Revenge of the retirees: the new generation gap

Country is split between older, whiter, richer voters and younger, poorer, more diverse voters

November 15, 2010|By Thomas F. Schaller

When he ran for president in 2008, Barack Obama said he didn't believe in a country divided into Blue America and Red America. But the "shellacking" the president and his fellow Democrats took in the 2010 midterm elections made clear that there sure is plenty of political tension between Grey America and Colorful America.

By that, I mean there is a striking contrast between the older, whiter generation of Americans who turned two weeks ago and the younger, more racially diverse electorate that turned out two years ago. Before turning to the implications of this generational tension, let's examine the differences between those two electorates.

The 2008 presidential race was the first in American history in which nonwhites, at 26 percent, accounted for more than a fourth of all voters. Not surprisingly, 95 percent of African-Americans voted for Mr. Obama, as did solid majorities of Latinos (67 percent) and Asian-Americans (62 percent). In 2010, however, the nonwhite share of the electorate fell to 23 percent.

Second, young voters surged to the polls in 2008, comprising 18 percent of all voters, whereas two weeks ago they dropped to just 12 percent. At the other generational pole, those 65 and older increased from 16 percent of the electorate in 2008 — the only age group Sen. John McCain carried, with 53 percent of their votes — to 21 percent in 2010, voting 59 percent for Republican congressional candidates.

Finally, 11 percent of 2008 voters said they had voted for the first time, and they tilted decidedly for Mr. Obama; in 2010, a mere 3 percent said it was their first election.

These three demographic differences are interrelated. Younger Americans are less white than older generations, and they turn out at lower rates than older voters do. Thus, the two starkly different electorates were a result of the replacement of many of those young, nonwhite and often first-time voters from 2008 (the so-called "Obama surge" voters) in 2010 with older, whiter Americans — the "tea party" profile, in many respects.

Now, we have been told by those tea partiers and various national pundits that the rejection of President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and their Democratic colleagues reflects concerns about federal spending and deficits, fueled in part by rapid growth in nanny state entitlements.

But that can't be entirely true. Notice, for example, that no tea party movement emerged six years ago after President George W. Bush and a Republican Congress passed the Medicare Part D entitlement that will cost the government about the same ($800 billion over 10 years) that the health care reform bill will — and with no long-term potential savings. Notice, too, that it was the Republicans who in 2010 ran ads across the country telling senior citizens that Democrats planned to cut $500 billion from Medicare, which happens to be the fastest-growing major program in the federal budget.

Sorry, but if the 2010 rebuke were about entitlements gone wild and deficit spending run amok, we would have heard more about how Medicare needed an overhaul. We would have heard complaints about the fiscal irresponsibility of the $250 payment every Social Security beneficiary received from that dastardly 2009 stimulus package, even though the cost of living didn't increase last year — confirming that, for America's most powerful voting block, benefit levels supposedly anchored to inflation rates will rise whether inflation increases or not.

Instead, we mostly heard complaints that the health care reform bill is unaffordable, if not unconstitutional — sometimes from people like that infamous town hall crier who warned the government to keep its hands off his Medicare. Not coincidentally, the health care bill was signed into law by not only the first African-American president, but also the first to be born after 1950 (indeed, after 1960).

A sad, unmentioned truth about the past two elections is that they were in certain respects a battle for the attentions and scarce resources of a federal government between two American generations: older, whiter and more affluent citizens, and the younger, poorer and more racially diverse citizens who will be the first to inherit an America in worse shape than their parents and grandparents did.

So let's call the 2010 midterm results what they were: Revenge of the Retirees. And let's not be surprised when the new health care bill faces a withering assault, while Social Security and Medicare — roughly 40 percent of all federal spending — remain essentially untouched.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly. His e-mail is

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