It’s not that young people are voting less, because they aren’t. Indeed they vote more (and less Republican) than their elders did at same age in some elections. Difference is life expectancy, meaning old people now live two voting cycles longer. There’s your Trump margin.
For years I have been harping on the dangers of the electoral college, on how small states and rural populations are over represented in the Senate and House, and how we baby boomers are the most conservative generation since the 1920’s. I could be pretty shrill and annoying about it. Earlier this year it dawned on me that despite all the attention on Millennials, that it is Boomers who are at the apex of political power in 2016. Trying to be more wryly ironic than shrill and annoying, I wrote that we’d have to wait eight or even sixteen years before things really swung against the GOP and conservatism. Which is probably a safe bet. It’s going to be a long, long fight. Just before the recent debacle, when everyone knew it was to be a Democratic landslide and crushing defeat of conservatism, I was wondering how the New Deal had remained the ideology of the land and core of the government for 48 years (1932-1980) but Reaganism had lasted only 36 years (1980-2016). I was wondering what accounted for those 12 extra years that the Left had managed over the Right.
Oops. Turns out it was not twelve less years of Reaganism (or the mutated variants thereof) at all. Conservatives could keep trashing the country for twelve more years…even though they get less votes every election cycle. Democratic candidates at every level get more actual votes, when you meaninglessly add all of them up together, than Republican candidates. There are more voters in the United States who are not conservative than there are conservatives. Yet look who’s running the show. Turns out liberals are over represented in bigger states and in urban areas which means we wind up with less representation per vote. And then there’s the fact that baby boomers vote conservative (despite all their Woodstock Generation pretensions), and they vote more, much more, than people younger than them. That’s true of generations in general, voters over fifty vote at a higher rate than those under fifty, the further you go down in age the less the voting percentage. You bitch about kids too lazy to vote now as people bitched about you all not voting enough then. Indeed, turnout in 2000 was much lower than turnout in 2016….you might blame those lazy Gen Xers for eight years of Bush/Cheney….
It’s just a political fact of life–old people vote more. Old people tend to be more conservative. And this bunch are especially conservative. I’ve always been struck by how the generations preceding the Boomers–the Greatest and Silent generations (who comes up with these names?)–dumped Goldwater in a landslide. They knew crazy when they saw it. But Boomers saw George W. Bush and voted for him. And now there’s Donald Trump, the Boomer president. I had thought George W. Bush was the quintessential boomer president but Trump takes that cake now. Most Boomers seem to embrace crazy. And when America’s older people (the ones below 70, anyway) are from the largest baby boom in US history, while Millennials were spawned in the lowest (and still declining) birthrate in US history, those older voters will be a powerful presence on election day. It doesn’t help that people live longer now than they did in 1980–about four years longer for males, an entire presidential election cycle, meaning your crazy grandpa gets to vote for a president at an age when his own crazy grandpa was long buried. And it certainly doesn’t help that the part of the Democratic coalition that Democrats have such high hopes for–Hispanics–are still voting well below the rate of Whites (and below the rate of Blacks, too). And that so many of the states where Trump did so well this year–and districts where GOP congressional candidates did well–are 80% and more (many much, much more) Caucasian. Even worse that so many of those districts are experiencing a drain of their younger, college educated population–the ones who rejected Trump out of hand–to the coasts, where they pile into larger, urban areas with less congressional representation per capita than their folks have at home. Not to mention those two senate seats no matter how small (or large) the state. Half the United States legislature is based on the notion that the number of voters is irrelevant. The slave south held a headlock on federal policy for sixty years using that two senators per state power. And then in the 20th century the South was able to maintain its ideology of white superiority through that same senatorial power. Eventually the south took over the GOP and with that same small state power has dominated US policy making and resisted the policies of a black president with all the furor and machiavellian genius of John C. Calhoun. That same senatorial dominance means electoral votes out of synch with popular vote. Hence, Trump.
