The Republican Party lives off the largess of the welfare state’s worst enemies — and the votes of its primary beneficiaries. In 2016, Hillary Clinton trounced Donald Trump by more than 20 points with voters under 45. Absent the resilient Republicanism and superlative turnout rate of America’s seniors, the mogul would have lost the Electoral College in a landslide.
The president and his party become grown no less dependent on the outsize support of “gray America” in the years since. Trump’s disapproval rating among Americans under 35 hovers around 70 percent. Less than a third of millennials wanted Republicans to retain control of Congress last year. Meanwhile, in broader measures of generational opinion, both millennials and Gen-Zers evince higher levels of support for liberal ideological premises and policy proposals than any older cohorts. And these aberrantly socialist generations will represent a larger share of the electorate with each passing cycle; in 2018, millennial, Gen-Z, and Gen-X voters collectively cast more ballots than their elders for the first time ever in a midterm election.
Thus the GOP appears poised to grow increasingly reliant on the support of older voters, even as those voters grow evermore dependent on on social-welfare programs: In the coming decades, millions of younger boomers will age into eligibility for Medicare and Social Security, while millions of older ones will develop a need for long-term care. Whether the GOP can keep these graying boomers satisfied — while meeting its obligations to the anarcho-capitalist billionaires who are the party’s top shareholders (and the movement conservative ideologues who are its top functionaries) — may determine its electoral viability in 2020 and beyond.
To this point, the GOP has managed to finesse its internal contradictions by slow-walking its ambitions for Medicare and Social Security, portraying all other transfer programs as a threat to older Americans’ hard-earned benefits, and/or baldly lying about where the two parties actually stood on entitlements. In 2012, Paul Ryan excoriated the Obama administration for its (nonexistent) cuts to Medicare benefits. Four years later, Trump campaigned on a promise to oppose all cuts to entitlement spending. This mendacious messaging, combined with the Democratic Party’s own flirtations with “entitlement reform,” helped to decrease the salience of seniors’ favorite socialist programs in national elections.
Fortunately, the Democratic Party is no longer locked in a (figurative) ménage à trois with “Simpson and Bowles.” Now, instead of promising Grand Bargains on the deficit, or the mere maintenance of existing entitlements, Democrats are pushing to expand benefits for America’s seniors (which is the one proposal for welfare-state expansion that Republicans can’t paint as a threat to seniors’ benefits). All of the leading contenders for the party’s 2020 nomination have endorsed increasing Social Security benefits. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, have endorsed “universal long-term care” as part of their proposals for health-care reform. And last week, Pete Buttigieg unveiled his “Gray New Deal” — a package of new benefits for seniors that includes an expansion of Social Security, a “Public Option 401(k),” and a means-tested entitlement to long-term care.
The Democrats’ leftward lurch on socialism for seniors is right on the merits: Owing in part to gains in life expectancy among the elderly, an American turning 65 today has somewhere between a 50 and 70 percent chance of eventually requiring long-term support by the end of his or her life. And yet, the U.S. is nearly alone among wealthy nations in lacking a universal long-term-care benefit. What’s more, as James Medlock and Colin McAuliffe of Data for Progress note, the U.S. spends far less on long-term care (as a percentage of its GDP) than the vast majority of OECD countries.
If the federal government does not step in and provide more funding for home health-care workers and quality live-in facilities, then millions of older Americans will be at risk of spending their “golden years” in conditions of harrowing deprivation, while millions of younger Americans will see their own ambitions compromised by the burdens of caring for their elders.
But even if expanding social support for the elderly weren’t good policy, it would remain indispensably good politics. Increasing Social Security benefits and creating a new entitlement to long-term care are both overwhelmingly popular. In a recent survey, Tufts University and Data for Progress (DFP) told respondents, “Some Democrats have proposed spending $120 billion per year to provide seniors with comprehensive long-term-care benefits through Medicare” and that this policy would require raising payroll taxes by 1.5 percent and that Republicans say “American workers are already taxed too much and that increasing government spending is irresponsible.” The pollsters then asked respondents whether they supported the proposal. Remarkably, despite the explicit partisan framing and Republican counterargument, 60 percent of registered voters endorsed the proposal, while only 27 opposed it. What’s more, support for the plan was higher among boomers than among younger generations.
Support for expanding Social Security is even broader. A separate DFP poll of Warren’s plan for increasing Social Security benefits (by raising taxes on the rich) found 76 percent of respondents endorsing the idea, including 67 percent of Republican voters. Finally, a variety of proposals for aggressive government intervention to bring down pharmaceutical prices command supermajority support.
Conservatives have no politically viable rationale for rejecting these ideas. But they also have no ideological room to maneuver. Trump has tried his best to triangulate on prescription drugs. But Senate Republicans won’t let him. As Politico reported Sunday, most of McConnell’s caucus is refusing to embrace Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley’s milquetoast prescription-drug bill, on the grounds that some of its provisions amount to “government price controls.” In the estimation of the median Republican senator, conservatives are duty-bound to oppose “federal intervention when it comes to the cost of prescription drugs.” Such objections might have resonance at a meeting of the Federalist Society. But there simply is no mass constituency that takes more offense at the abstract concept of “price controls” than they do at price-gouging drug companies. (And, of course, Republicans do not actually oppose “federal intervention” in the prescription drug market; the high prices of prescription drugs in the U.S. derive from the unusual generosity of our nation’s government-granted patent monopolies, which GOP lawmakers are fighting tooth and nail to protect.)
The GOP’s helplessness in the face of a “Gray New Deal” is further confirmed by the Wall Street Journal editorial board’s takedown of Pete Buttigieg’s version of that agenda. The paper lambastes Mayor Pete for trying to buy seniors’ votes and warns its readers that his plan would require raising taxes on “all high-income” Americans “from $250,000 to infinity.” This attack line may play well with the 2 percent of the voting-eligible public that earns more than a quarter-million dollars a year. But it’s unlikely to strike a chord with the median elderly voter.
America is in dire need of a wide variety of progressive reforms. And there are strong arguments against prioritizing new benefits for seniors over action on climate change or health care or voting rights, when and if Democrats retake the White House and Senate. But before worrying about exactly how they should wield power, progressives will first need to win it. And in both the primary and general elections, left-wing candidates have both an urgent need to increase their support among seniors and more to offer those voters than any of their rivals. Americans who cannot support themselves on market income — and are in acute need for affordable drugs and medical service — have no better friend than the progressive movement and no worse enemy than the Republican Party. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren should do everything they can to make older Democratic primary voters see that. And next fall, the Democratic Party should do everything in its power to make the 2020 election into a referendum on a “Gray New Deal.”