Is it time to call the next election “the most important in American history”? Probably. It seems like it may involve a judgment on democracy itself. Americans with a lot of history will play a key role in determining its outcome.
And judging in part by November’s midterms, they may not play the role that older voters are usually assigned. We at Third Act, the group we helped form in 2021, think older Americans are beginning a turn in the progressive direction, a turn that will accelerate as time goes on.
A lot has been written about the impact of young voters in November’s contests, and rightly so. The enormous margins that Democrats ran up among voters under 30 let them squeak through in race after race. Progressives should be incredibly grateful that the next generation can see straight through Trumpism in a way too many of their elders can’t.
But there were also intriguing hints of what looked like a gray countercurrent that helped damp the expected red wave. Yes, older people by and large voted Republican, in keeping with what political scientists have long insisted: that we become more conservative as we age. But in the 63 most competitive congressional districts, the places where big money was spent on ads and where the margin in the House was decided, polling by AARP, an advocacy group for people over 50, found some fascinating numbers.
In early summer, Republicans had a sturdy lead among older voters in 50 of those districts, up 50 percent to 40 percent. Those had Republicans salivating. But on Election Day, voters over 65 actually broke for Democrats in those districts, 49 to 46.
That doesn’t surprise us at Third Act. We’re nonpartisan, but we’ve learned that demographic is far less settled than people sometimes suppose.
Some of the issues that benefited Democrats are obvious, of course. Republican messaging included calls for weakening Social Security and Medicare even though most older beneficiaries rely on Social Security for most of their income, and for an estimated 40 percent it’s all their retirement income. The cruelty of toying with people’s life support systems is matched only by its political foolishness. Among voters 65 and over, Social Security and Medicare were among the top concerns.
But something else happened, too. When the Supreme Court tossed out Roe v. Wade in early summer, most of the pictures were of young women protesting, appropriately, since it’s their lives that will be turned upside down. But people we know in their 60s and 70s felt a real psychic upheaval: A woman’s right to choose had been part of their mental furniture for five decades. And they’ve lived their entire lives in what they had imagined was a stable and working democracy.
The top concern to voters 65 and over, especially women, was “threats to democracy,” according to AARP. And exit polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that among women 50 and older, the court’s decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion had a major impact on which candidate they supported. Sixty-six percent of Black women said so, as did 61 percent of Hispanic women and 48 percent of white women. Voters who said the Supreme Court’s abortion decision was the single most important factor in their vote supported Democrats two to one.
Some of our members helped organize access to abortion before Roe was decided in 1973; they don’t want to go back. And it’s not only abortion: The Supreme Court also took on the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We helped win these fights once, turning out by the tens of millions to oppose the war in Vietnam or for the first Earth Day. And we can help win them again — we have the muscle memory of what organizing on a big scale feels like.
Hundreds of us from around the country converged on Nevada in the days before the midterm vote, because we determined — correctly, as it turned out — that it might be the place where control of the Senate would be decided. We may walk a tad slower door to door, but in this case slow and steady helped to win the race.
With the election past, Third Act is now digging into work on climate change — in particular targeting the big American banks (JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Bank of America) that are also the biggest lenders to the fossil fuel industry. On March 21 we’ll be cutting up bank credit cards and picketing bank branches across the country. We know that young people have been in the lead in this fight, because they’ll have to live with the world we’re creating. But as long as we’re still here, we’ll have to live with the knowledge of what we’re leaving behind, so we want to change it while we still can.
We recognize that this will require a sustained effort beyond the next election and the election after that. Numerous analysts and demographers do believe that coming demographic changes in the United States will generally favor Democrats. But complications abound. Partisan gerrymandering continues to favor Republicans, for instance, and at least five states that generally vote Democratic have each lost a seat from their congressional delegations.
But here’s the thing. Many of us are going to be here for quite a while. Ten thousand Americans turn 60 every day, and on average we’ll live an additional 23 years. The last of the baby boomers will be 65 or older in 2030. Youth voters, moreover, are youth voters for only about a decade. One guarantee for 2024: We’ll vote in huge numbers, as we always do. One possibility is that we’ll help turn back the clock a little, toward the world we actually built in our youth.
We’re not your parents’ grandparents.
Bill McKibben is the founder of Third Act, helped found the climate advocacy group 350.org and is the author of the memoir “The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon.” Akaya Windwood is the lead adviser for Third Act and a co-author of “Leading With Joy.”
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