Cultural Crossroads: The Young People Voting Block
Democrats and progressives make the mistake of thinking that today's Social Security debate is about Social Security. It's not. It's about creating single party rule for a generation or more. To do that, Republicans believe they need only to grab the hearts and minds of the generation currently under 30, and they can do that, win or lose, by properly framing the Social Security debate.
According to exit poll data from the Associated Press, under-30 voters were up more than nine percent in voter participation in 2004, bringing 4.6 million new young people into the polls just since 2000. And, as Martha Irvine of the Associated Press noted in an article in USA Today the week after the 2004 election, "This time, young voters were the only group that favored Democrat Kerry. The AP's exit polls found that under-30s favored Kerry over Bush, 55% to 44%…."
This was not lost on Republicans. As Irvine noted in her AP article, even safe-seat Republican U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa designed an entire ad campaign "targeting young people." And many among this young demographic — the first generation in over 200 years raised in schools largely unable to teach civics and American history both because of budget cuts and fear of claims of "liberal bias" from conservative fanatics — are politically naïve and ripe for the picking.
Those under 30 don't remember — or, largely, even know — that the leading causes of death among the elderly, the widowed, and the disabled after the Republican stock market crash of 1929 included starvation and hypothermia. Before Roosevelt instituted Social Security in 1935, the majority of America's elderly lived in poverty. Today it's 11.9 percent, but take away Social Security and today's elderly poverty rate would be 47.6 percent. These are statistics that the Republicans and their corporate media will not be sharing with people under 30. Thus, as David King of Harvard's Institute of Politics told the AP's Irvine of the young vote: "I think that young people are there for the taking…." Stalin's year for the final consolidation of single-party rule in Russia was 1927, and that rule lasted over fifty years. American conservatives intend their year of final consolidation to be 2006, and are planning for a similar fifty-year horizon.
So Republicans and their NLP [Neuro Linguistic Programming] expert Frank Luntz had to figure out what issue could bring young people into the fold. Gay bashing was out, as young people are the most gay-tolerant of all demographic groups. Ditto for other "social" issues like the death penalty, abortion, and government posting of "Thou shall have no other gods before me" at taxpayer expense.
Similarly, young people weren't likely to easily fall for Republican spin on "Clear Skies" efforts to increase pollution, phony "science" denying global climate change, "Healthy Forests" giveaways to timber company contributors, and "free trade" policies that are hollowing out America's middle class. Cons may be able to spin these issues for the already-conservative 30-55 Reagan/Limbaugh demographic, but not for young people. And elderly Democrats, who still clearly remember how Roosevelt's policies lifted America out of Republican Herbert Hoover's Great Depression, are a group whose minds Republicans won't change, and who are dying off.
Young people are where the political hay is to be made: Republicans believe they are the necessary key to single party rule. So the tacticians at the RNC developed an elaborate — and, so far, very successful — sleight of hand. They'd use a dubious Social Security crisis to convince young people that:
- Republicans want young people to get the best “return” on their Social Security tax dollar investment.
- Democrats don't care about the interests of young people, but only want to pander to old people to get their votes.
- Selfish old people, their special interest lobby the AARP, and the Democrats they "own" will prevent young people from getting the benefits of the free market.
All of this, of course, ignores a series of realities:
- Social Security is an anti-poverty insurance program, not an investment program. A third of its payments don't even go to retirees but, instead, are distributed to widows, orphans, and people so crippled or disabled that they can't work. (And people who outlive actuarial averages often get more back than they paid in.)
- The "iceberg" Social Security will hit is based on very slow/low growth assumptions of the American economy (a continuation of the Bush recession for 75 years). But if the economy grows over the next 75 years at exactly the same rate it has for the past 75 — even including the years of the Great Depression — there will be no Social Security shortfall whatsoever.
- The high return assumptions for private accounts assume the American economy will grow so fast that if they're met, there would be no need for any Social Security reform whatsoever.
- Even if Social Security does run low on cash in 2042 or 2052 (depending on which arm of Congress you're listening to), private accounts won't add a single penny to that cash-flow problem. In fact, the borrowing necessary to fund the first generation's private accounts will throw the system even further in the red.
But the real Republican agenda here has little to do with Social Security. It's really all about capturing the only demographic that voted as a block against Bush in 2004, to establish a future fifty years of Republican single-party rule. This is why it's so critical for Bush to carefully control who's allowed into his conversations about Social Security around the country. It's why the former Swift Boat folks are running such openly deceptive ads. It's why our tax dollars are illegally being used to push propaganda on young Americans about Social Security, propaganda that's even being repeated on youth-friendly venues like “The Daily Show.” And it's why otherwise rational and even usually honest Republicans are "supporting the President" on this issue.
And, most important, it's why Bush won't put forward a program to solve the funding problems that Social Security may or may not face 30 or 40 years from now, but instead simply talks about the problem, and how he wants young people to get a better return and have greater control over their Social Security "investment." It's why he most likely will never put forth a comprehensive program. It'll conveniently be declared "dead in the water" because of Democratic opposition even before it comes out.
And, thus, win or lose, Bush and the Republicans will psychologically win big with the under-30 demographic. In fact, studies show Republicans may have already accomplished much of their goal. Even though there is no official Bush plan for Social Security, USA Today reported on February 16, 2005: "Support for Bush's plan is highest among the under-30 crowd, the only age group in which backers outnumber doubters."
Republicans will say over and over that they valiantly tried to help young people get a better return on their taxes, but the Democrats and those terrible old people prevented them. They'll say they tried to solve a crisis and a problem, and reform an antiquated Social Security system, but were outmaneuvered by evil Democrats, liberals and greedy old people. The Right Wing Noise Machine (so well documented by David Brock) will repeat this mantra so hard and so often that today's young people will be able to recite it from memory for the next fifty years.
Divide and conquer has been the slogan of the Bush dynasty ever since Poppy first used television advertising to mentally merge Michael Dukakis with a black killer, pitting whites against blacks in America. It worked then, and Republicans are betting that pitting young people against the elderly will work just as magically now. Since the rise of Coors' and Scaife's Heritage Foundation, Rev. Moon's Washington Times, Newt and his Machiavelli Frank Luntz, Murdoch's “Fox News,” and Lee Atwater's Reagan/Bush perpetual campaign, Republicans have been playing chess, planning a dozen moves and three to four election cycles ahead. They plan to win big among under-30's in their long-term electoral chess game, even as they set it up to appear to lose at short-term Social Security checkers.
If they succeed — and they're already halfway there — single-party corporate/Republican rule could be a reality for the next generation (especially if they maintain control of electronic voting machines) and generations beyond. This outcome will foul our environment, further decimate our remaining middle class, and lead us into a brave new world of perpetual oil and religious wars maintained by a brutal and intrusive corporate/police state. Progressive Democrats must immediately develop and implement a strategic, multi-step response to the Republican Social Security gambit, carefully targeted to the under-30 demographic, if Jefferson's party and the Enlightenment ideals of our democracy are to survive.
Thom Hartmann is a Project Censored Award-winning best-selling author, NLP trainer, and host of a nationally syndicated daily progressive talk show. His most recent books are The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, Unequal Protection and What Would Jefferson Do? Visit http://www.thomhartmann.com. Originally published on Monday, March 21, 2005 by CommonDreams.org.