I have a confession to make. When I was a teenager learning for the first time about the political system, I made a sweeping judgment about the demographics of liberals and conservatives. Specifically, I assumed that conservatives were as old as my World War Two army vet grandfather. And conversely, liberals were younger generations.
I was a teen who wanted equality for all, wrote my high school thesis on the Civil Rights Movement, and couldn’t bring myself to believe in a God that would allow people to be stoned to death in the old times for being gay. I just naturally assumed that no elderly person wanted to vote in the direction that leaned toward these progressive ideals.
As a young woman, I genuinely thought that the older people get, the more they sink their teeth into their already conservative beliefs or the more right-leaning they become as the years go by. This made sense in my mind, due to the vast majority of conservative voters I met as a youth being a lot older than me. And I must add, they were also very, very white.
So, you can imagine my complete surprise when I came across a study shared by the Washington Post that has proved my half-baked theory wrong. The folks at Post discovered it’s not that people are becoming more conservative as they age so much as it is that poor people and marginalized folks are dying prematurely.
Let that one sink in for a little bit. Because yeah, it’s totally fucked up.
We all know how easy it is to find images of diverse, millennial Bernie fans openly splashed across the internet, while an abhorrent amount of older, privileged white dudes can be found publicly donning those dumb ass MAGA caps. What’s much harder to grasp is the infuriating reason why we don’t see the older generation largely voting left.
“We found that low socioeconomic status was directly linked to bad health, which in turn led to premature death. All of that reduced poor Americans’ ability to engage in political life,” Javier M. Rodriguez and Cristian Capotescu reveal about their study in the Washington Post.
Rodriguez and Capotescu measured how often various groups of people engaged in politics through activities like volunteering for political campaigns and giving donations. What they found was that political participation was largely determined by how wealthy and healthy those groups were. Over forty million poor Americans who have the least amount of education have had their life expectancy all but diminish by the time they reach middle age. It’s at this very point when most citizens reach what the study team calls their “participatory peak” in society.
“If these health disparities among Americans were evened out to prevent the premature mortality of the poor, we could see a significant rise in overall participation in the U.S. For instance, turnout in presidential elections could increase from the current 55 percent to well over 70 percent,” they share.
If that doesn’t make you want to flip a goddamn table, I don’t know what will. Well, maybe this next part has the potential to.
“The U.S. has the highest rates of poverty and wealth inequality among the world’s wealthiest countries, such as Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom. At the same time, it has lower rates of economic mobility than Spain,” the Washington Post reports. “In terms of health, the U.S. has the highest infant mortality rate among developed countries as well as the lowest life expectancy overall.”
This basically means that the social groups who could potentially fight for policies to help improve their own chances of survival are dying at higher rates than their wealthier counterparts. In other words, we’re looking at a ginormous gap between the rich and poor that is royally clogging up our country’s political system and ultimately favoring – surprise, surprise –profits over people.
And now for the kicker.
Since white people are less likely to experience poverty than nonwhite people, they tend to live in better physical health and, accordingly, be politically active for a longer period of time. African Americans, for example, have been proven to be our country’s most progressive demographic, but a 2017 CDC study showed that potential black voters in the 18- to 64-year-old category were at a higher risk of early death than their white peers.
“Health differences are often due to economic and social conditions that are more common among African Americans than whites. For example, African American adults are more likely to report they cannot see a doctor because of cost,” the CDC study explains.
Any way you slice it, we are looking at grave socioeconomic disparities that are keeping us from collectively creating national policies that honor all our citizens, instead of a privileged few. Which means we can no longer jump to the conclusion that the elderly in this country are too set in their ways to make room for progressive thinking. And goddammit, how long is it going to take before we realize, regardless of our political affiliation, that access to affordable healthcare is a basic human right?
I want so badly to go back in time and check my younger self’s privilege for trusting the dangerous lie I put way too much stock in. The fact is, far too many Americans are dying before they have the opportunity to make their very necessary voice be heard. And the more we can own this harsh truth about the state of our nation, the better our chances are for finally improving it.