Anti-Trump movement can’t take seniors’ vote for granted
Senior voters listen as President Barack Obama discussed the Affordable Care Act at a national tele-town hall meeting at the Holiday Park Multipurpose Senior Center in Wheaton, Md., June 8, 2010. | Pete Souza / White House

CARSON, Calif.—Seniors vote. Seniors, vote! This is more than a lesson about punctuation. It’s about the future of our country. As State Senator Steven Bradford recently told a Carson gathering of almost 100 members of the California Alliance for Retired Americans (CARA), “You guys are the high propensity voters.”

Seniors are America’s most consistent voters in election after election. It could be just habit, imbibed early in life from earnest civics teachers in our public schools. It could be that maturity lends a certain gravitas to the process as with each turn of the electoral wheel, ever more critical issues face our nation. Seniors have seen enough races decided by a fraction of a percentage point to convince them of the importance of their showing up at the polls or mailing in their absentee ballot. And seniors have seen whole classes of American citizens disenfranchised. To them, the vote is a sacred right and duty that people have died for.

And then, too, it could be that seniors have living memory of their grandparents and parents being “too poor to live” without Social Security and Medicare, the two foundational programs that keep seniors (and others) alive and well. They know that those programs relieve the next generation from becoming financially and emotionally overburdened, for the young ’uns have issues of their own to deal with, like substandard healthcare coverage, student and consumer debt, out of sight housing, and the so-called “gig economy” which has turned so many workers out of well paying union jobs into the precarious freefall marketplace.

U.S. Rep. Nanette Barragán, from California’s 44th Congressional District, speaking from Washington via prerecorded video, shared the fact that her own mom, 76, relies on Social Security and Medicare. That’s a good part of the reason why the representative (and candidate for re-election) endorses Medicare for All and calls it “a basic human right.”

Dave Campbell, 69, secretary-treasurer of United Steel Workers Local 675, in whose headquarters CARA met on Sept. 17, greeted his guests, saying, “Policy does not change unless there’s a mass movement to change it.”

Seniors are standing strong in that mass movement. There’s a lot at stake.

But before we get too sanguine about the senior vote, and expect too much from it, we need to remind ourselves, as AARP analyzed it soon after the 2016 election, “Nearly half (45 percent) of the electorate this year was 50 or older. 50-64-year-olds comprised 30 percent, while voters 65 and older made up 15 percent. Nationally, Donald Trump took 53 percent of the 50-plus vote, compared with Hillary Clinton’s 44 percent. There wasn’t a significant difference in voting patterns between voters ages 50-64 and those 65-plus.”

Election Day voting at Baltimore’s Waxter Senior Center, Tuesday, November 8, 2016. | Elvert Barnes / Creative Commons

Those numbers do not apply equally across the board taking race and ethnicity into account. Still, seniors overall are susceptible to some of the same faux populist siren songs as the rest of the nation. It’s a sober reminder that the senior vote must still be actively courted; it cannot be taken for granted.

Sixty-one percent of citizens 65 and older voted in 2016. By contrast, just 37 percent of those ages 25-44 voted; and not even a quarter—21 percent—of citizens ages 18-24 got themselves to the polls.

Politicians on the right have often appealed fearfully to their base by saying Candidate X is “just trying to push the Black agenda,” or Candidate Y “the gay agenda,” etc. When you actually look at what Candidates X and Y are advocating, it’s always the same thing: safe streets, excellent public schools, a fair-minded government and justice system, good jobs, decent, affordable housing, progress toward providing the highest quality medical care to everyone, keeping the country out of unnecessary, unprovoked wars, a secure retirement after a lifetime of work, and above all, an end to discrimination of all kinds.

These “agendas,” in other words, are simply the recipe for a well run society in which all can take their dignified place. The “senior agenda” is essentially no different, but with this additional factor: What seniors are able to achieve for their generation now will also be there for their children and grandchildren to count on and build upon in the future.

Two years of disaster

From a senior point of view, the last two years have been no less a disaster than they have been to everyone else. Even if Donald Trump is able to bargain for somewhat more favorable trade terms for the United States in the administration’s negotiations with Canada, Mexico, China, the European Union, and other nations, those benefits will accrue to the One Percent. Working people and seniors will see little to cheer about as commodity prices rise and cost-of-living increases will be ruled out.