This will not change much in the next four or eight years. The average baby boomer is my age, just coming on sixty, with another twenty years of voting (that is, five presidential elections, ten congressional elections, and about six senatorial elections) left in the average one of us. As boomers get older their voting rate just keeps rising, and it’ll take a decade before attrition–Boomers will die, eventually–surpasses that increasing voting rate and finally drops their numbers beneath those of Gen Xers and Millennials, who will have gotten older and grumpier and more prone to voting by then. Like I said, that is ten years off.. And by then the Hispanic baby boom that accompanied the explosion of Hispanic immigration in the 1980’s-90’s (immigrants always have lots of kids, their kids slow down and grandkids sometimes have no kids at all) will have gotten old enough to finally start voting at a rate approximating whites. Unfortunately they will mostly be in bigger states–California, New York, Florida, Texas–the way the Irish were once mostly in big urban areas that limited their political impact, but nonetheless, it will help to chip away at the white GOP majority. The GOP is at peak strength now, unless, somehow, they suddenly appeal to blacks, Hispanics, Asians, women and people under 40. Which is probably unlikely. Hell, just the opposite.
So what am I getting at? Just hold on, this crazy Trumpist GOP surge cannot last. You will not see a series of Trumpoid presidents. Or an endless GOP majority in congress. But it won’t end right away either. They have a solid eight years ahead of them. Unless, of course, there is some sort of Watergate-scale catastrophe. But I’m not getting my hopes up. I am just waiting for the slow change of generations. That is generally what has flipped the political course of history in this country. We boomers are in our last spasm of power now. Sure we didn’t actually win the popular vote in the presidential race. And for sure more people voted for Democratic candidates than voted for Republicans, again. But just enough older white people are in just the right places. Watch how we 52-70 years olds muck it up for the rest of you. Then again, our parents were gung ho for the Cold War and Viet Nam and nearly blew the world up once or twice. Their parents somehow combined Jim Crow and the New Deal. Every age has its issues. We are yours.
The electoral college is all about congressional representation. Every state has a base of three–for the two senators and minimum one congressional seat. By themselves a small state–there are seven states with one district–have little electoral influence. But as a bloc they have electoral clout. Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas have 12 electoral votes between them that go GOP almost without fail, as many electoral votes as Washington state yet with less than half the population. But this isn’t as important as it used to be…there are two 3 vote states–Delaware and Vermont–that are solidly Democrat. And when you add up the populations of the GOP’s 4 electoral vote states in the Rockies and Plains, they equal in electoral votes states and population states like Pennsylvania. And a lot of states in the west–Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado–have begun turning regularly blue.
It’s in the bigger states that the Democrats get burned. Were California’s electoral votes allocated on the same population basis as Wyoming’s (plus two for the senators), we would have 202 instead of 55. Texas would have 142. Florida would have 105. New York would have 103. Illinois 68. The problem is that urban and suburban congressional districts tend to be more densely populated than rural districts. The more urban the state, the less the congressional representation. There are thirteen states with an average district size of over 600K people (California’s is over 700K) and only three of those have been reliably red in presidential elections (though at least two of those states, Texas and Georgia, will be purple battleground states within ten years, and probably blue in twenty). And of the 13 states with average congressional delegation size of less than 400K, eight have been reliably red. Democrats as a rule have the underrepresented districts, Republicans the overrepresented. To make things worse, the GOP has gerrymandered a lot of Democrats in some states into huge districts, and themselves into many smaller districts. Ohio’s majority Republican congressional delegation in a majority Democratic state is the most flagrant example….and though it has nothing to do with the electoral college, all those Republican congressmen running for office in their tidy white districts is one of the reasons Trump captured the state this year.
This disparity in congressional district population has been the only thing that has kept the GOP in the presidential game at all. Without it the Democrats would have an overwhelming electoral college majority. Even Trump flipping four reliably blue states this goofy year stills leaves him down by well over a million, maybe even two, in the popular vote. Were congressional districts allocated fairly, the Democrats would gain dramatically in the House of Representatives, and in the electoral college, and the GOP would shrink. Shrink a whole lot. Even so, inevitably, the tide is turning, as rural populations thin out and urban populations expand with kids moving in from the country and immigrants arriving and having 3 to 4 kids instead of the white’s 1 or 2 (or none at all). The white population of conservative suburban districts is aging and dying out (and will be leaving ghostly tracts of four and five bedroom houses too big for modern families) and is not being replaced by equal numbers of their own–indeed replaced by immigrants (think Orange County). The GOP has been overwhelmingly a baby boomer party–we have been the most conservative generation, by far, since the 1920’s–but we boomers failed to have enough kids to keep the ratio going. In another decade or so the GOP will cave in and become strictly regional, much as the original conservatives, the Federalists did. They elected the first two presidents but were gone by the 1820’s, swamped by the immigrants they hated. The GOP too is pretending that only their demographic truly deserve to vote, deserve even to be here. Alas, there are only so many white people born between 1946 and 1964, and the GOP has adamantly refused to expand beyond them. And their kids and grandkids don’t vote like they do at all. The electoral college will turn blue, even if we don’t ever change it.
