May 29, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Just Say It. Baby Boomers Oppose Democracy
The history of the baby boomers is a history of a federal government providing what young people can only dream of.
I fasted, politically speaking, for most of the Memorial Day weekend. But I managed to catch sight of the latest President Trump outrage. Not only had the administration decided to seize children from mothers and fathers crossing illegally the US-Mexican border. It has lost track of approximately 1,500 kids* (see clarification below).
There has been and will be more to say about this in moral terms. I will leave moral judgments to others. I want to address the political dimensions of a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement gone mad with rabies. Why?
It’s not enough to say this is wrong, though it is. It’s not enough to say this is immoral, though it is. Morality and politics overlap, as they do in this case, but they are not one and the same. Politics is about power: who uses it, when, why, where and how. If we are to devise a political response—one more constructive than the popular #AbolishICE movement—we need to understand what it means for a state granted the legitimate authority by the consent of the governed to take a mother’s baby.
We can get rid of ICE and even this president, but the problem won’t end there. This administration is merely implementing the will of the people who elected him. These voters may disagree on the details. I’m guessing most dislike the idea of tearing families apart. But the policy’s broader goals are in keeping with the Trump electorate’s. As Noah Berlatsky wrote: “when intolerant white people fear democracy may benefit marginalized people, they abandon their commitment to democracy.”
The Washington Monthly’s inestimable Nancy LeTourneau added this gloss to Berlatsky: “There are people in this country who would embrace authoritarianism as the vehicle for getting back to the ‘good old days’ when the democratic franchise wasn’t so expansive. The Republican Party has been pandering to those folks since at least the days of Nixon’s Southern Strategy. The presidency of Donald Trump has allowed them to come out of the shadows and into the spotlight.”
Racism isn’t only treating human beings as less than human. It’s also an anti-democratic political theory that justifies taking away rights and liberties as concretely as ICE agents took away babies. Yes, slavers founded the country, so no surprise fascist elements remain to this day. But the US was also founded on the promise of equality. Anti-racists have as much right to a claim on government action as racists do. The question is how to defeat them, a question requiring a political answer.
That’s why we must name the opposition. Fascism. Authoritarianism. These and other terms help define the challenges ahead. But they don’t draw a picture of who we are fighting. We need a word to describe the those granting this administration the legitimate authority to take babies (not to mention ignore 4,600 American deaths in Puerto Rico, more than the sum of all victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks).
That word is gerontocracy.
It’s a mouthful, alas, but consider this from Paul Taylor: “In the 12 presidential elections we Boomers have voted in, from Richard Nixon’s victory in 1972 through Trump’s last year, how often did a majority support the Democratic candidate?”
The surprise answer? Once. Jimmy Carter, in 1976. Bill Clinton won pluralities but not majorities of Boomers in 1992 and 1996; otherwise, the GOP candidate has always carried the Boomer vote or held even (1972, 2008).
Taylor doesn’t use “gerontocracy,” but that’s what he’s talking about: the rule of the old white baby boomers. He’s hopeful white boomers will redeem themselves. I don’t share that hope. Taylor asks: “In our remaining years, will we continue to support fiscal policies that mug a future America whose population no longer looks like us?” Harsh as it may sound, but yeah, I don’t see any reason why that won’t be the case.
The entire apparatus of the government is shaped to serve baby boomers at the expense of all others. When they needed education, the government provided. When they needed jobs, it provided. When they demanded tax cuts, it provided. Now, when they need unlimited health care for their unprecedented life spans, the government, again, is providing. The history of the baby boomers is a history of a government providing what younger Americans can only dream of. As Taylor wrote:
On our watch, the federal government has steadily scaled back on spending that favors the future—from education to infrastructure to basic research. Half a century ago, as the first wave of Boomers entered the job market, the Feds spent $3 on such investments for every $1 on entitlements. That ratio has slowly and steadily flipped. It’s now $3 to $1 the other way, and by the time all Boomers retire, it will be $5 on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid for every $1 on investments. Some of this is the result of the aging of the huge Boomer generation, but much of it stems from a shift in priorities away from investments and toward a more robust safety net for older adults.
The Republican Party is banking on baby boomers to bail them out. Four years ago, that would have been called outdated. Now, it;s a solid bet on the likelihood of retirees voting for their self-interests and against America’s promise of democracy for all.
CLARIFICATION: True, the administration is taking children away from parents. True, the government lost track of 1,500 children. But I conflated the two facts. The 1,500 kids were from a 2014 wave of unaccompanied minors arriving in the states from Central America. These are not the same children now being taken from parents.
I regret the error.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.