Domestically, the Trump/GOP agenda has served to the detriment of most people. How has he hurt us? With a nod to blogger David L. Smith, let us count the ways: Deregulating and easing environmental and worker safety standards; weakening Dodd-Frank, opening the economy up to exactly the kinds of financial practices that gave us the Great Recession of 2008; demoting the authority of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, allowing for greater unscrupulous abuses; re-privatization of prisons (meaning that people of color will be disproportionately affected); appointing corporate-cozy, Federalist Society-approved judges to our courts; deporting immigrants en masse and caging their children; hacking away at the Affordable Care Act, raising premiums and lowering coverage for many; increasing the disparity between public and private education, permanently giving favor to the rich; opening up our national parks to commercial exploitation; pushing polluting fossil fuels and discouraging renewable energy sources, thus increasing global warming and catastrophic weather; tax “reform” that was just a massive giveaway to Trump’s fellow elite—the resulting deficit from which has provided an excuse to cut Social Security, Medicare, and other threads in the social safety net; and pumping up the military, defunding FEMA and many social programs.

From a senior point of view, the last two years have been no less a disaster than they have been to everyone else.

All but the super-rich will be negatively affected by these GOP-corporate policies for which Donald Trump serves as figurehead. If Republicans continue in power, and also consolidate their ideology—which by now verges on the fascistic—in the Supreme Court, a new economic and political meltdown can be anticipated.

Returning to Smith: “Beyond economics, I’m appalled by Trump’s divisiveness, mendacity, misogyny, immorality, and pathological narcissism; the trashing of norms of civility and presidential decorum and mores; the drift to autocracy; the abuse of presidential power in attacking the press and political opponents; the encouragement given to white supremacism, racism, xenophobia, and attacks on LGBTQ rights; the inadequate response to the devastation of Puerto Rico; the separation of immigrant children from their parents; the termination of the DACA program; the hard line on drug enforcement and sentencing; the inaction on gun control; the appointment of hard-right judges; the voter suppression and gerrymandering perpetuating undemocratic Republican minority rule; the undermining of women’s right to privacy and choice; the White House’s deliberate inaction on cyber-interference in the electoral process and cyber-warfare generally by the Russians and other state actors; the blurring of the line of separation between church and state; the threats to our alliances and cozying up to dictators; the acquiescence to Putin’s agenda; the attacks on DoJ, FBI, and the Mueller investigation; the lowly and base character of individuals appointed to high office and position in the Trump administration and campaign; the spinelessness of Republicans in Congress in failing to restrain Trump’s worst instincts.”

Two more years?

If the GOP holds the Congress after November, what does it have in store for seniors? The two main concerns are Social Security and healthcare.

Republicans want to increase the retirement age. The average lifespan has lengthened in the years since Social Security was established, but for many workers employed in dangerous and strenuous jobs, and for those who have not enjoyed access to optimal healthcare all their lives, life expectancy has barely budged for decades. Members of “despised” groups statistically die up to a decade or more earlier than other Americans. Raising the retirement age will mean millions of workers dying before they ever get a chance to retire, or enjoying retirement for a very brief time before they pass on.

Another issue is the Republican plan to institute the chained Consumer Price Index (CPI), which would, according to the Alliance for Retired Americans (ARA), “result in a benefit cut—which compounded would equal roughly 3 percent after 10 years, about 6 percent after 20 years, and close to 9 percent after 30 years.”

And then there’s the payroll tax cap. “Right now,” says the ARA, “a billionaire pays the same amount of money in payroll taxes as someone making $128,400 a year. That’s not right. If we scrap the payroll tax cap, we can make Social Security solvent for the next 75 years.” The extremely wealthy in America complete their annual Social Security payroll payments literally in the first few hours of the year.

Finally, Social Security should be expanded, not cut: Cost of living adjustments should be made annually, and a minimum benefit should be introduced to reduce senior poverty.

As for Medicare, ARA says, “Congress should reject proposals that could cut Medicare funding by turning it into a voucher program: It takes away your guaranteed Medicare benefits and replaces them with a limited stipend with which to purchase insurance in the private marketplace or stay on traditional Medicare. The benefits would not keep up with medical inflation, and every year, seniors would pay more and more money out-of-pocket.”

In addition, Congress should reject proposals to raise the eligibility age for Medicare. If anything, Medicare should be expanded to cover everyone of all ages. And Congress should finally enact the Medicare drug rebate program and negotiate, as the largest single healthcare insurance provider, for lower drug prices.

