Politics

In the post-Watergate era of the 1980s and 1990s, many Americans became cynical about the motives and abilities of elected officials to do anything other than argue and beg for contributions to support their next campaign for public office. Politicians were seen as dishonest, corrupt, and self-promoting individuals, more concerned with their own egos and the exercise of power than with doing anything constructive to help the citizenry of this country.

Disinterest born of cynicism and lack of information about the functioning of government and its officials are found particularly among young adults, who vote in smaller numbers and are less familiar with political candidates and issues than middle-aged and older adults (Oreskes, 1990). The percentage of people who report voting in national elections increases dramatically from ages 25-34 to ages 35-44, then more slowly up to the 65- to 74-year-old bracket, after which it declines. The great majority of Americans over age 65 vote in presidential elections, constituting a larger voting bloc than any other age group (U.S. Senate Committee on Aging, 1991).

Regardless of the greater political interest shown by older adults, disenchantment with public officeholders and the activities of government has not been limited to the young. The growing alienation of the public at large is seen in the decreased voter turnout in all age groups.

Traditionally, older adults have devoted more attention than their younger contemporaries to political campaigns and have tended to demonstrate greater interest in political news (Jacobs, 1990). Older adults tend to spend more time listening to, reading about, and discussing politics than other age groups, perhaps because they have more free time in which to do so. Another factor affecting the greater political interest and activities of older adults is upbringing: Today's older adults grew up during a time of less personal wealth and greater concern about national survival—concerns about which the federal government, in particular, was expected to do something. Another reason why older adults are ostensibly more political is that they have reached a stage in life in which they are less apt to generate new wealth, and they must focus on ways to preserve and conserve what they have already acquired. Because of declining strength and abilities, older adults may also feel more vulnerable and insecure than they did in earlier years, and they expect government to help protect and support them when they are no longer able to do so by themselves.

The fact that older people tend to vote in larger numbers than younger ones is well known to most politicians, as indicated by the extreme caution exercised by Congress in tinkering with Social Security, Medicare, and other government programs for older Americans. Because of the wide range of individual differences within the 65-and-over age group, no politician has ever been able to deliver what has been called "the old-folks vote." Older adults are not a homogeneous group; they reflect the diversity of social and political interests of society as a whole. This very diversity and the fact that, unlike industrial workers or students, they do not meet as a group, act as barriers to unified political participation. Poor health and disabilities, in addition to the fact that there is no formal organization within the major political parties to represent the interests of older people, also limit their political participation as a group (Bond & Coleman, 1990).

The perception of younger adults as more politically liberal and of older adults as more politically conservative is true to some extent. In general, older adults have more conservative political views and are more likely than younger and middle-aged adults to support Republican candidates and issues. On the whole, they are more conservative on domestic economic and social issues and more "hawkish" on foreign policy. But when their own rights and living conditions are at stake, normally conservative older Americans typically adopt a more liberal position.

There is no evidence that people become more conservative as they grow older (Alwin, Cohen, & Newcomb, 1991; Jacobs, 1990). In fact, some polling data show that a greater percentage of older adults than younger adults identify themselves as Democrats (Stanley & Niemi, 1990). Many of today's young adults are far to the right, whereas many older adults are just as far to the left in a political sense. The relationship between political conservatism and chronological age appears to be largely a cohort or generational effect, in that there is a strong tendency for people to retain the same political orientation as they age.

Other demographic variables related to the frequency of voter turnout are gender, race/ethnicity, income, and location of residence. For example, greater percentages of men and whites than women and blacks report voting in national elections. But the gender gap is narrowing. Although older adult men are more likely to vote than older adult women, young adult women are more likely to vote than young adult men. In addition, people with higher incomes are more likely to vote than those with lower incomes, and residents of urban areas are more likely to vote than those who live in rural areas. Perhaps even more important than age, gender, and race in determining voter turnout is education: People in higher educational levels tend to vote in greater percentages than those in lower educational levels (U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, 1991; Wolfinger &Rosenstone, 1980). As in the case of age, however, the magnitudes of these differences are affected by the extent to which the candidates and the issues in a particular election are of interest and concern to the specific demographic group.

As indicated by voter turnout, race and gender are often more important than age in determining voter preference. For example, the most striking differences in Figure 11-5 are those between men and women and between blacks and whites in the percentage af the particular group voting for Bill Clinton in the 1996 presidential election. Among different age groups of men and women, there was a slight tendency for greater percentages of voters in the 18-29 year group than those in the other three age groups to favor Clinton,

Women

Blacks

Whites

Total

Women

Blacks

! 1

• - i-v«« if .Ss,?f sî . .

t«®!WSS8SS#5

Total

20 40 60

Percent Voting for Clinton

Figure 11-5 Percentages of votes within gender and ethnic groups received by Clinton in the 1996 presidential election. (Based on data published in the New York Times, November 10, 1996.)

20 40 60

Percent Voting for Clinton

Figure 11-5 Percentages of votes within gender and ethnic groups received by Clinton in the 1996 presidential election. (Based on data published in the New York Times, November 10, 1996.)

the Democratic candidate. However, age differences were not nearly as great as gender (men vs. women) or race (black vs. white) differences. Over 80% of black voters in all age groups, compared with less than 45% of white voters, voted for Clinton. Similarly, over 50% of women voters in all age groups, compared with only slightly more than 40% of men voters, voted for Clinton.

Even more than most other professional occupations, politics is an art form that must be cultivated over many years. It is not an occupation that one can, with any great hope of success, enter late in life. There are, of course, many politicians in the 65-and-over bracket, and, in fact, a disproportionate number of older adults are found in certain public offices. For example, most governors and senators are well along in years (Hudson & Strate, 1985). However, the great majority of these individuals have been in politics most of their adult lives and have learned the art of influence by trial and error combined with personal charisma.

Though most older Americans are not political officeholders, they can and do support the efforts of such organizations as the American Association of Retired Persons, the American Society on Aging, the National Council on Aging, and other advocacy groups for the elderly. These organizations lobby for social services and programs for older adults, primarily adequate income, health care, housing, nutrition, and transportation. Political focus on the growing federal deficit in recent years has led to a reduction in federal support for such programs, and to a great extent the action has shifted to the state and local levels. In communities throughout the nation, public and private organizations (Golden Age, Live Long and Like It clubs, etc.) concerned with the needs and rights of older Americans have continued their activities.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment