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America’s Gray Election

How will the elderly influence future elections in the United States and the developing world?

November 9, 2000

How will the elderly influence future elections in the United States and the developing world?

There have been plenty of jokes about the late Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan winning a seat in the U.S. Senate over a living contender. The best was a comment by Scott Simon, the host of Weekend Edition on National Public Radio, who observed that since dead people have been voting in Chicago for years, it’s about time they got some real representation.

No doubt in weeks to come there will be plenty of comments about how a dead person could win an election in the United States. Yet, it isn’t the dead who really hijacked this year’s elections. It is the dying — or, to be more precise, the aging.

Both Vice President Al Gore and Governor George W. Bush were obsessed with focus groups and opinion polls, fitting their election platforms and the main issues to voters’ whims.

And their strategy emerged directly from a truth long known from demographic tables. Namely, that the U.S. electorate is aging dramatically and that the elderly are the fastest growing group of the population. Persons over 65 now make up 13% of the U.S. population, up by one third from 1970.

Moreover, at a time when political apathy has become endemic among persons under 30, the elderly take their civic responsibilities seriously, and are among the most active voters. They are also quite well off, thanks in a large measure to Social Security, Medicare and a host of other programs geared toward retirees at the federal and local level. The combination of money and voting numbers has been irresistible: the American Association of Retired Persons is one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington.

Not surprisingly, the two major party candidates talked mainly about issues that are of greatest concern to the elderly. Little was said about U.S. foreign policy at a time when the country has become the world’s only superpower in charge of enforcing Pax Americana on the globe. There was almost nothing about America’s technological leadership, except how to spend the surpluses that will accrue to the federal budget as a result of the technological revolution.

Instead, we have heard plenty about saving Social Security (without reducing benefits to current recipients, of course) and about a potentially open-ended federal government exposure of providing prescription drug coverage for seniors.

The campaign therefore found an appropriate climax in the cliffhanger in Florida. The state has the nation’s highest proportion of seniors, at 18%. But this is only the beginning. Peter G. Peterson, the former Commerce Secretary, estimates in his book, “Gray Dawn,” that by 2020 the entire country will have the same proportion of seniors as Florida does today, and by 2038 a whopping 34% of the electorate will be over 65. And, if current voter participation trends persist, seniors will make up more than half of actual voters.

Something for the rest of the world to just gawk at? Hardly. In all of the developed countries, the portion of older people is growing fast. The European countries are already headed that way, with Italy — the Florida of Europe — about to reach the Florida’s demographics in just three years. And Japan’s portion of over-65s will hit Florida’s level in 2005.

This suggests that the developed world will increasingly find their politics dominated by issues relating to their aging populations. Ambitious office-seekers from around the world might do worse than study the 2000 U.S. election campaign for tips on how to succeed.

Campaign 2000 is likely to go down in history as the first of many to be decided by the seniors. George W. Bush, anointed in Florida as the next President of the United States, will be the most powerful man on earth. In this respect, he will be the heir to the Roman Emperor. Florida voters have acclaimed him like the gladiators used to greet the Roman emperor: “Ave imperator, morituri te salutant” — Hail, Emperor, the dying salute you.