Top Ten votes in Congress

Not every Democratic candidate seeking to replace a Republican in Congress, in state houses, on school boards, etc., is going to resemble New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Boston’s Ayanna Pressley in their progressive views on almost every topic. This one may be cautious on advancing too fast toward Medicare for All. That one may sound a little too trigger-happy when it comes to foreign military adventures. And the other may be a charter schools supporter. Many of them are going to be too timid right now to speak up for Palestinian national rights. We all have our particular concerns, but we cannot be single-issue voters.

Senior voters—like all voters—have to become ever better educated strategic voters, the way families compromise for a win-win over household priorities or where to vacation this year, or the way unions bargain for workers’ rights knowing they won’t necessarily wind up with every one of their demands written into the contract.

Speaking personally (and as a senior), I am a modest donor to numerous advocacy groups and charitable organizations. Even if my donations are small, I feel it is important to be counted as a supporter to bolster their lobbying power. Every year, from several of them—environmental, feminist, LGBTQ, human rights, civil rights, church-state, foreign policy, etc.—I receive a Congressional scorecard: How did our representatives and senators vote on our Top Ten issues? And there it is, spread out across several pages: Democrats in the House and the Senate voting with us 90-100 percent of the time, and Republicans voting with us 0-20 percent at best. It couldn’t be clearer.

For the legislative year 2017, the national Alliance for Retired Americans released such a Congressional Voting Record. The ARA’s Top Ten issues in the House were the following: Retirement Rule Repeal, Association Health Plans, Health Care Repeal, Fiduciary Rule Repeal, Medical Malpractice Limit, Anti-Retiree Budget I, Anti-Retiree Budget II, Medicare Means-Testing, End Medical Deductions, and Skewed Tax Cuts. On each of these bills put forth by the GOP the recommended ARA position was No.

Let me cite a few examples: Connecticut, where I was born, has five representatives, all Democrats. Each one of them scored 100 percent. By contrast, similar size states of Arkansas and Utah, with four representatives each, all Republicans: Their score, a unanimous 0 percent.

An AARP rally to defend Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. | AARP

In several states, representation reflects the polarization of our politics, varying wildly, largely because of gerrymandering and voter suppression. The big cities are Democratic, the rest of the state Republican. Indiana, for instance: Out of nine representatives, two are Democrats, and they each voted 100 percent with ARA; every single one of the other seven, Republicans, voted 0 percent. Same with Louisiana’s six House members: One Democrat at 100 percent, five Republicans at 0 percent.

Even in a big state such as California, where I live, the priorities are highly divided, showing how much or how little elected officials feel they have to accommodate to their constituencies. It’s almost unanimously straight party line: Out of 53 House members, 14 are in the GOP: One of them scored 10 percent, and two scored 20 percent, meaning that out of 140 votes (14 Reps. x 10 issues), California’s GOP voted against senior interests 135 times. By contrast, among the 39 Democrats, three came in at 90 percent, and one at 89 (he had missed voting on all ten), and all the rest at 100.

These are just examples, but across the board that’s the general picture: The GOP is not with the “senior agenda.”

Pennsylvania is a true swing state, so we see slightly more flexibility in its representatives’ voting: All five of its Democrats voted 100 percent with ARA, and among the 13 Republicans there are three at 30 percent, one at 20 percent, and one at 11 (he had also missed one of the ten votes).

In the Senate, the Top Ten votes were on different pieces of legislation affecting seniors, but the same pattern holds: In Florida, the Democrat Bill Nelson scores 100, while Republican Marco Rubio gives his Sunbelt seniors a big goose egg.

These are just examples, but across the board that’s the general picture: The GOP is not with the “senior agenda.” The other “agenda”-oriented scorecards from other organizations will show the same thing. I might mention a rare anomaly in Republican Walter Jones Jr. of North Carolina’s 3rd C.D., who is generally a centrist in his party, but on the ARA scorecard rates a 70 for this year (his lifetime score is only 36, which is still far above the single-digit lifetime scores of all the other Republicans).

It’s not realistic to think we’ll agree with every position of every Democrat. But on balance, once in the majority, the valence will change. The GOP-Trump agenda will be forced to slow down or grind to a halt. Maybe not on every single issue, but on most; and there will be some lame duck executive orders we will be powerless to prevent from being issued. The stage will be set for the next round of victory, and the next and the next.

Between now and Tuesday, November 6 our work is cut out for us: By every means at our disposal, to put a dent in the Republican juggernaut, to disable it. It means explaining over and over again how vile and harmful Trump’s agenda is to ourselves and our children’s children.

For further information on the Alliance for Retired Americans, see their website. ARA has affiliates in almost every state.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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