As for Trump (I’m writing this the Friday after his election, as my fellow liberals still stumble about shocked and weeping, as I would be, if not for all the Prozac), he is the ultimate Baby Boomer candidate, if not a Boomer himself–he’s one of he Silent Generation, believe it or not–and Boomers are at their peak electoral power now. He may be incoherent half the time, but then wasn’t Bob Dylan? And Trump may come off like a loutish New York version of George Wallace, but then a helluva lot of us voted for George Wallace (a shocking number of the Gene McCarthy voters in 1968 voted for Wallace that November, and voted for Wallace in even bigger numbers in the 1972 primaries, especially in Michigan and Wisconsin.) Trump didn’t win many big states in a big way last Tuesday–Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin combined gave him a razor thin 107,000 vote margin, once all mail in ballots were counted (Hillary stomped all over Trump among those who vote by mail). Still, that was just enough to put all those upper midwest minorities and Gen Xers and Millennials with all their college degrees (far fewer Boomers went to college than did) in their place. You betcha.
There are still loads of us Boomers alive (I was born right smack in the middle of the boom, 1957), and we are at our peak voting years, our 50’s and 60’s. People vote with astonishing regularity at our age (you value regularity at our age) and this year we just happened to be angry and in the right combination of states to give Donald Trump an electoral vote majority with the worst disparity of popular votes ever. Hillary had a higher popular vote margin than not only Al Gore, but more than JFK (1960), Nixon (1968) and maybe even Carter (1976.) It’s like if you don’t win the Super Bowl by more than two touchdowns they give the trophy to the losing team. A constitutional shenanigan, really. As Hillary’s numbers are finally officially tallied–which could take weeks in California, where there is a mountain of mail in ballots, millions of them, being counted by hand–the scale of this shenanigan will dawn on everybody, and the notion of Donald Trump having a mandate for revolution will disappear into thin air. You need to win votes to launch a revolution. FDR did. Reagan did. George W. Bush didn’t. Bush is so now loathed by most Republicans it’s hard to believe he was one of their own, with a GOP approval rate above 90%. There’s not much love in the long run for those who win the electoral college but lose the popular vote–when was the last time you heard nice things about Rutherford B. Hayes or Benjamin Harrison?–and in the 2000 election Bush was down only half a million votes. Trump is down by much more. A popular vote deficit of historic proportions. Huge, even. Big league.
Oh well, all us Boomers will start dying off soon enough–the eldest if us are 70 now, and we used to smoke like chimneys–and Gen Xers and Millennials will finally outvote us in, oh, two election cycles. We’ll still vote plenty, of course, all crotchety and conservative, but we’ll at last be outnumbered by all those rotten kids. And you know how they vote, those rotten kids, overwhelmingly blue, in ratios not seen since FDR’s day. Even as they get grumpy and old themselves they will vote probably twice as Democrat as we do now. Certainly twice as liberal. They are the most liberal bunch since the New Deal. The Reagan Revolution was made possible because those original New Dealers were dying off (about three or four years earlier than we will, a whole election cycle). But the Reagan Revolution will fade the same way, as we Boomers die off. We are witnessing its final thrashings now. The New Deal lasted for 48 years, 1932-1980. The Reagan Revolution might last 40 years, 1980-2020. Apparently Reaganomics contained faster acting seeds of its own destruction. But I digress.
There are likely to be none of these absurd vote winner losing the presidency travesties once we are gone, taking the GOP with us. Once the whites only GOP disappears, there will be no need for imbalanced congressional districts. There will be no advantage of farmers having two or three or times as much political pull as city dwellers, or a rancher in Wyoming having 67 times as much electoral vote representation as a writer in Los Angeles. The electoral college will again be reduced to an archaic afterthought, and not a threat to democracy itself. Or so I hope.
Most women voted for Hillary Clinton. Most men voted for Donald Trump. A slightly higher proportion of men voted for Trump than women voted for Hillary. But I think what happened was that there was a significant increase in the number of men voting. Usually women vote more, I suspect this time more men voted. This is just a hunch, but it would help account for the fact that Trump got more votes even though more women voted for Hillary. His majority was provided by a big upsurge in white men, mostly baby boomers. I was just thinking this morning about what a baby boomer phenomenon Trump is, and baby boomers are at their peak voting strength right now. All us angry white guys born between 1945 and 1966. I was worrying about that this morning and looked at the polls again and said nahhh, I was just being paranoid.
You’ll notice, incidentally, that most of that crowd is baby boomers. We are the worst generation politically since the 1920’s. We voted Republican in most elections, and if not Republican we came close, even in 1968. It was us who dismantled the New Deal. Reagan and his people began it, but it was the baby boomers who went at it hammer and saw and destroyed it. The Tea Party was the most successful political movement the baby boomers ever came up with, and look what it wrought, the political equivalent of the Mongol invasions. The George W. Bush administration was the ultimate in the baby boomer political philosophy in action, such as it was. Thankfully most of us will be dead in a couple decades and the younger folks can rebuild what our parents built. We may have been lots of fun and made some of the greatest music of all time, but we sure fucked everything up. Not that you can tell us that, though. We have convinced ourselves that it was us and us alone who brought progressive values to America. But think of this. When our parents saw Barry Goldwater running for president, they turned him down in a landslide. They knew dangerous crazies when they saw them. When we saw George W Bush, we elected him.
And Trump? Well, this is who baby boomers vote for when they get old and cranky. He is us. Maybe not me and you, but most of us. Certainly most of us baby boomer men, white and a surprising number Hispanic. And the majority of Trump’s female followers were born between 1946 to 1964, inclusive. There are not only a helluva lot of us–we were the biggest American generation ever since before the First World War, proportionately, there were so many of us and we all had lots of siblings, unlike today–and we live longer and healthier than our parents did, but we vote far, far more conservatively than any other generation in our age group, ever. The Bernie voters never had a chance against our numbers and voting participation rate–and that was against only those of us who voted for Democrats this year. More of us voted for Republicans. And most of them voted for Trump. The only reason that Trump is in this race at all is because so many Baby Boomers love the guy to death. Hey, we are wild and crazy guys. By the time we got to Trumpstock we were half a million strong.
(Number crunching, Spring 2016)
We don’t often realize that Millennials are the smallest group of 18-30 years old in proportion to the population in American history. As a percentage of the population, there are about one-third to one-half less Millennials today than there were Baby Boomers when Baby Boomers were 18-30 years old (mostly in the 1970’s and ’80’s). Millennial numbers are offset further by the fact that people are living a decade longer than they did a generation ago. Basically there are a lot more old people alive–most of them Boomers–and a lot less young people replacing them. And the proportion of white Millennials is much lower than it was in the Boomer era, with both white and especially black birth numbers way down in between 1986-1998 (the black decline due in large part due to mass incarceration of males, but that’s another essay…). This takes on particular significance when you figure in the fact that Hispanic Millennials, who are expanding dramatically as a proportion of the total 18-30 population, vote considerably less than white Millennials (a third to a half less). This has major repercussions, because all the great progressive political movements in US history have been driven by a large youth voting population, yet that youth population now is the smallest it has ever been as a proportion of the voting population.
There had been an enormous under thirty population in the 1930’s–perhaps because of the decline in child mortality since the 19th century–and when those kids grew up there they created another under thirty population bubble that came of voting age in the late 1960’s through into the ’70’s. That bubble got a late start because the birth rate plummeted in the depths of the Depression and then recovered only slowly, only to plummet again when all the young men were mobilized for WW2. It was ironically those children, the Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 (peaking in 1957) who created the current drop in the birth rate by creating so few kids themselves. Our parents gave us our political dominance by having so many of us, and then we have maintained that dominance well into our dotage by not having enough kids.
As a result Millennial influence on the electorate already is watered down considerably compared to that of Baby Boomers. However, Boomers when they were 18-30 voted more conservatively than Millennials (Nixon and Reagan both won the 18-21 vote, in fact), so that more of the under 30 vote will vote left now than in, say, 1968, 1972 or 1980. Millennials are not splitting their votes anywhere near as much as Boomers did. But will they vote enough to offset the numbers of those thirty and up? So far, not so. They would have to have an 80% turnout to revolutionize the country. They are showing up about half that much. Not even Bernie Sanders can get them out in huge numbers. Kids under thirty just don’t vote much. Never have.
What 18-30 year old voter strength there is will continue to decline as the drop in the birth rate decline shows no sign of reversing. The trend will probably be exacerbated in a generation as immigration from Latin America continues its steady decline (which I’m sure is also due in large part to lower birth rates throughout nearly all Latin America except in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala). First generation immigrant residents here (that is, the children of immigrants born here; my father was first generation) typically have smaller families than their immigrant parents. Second generation families (my mother was second generation) are smaller still. Without an explosion in immigration into the United States like that in the 1980’s the U.S. population will begin heading toward zero population growth. (Japan has already been at negative population growth, Germany getting there.) That means more older people than younger people.
At some point in the not so distant future, grumpy middle aged Millennials will outnumber post-Millennials, and yet another generation will be outvoted by their parents and grandparents. But it will be their turn soon enough, because unless people decide to start having four and five kids again, this cycle of outvoted 18-30 years olds is locked in. This declining birth rate over generations has been the trend throughout the rest of the western world incidentally (indeed, birth rates are dropping through out most of the world outside of Africa and a few scattered Asia states such as the Philippines, also an exporter of its own people like Latin America once was). The US has been the exception to the birth rate decline only because we have so many immigrants (far more than any other western country). The notion that the youth will revolutionize the US political system by voting as a bloc–Bernie Sanders’ plan–will fade as there will be so many more older people voting than younger people. Elections will be decided by the elderly (with a voting rate of well over 70%) and the middle aged (with a voting rate of 50-60%, increasing with age). If Millennials (who vote at 30-40%) are able to change the balance this year and turn the country left, it will probably be the last time it ever happens. From now on elections will turn on those middle aged and elderly voters, and soon the over 60’s voters will decide elections until most of the Boomers, at long last, have gone on to that Woodstock in the Sky.
It’s important to remember that while there are more 18-30 year olds today in sheer numbers than there were 18-30 year old baby boomers, that the population of Millennials today is less in proportion to the voting population. It’s true that the nation’s population has grown considerably since, say, 1968. Nearly doubled. (And grown nearly three times since Baby Boomers began being made in the 1940’s.) But the birth rate has plunged since the days that Baby Boomers were born and as a result the population today has aged dramatically. Lowering the voting age to 18 was offset long ago by the increased lifespan, health and extended political involvement of the over sixties population. It is immigrants alone–the vast majority of them Latin American and Asian–who have kept the US from approaching zero population growth. Indeed it is due to immigrants that we have the highest birth rate of any industrialized country. But immigrants simply do not vote in the same numbers as non-immigrants, and even their children vote less than non-immigrant children. Those children once they are 18-30 cannot make up for the declining birth rate of the rest of the population 18-30. It takes two or three generations for that voting rate imbalance to work itself out.
But as immigration from Latin America tapers off as it has been doing steadily since the 1980’s, those immigrants’ children (first generation Americans, in the jargon) will eventually have a birth rate will of 2-3 children per mother, which will not offset the increased lifespans of Americans. Boomers can expect to live into their eighties. That enormous age bubble will offset the Millennials’ youthful political exuberance completely. It’s the Leisureworldization of America. By the time that Boomers have finally died off in enough numbers, Millennials will be in their forties, voting now in greater number as middle aged people do, but also turning away from the Left and turning towards the center in large numbers, as middle aged also people do. In the meantime we Baby Boomers maintain such a stranglehold on American culture that when our rock stars die Millennials mourn, something we never did for our parents’ big band heroes and crooners. We laughed.
