Were Baby Boomers the First Demographic Wave of Electoral Malaise?

by Aaron Jonas Stutz

When the first wave of baby boomers turned 18, it marked a turning point in American youth voter disaffection. But more on the baby boomers in a moment.

My previous post suggested that those of us who are both eligible to vote and actually vote in the United States … well, we aren’t talking seriously about who’s not voting and why it matters to all of us.

The Pew Center released survey results shortly before the November 4th elections, providing some helpful information about “non-voter demographics.” The Pew Center’s study is available here and I’ve embedded one of the report summary slides at right. The results overwhelmingly show that a large minority of American citizens who are struggling to make it economically, who feel alienated from community or economic institutional structures that the majority of citizens enjoy … well, that experience of everyday alienation translates into effective disenfranchisement. The economically marginalized tend not to vote.

Now, I’m certainly sympathetic with this general notion. Voting is a citizen’s civic responsibility. Mo matter how little the government–at any level, from local to Federal–seems to be doing for you. Even when you’re poor. Even when you’re socially marginalized from anything resembling the comfort and relative security of middle class society.

But I’m empathetic with many who have become so frustrated or jaded that they don’t bother paying attention to democratic elections. Alot of people have good reasons for being so frustrated. And we’re not talking about just a few disaffected people. In the 2010 midterm elections, a full 92 million voting-age Americans were not even registered. This was a historical low-point, according to US Census Bureau data, with a voter registration rate of less than 60%. It is in the interest of all voters in the United States to figure out what’s wrong with the democratic system that non-voters take such a large demographic share of the American population.

Importantly, the political opinions of non-voters are diverse. According to the Pew Center survey, the group as a whole tends not to be strongly conservative, and few (30%) identify with the Republican Party. Yet, it looks like most non-voters are moderate in their views on the role of government in helping the economic disadvantaged. Only half clearly identify with the Democratic Party. Thus, non-voters are not only more likely to be poor, but they more likely see themselves as politically independent.

But non-voters are also less likely to have a credit card, savings account, or retirement account. And they are much more likely to lack health insurance, receive government assistance, and have debts for which they lack means to pay off.

In other words, most non-voters don’t even try to participate in the democratic process, but that’s because many of them try and fail to achieve access to institutions supporting economically healthy consumption and investment.

This statistical, population-level connection between economic marginalization and non-voting raises the question about the connection between better economic inclusion and greater democratic participation. When we take a longer-term biocultural and demographic perspective, it becomes clear that the modern era of lower registration and voter turnout rates was strongly shaped by the post-World War II baby boomers beginning to enter the voting-age population in the mid-late 1960’s. Many of the young people then swelling the numbers of eligible voters … well, they didn’t rush out to register to vote.

Note the remarkable drop in registration rate (green dotted line, with two-year moving average) that occurs when the first annual cohorts of post-World War II baby boomers joins the US voting-age population (red dashed line).
Note the remarkable drop in registration rate (green dotted line, with two-year moving average) that occurs when the first annual cohorts of post-World War II baby boomers joins the US voting-age population (red dashed line).

The hippies were the electoral demographic canaries in the coal mine. Although many baby boomers eventually became more economically successful than their parents, it took more time, and it cost more–in time and interest payments, if not in health and sweat equity–to get there. And they eventually became likely voters. But in 1968 or 1970, getting involved in the political process when you’re part of a massive demographic cohort whose future prospects seemed highly uncertain–well, that was just as much a formula for favoring non-voting then as it is now. Today, of course, it’s not just young eligible voters. It’s all eligible voters under 50 who are especially unlikely to vote. Non-hispanic Blacks are relatively unlikely to vote. And perhaps most striking of all, Hispanics comprise 15% of the US population, but they make up 23% of the non-voters.

The cultural diversity of the economically marginalized likely non-voter reminds us that we compartmentalize media discussions of electoral demographics at our peril. To do so favors presenting cultural myths that valorize the technical successes that winning political campaigns achieve. They turn out their supporters to the polls, often while discouraging others. And at the same time, compartmentalizing our views of the non-voter among racial, ethnic, or age-cohort groups–well, that favors presenting very context-dependent, often contradictory pictures of who’s in and outside the body politic.

We have to consider the common thread of economic marginalization. But we also have to consider the stark differences in cultural discourse and power dynamics that race, immigration, and government (and government-backed) transfer payments variably shape. Especially for Blacks and Hispanics in relation to Whites. And for younger in relation to older citizens. Increasing participation in democracy and inclusion in the economy is about seriously tackling and reversing marginalization in all its forms.

And when we consider that young people today face poorer real-wage-earning prospects than did the first baby boomers entering the voting-age population in the 1960s, we should start working urgently toward building sustainable, inclusive economies, facilitated by highly participatory democratic government.

In the United States the factor that we could change to make the greatest difference remains education–providing citizens and residents with the tools, social networks, and knowledge needed to build and sustain their roles in the economy. And to give them the critical thinking and communication skills to participate democratically, making informed voting decisions.

The Pew Center data shows that while less than 42% of the voting-age population has had no more than a high school education, they comprise a significant majority of non-voters, at 54%. Because the decline in real wages is connected, in no small part, to an incipient but irreversible slowdown in worldwide population growth–yielding an aging 21st Century global community–we must depend on effectively, democratically crowd-sourcing solutions for economic growth and sustainability. And we will fail in that effort if 40% or more of the voting-age population continues to be economically alienated from joining in that crowd-sourcing effort.

The Economic Cycle Research Institute’s report “The Agony and the Ecstasy” notes that private business profits make up an unprecedented, large proportion of US gross domestic income … but so do transfer payments … both at the expense of employee compensation. Business owners and shareholders may be reaping historically high dividends from gross profits, but employees and the jobless alike are suffering from business success, which is in turn aided by monetary policy and lending/debt regulations increasing the money supply available for corporate investment. At the same time, falling real wages depress inflation in the wider economy, even leading to deflation in some settings. Altogether, the long-term decline in small-scale capital for individual investment in her connections to the economy–and especially for investment in family formation–favors non-voting behaviors.