the two groups who constitute America’s senior population, shall we? First off, there’s the so-called Silent Generation. These are people born before 1946 who came of age during World War II. They faced neither the trials of the Great Depression nor the fighting of the war (though they did serve in Korea), and thanks to their small numbers, they really had it made.
According to sociologist Elwood Carlson, the Silent Generation are the “lucky few” because they grew up in the post-war boom of the late 1940s and early 1950s, a period when jobs were plentiful, economic prosperity was wide-spread, the labor movement was strong, progressive taxation was the norm, and the American Dream® consisted of an increasingly white-collar middle-class life followed by an early retirement. But this generation also lived to play by established rules: because they inherited an economic boom, they didn’t want to rock the boat or change the system, in fact, they disappeared into the system. This group’s preference for unspoken, starched-shirt conformity earned them the name “Silent Generation” in a 1951 essay in Time magazine.
After the Silent Generation came the other group that now makes up a fair number of American seniors: the Baby Boomers. They were the kids born roughly between 1946 and 1964 during the post-World-War II Baby Boom, when one of the biggest economic expansions in U.S. history spurred people to have more kids based on the notion that the good times were here to stay. As historian Doug Owram writes in his book Born at the Right Time: A History of the Baby Boom Generation, boomers were a “fortunate generation” if ever there was one. “Few generations grew up in such prosperous times,” he writes, “the quarter-century after the Second World War brought the Western world some of the most sustained economic growth in history…a growing economy, an improving set of government social programs, and a wide dispersion of wealth meant that the average…citizen benefitted.”* (Note: Owram is a Canadian historian who largely covers Canadian Boomers, but the Canadian situation during this era so mirrored that of the U.S. that his book is the definitive history of Baby Boomers).
As a result of their great historical fortune, Baby Boomers are positively insufferable: they are the most entitled generation ever; a numerically dominant, collective pain-in-the-ass that went from the (admittedly overcooked) idealism of the 1960s to the safety-net shredding, union-busting, greed-obsessed, race-to-the-bottom conservatism that destroyed the economy in 2008 and made the world a lousier place for the generations that followed them. They’re the generation that reaped the most from government programs and progressive policies even as they came to ideologically reject those policies. Heck, Boomers are so awful that they have their own internet meme, “Scumbag Baby Boomer.”
Whether it was union membership, a wide-open job market that could turn high-school graduates into members of the middle class, a dirt-cheap college education if they wanted it, social security, medicare, or progressive taxation, the Boomers took everything and scorched the earth in their wake; they went from Woodstock to Gordon Gekko, and they rail against “entitlements” even as they spent decades benefitting from those entitlements. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the Boomers became known as the “Me” generation: their self-absorption is so legendary that the Newseum in Washington D.C. is hosting an exhibit dedicated to Boomer narcissism.
Thus, we come full-circle to the source of my righteous anger over how America’s old people voted in the 2014 midterm election. If there is one characteristic that defines seniors today, whether they’re members of the Silent Generation or Baby Boomers, it’s that both groups came into the world amidst unbelievably fortunate economic circumstances, and before they leave the world, they’re casting votes for policies that are making America a crappier place for younger generations. The Boomers’ current conservatism reflects a blindingly narcissistic need to preserve everything they reaped at others’ expenses.
Take, for example, the way old people in America love to criticize the millennial generation as lazy, entitled, adverse to hard work, and whiney — despite the fact that millennials are entering adulthood during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. As Kate Dries notes in the New York Times, Boomers are accusing millennials of “doing everything wrong” and “destroying this great nation that was built by the Baby Boomers.” But wait, there’s more! Writing for the American Bar Association, Lauren Stiller Rikleen sums up older generations’ criticisms of millennials as such: “‘Millennials are too entitled.’ ‘They are unable to solve problems.’ ‘They want to make a lot of money without working hard for it.’ ‘They want constant feedback.'” But wait, there’s more! Another big problem that old people have with millennials is political. As Pew Research Group and other outlets have noted, millennials tend to be fairly liberal on all kinds of issues: they’re pretty tolerant of homosexuality, they support regulation of big business, they’re less attached to religious institutions, they’re more supportive of diversity, and they’re less critical of government — even though they’re fed up with both political parties.
Of course, like any age group, millennials aren’t monolithic: there are plenty of conservatives in this group too. But regardless of specific political preferences, something else characterizes millennials: we’re what the Atlantic calls the “Mad as Hell Generation.” At the same time that old people are telling us to just shut up and get a job, we’re enduring an apocalyptically bad job market — one worse than most of the current crop of old people ever faced — and millennials are the first generation in American history who will very likely end up worse off than their parents. There’s a reason we’re called the Lost Generation.
Millennials have every right to be angry because they’re being forced to sleep in the terrible bed that the older generations made. They face an economy in which there are far more applicants than jobs; an economy in which unpaid internships are becoming all-too-common and wages have been stagnant for decades. Millennials also have to deal with the new normal that is the Great Recession, caused by the overheated, free-market gamble-a-thon long championed by deregulating Boomers drunk on neoliberal punch. These facts, in addition to the hard truths that middle-class jobs are a vanishing luxury and a college education doesn’t guarantee a job but does guarantee crippling student debt, make it hard to NOT get mega-pissed off at the gaggle of seniors who vote to further deregulate the economy, enact race-to-the-bottom policies like corporate tax cuts that only empower employers, and deny basic human rights to same-sex couples and minorities. America’s old people truly had it made, but they’re making things harder for everyone else.
Now, obviously I don’t speak for everyone in my age group, and there’s plenty of folks who’ll disagree with me, but this isn’t their blog, it’s mine, and I’m calling out America’s olds for their hypocrisy and self-centered political stances. When seniors send full-on whackaloons like Joni Ernst and Tom Cotton to the U.S. senate, they’re not just casting a vote; they’re supporting an odious political ideology that seeks to dismantle the safety net — especially Obamacare — that is one of the few remaining defenses against a conservative culture that has enriched the top 1 percent of oligarchs who rule this country and driven the deeply undemocratic growth in income inequality over the last thirty-plus years.
This conservatism thrives on a culture of fear in which everyone who is different from old, white people — whether they be Hispanics, blacks (or “coloreds,” to the really old), “liberals,” gays, atheists, young women, workers, community organizers, city dwellers, or the President of the United States — are deemed enemies of America. And quite frankly, I’m sick of it. So I say to America’s right-wing oldsters: STFU up and let someone else run things. If you butt out, we’ll work on actually turning up at the polls to vote. End of rant.
* Note: complaints from elderly conservative readers can be sent to the following e-mail address: Idontgiveadamn@gmail.com.
* Note: to Baby Boomers who aren’t jerks; you know who you are, so I’m not talking about you, obviously.
* See Doug Owram, Born at the Right Time: A History of the Baby Boom Generation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), x.