This year Millennials backed their candidate for the Democratic nomination by up to 85%, yet they were still unable to beat the over forty voters. And those were just Democrats. Add Republicans into the mix and Millennial voting strength is diluted even more. While a strong Millennial turn out can provide a winning margin, there simply are not enough 18-30 year olds to control the issues. Most of Bernie Sanders’ issues have disappeared as Hillary and Trump battle for the middle ground where Boomers are vacillating. Had the young Boomers voted in a bloc like Millennials do now, they could have had some powerful influence. But Boomers didn’t. We split our vote, a few more of us voting Democrat than Republican. In large parts of the country Baby Boomers were the soldiers of the Reagan Revolution. You don’t see that with Millennials. They are far more to the left as a bloc than we were. But there are not enough of them. Nor will there ever will be. The baby boom is a long lived demographic bubble that in sheer numbers keeps Millennials from initiating the changes they so passionately desire. By the time we boomers die off most Millennials will have lost the fire and sunk into their comfy chairs. Some will even become ardent conservatives. Will they go as far to the right as so many Baby Boomers did? Unlikely, you don’t veer that far from your young roots and a lot more Millennials are off on the Left now than there ever were Boomers on the left. But most voters do change with age, even middle age, they get less fired up, less fond of rallies, more fond of moderation and cautiously incremental approaches. Mature they call it. Under thirty voters call it other things. Yet the same transformation will happen to Millennials in a decade or so. Perhaps then the generation following the Millennials, whatever we will call them, will pick up the banner. Though there is nothing saying they will be as far to the left as their Millennial parents. Kids, you know.
“The Bernie effect? A new poll shows young voters see a big role for government” says the Washington Post.
And yeah, they do, but they don’t vote. Voting rates don’t rise to a level where they actually have a fundamental impact on elections until after age 40, by which point people begin voting in numbers more than 50% (it goes up about ten percent every ten years of age). By that point they will not be as far to the left. They will be left, just not left like Bernie Sanders. Another thing that is not discussed is just how few Millennials there actually are, because America’s birth rate is the lowest it has ever been and will only continue to drop as the last big wave of immigration–from Mexico in the ’80’s and 90’s–age and their children have children at the same rate as everybody else. To make it worse, from a Millennial POV, is the fact that people live so much longer now, and remain healthy and active and voting into their 70’s and increasingly into their ’80’s. There is nothing even remotely as effective as AARP for the under thirty voters (and in fact, the Sanders campaign has been a flop at getting Millennials to vote in the 60%-80% numbers Bernie assumed he would be getting, and it wasn’t until later in the campaign that his numbers surpassed Obama’s in 2008.) This has made Baby Boomers–who were a huge demographic bubble, much larger than Millennials–uniquely dominant in that we are living so damn long, and voting the whole time. There are far more voting Boomers now than there are voting Millennials (I did the math…and if I remember right I think there are about 25 million more voters over forty-five than Bernie has voters under thirty.) Boomers are also the most conservative generation at least since the 1920’s, far more conservative than their parents, aka the Greatest Generation (seriously, that is the demographic term), and their kids, aka Gen Xers. (Millennials are Boomers’ grandkids). Baby Boomers voted for Reagan and both Bushes. (Indeed, while the majority of us boomers voted for neocon George W Bush, our parents rejected the original Goldwater in a landslide.) Being so conservative, despite our hippie mythology, Boomers will be a damper on the leftward trend of the country for the next twenty years. The country will finally get back to the neo-New Deal-type orientation (neo-New?) but it won’t be this year, or four years from now, or even eight years. It will be sixteen years from now at the earliest. More Boomers will be dead than alive by then. (The same way that more New Dealers were dead than alive when Reagan was elected.) In the meantime, we can expect moderate liberal Democrats and more looney Trump Republicans as our presidential nominees. Hillary and the Donald are likely the template until Millennials enter middle age.
Presidential elections are about issues, sure, but even more they are about shifting demographics and birth rates and death rates and life expectancy and the long sweep of history. Change comes, but it takes time, and a lot of old people have to die first, especially when birth rates have plummeted and the great waves of immigration have dried up. The reason for this is simple: people tend to vote the way they first voted, and will vote that way their entire lives, and will only stop voting that way when they stop breathing.