An Old Party Getting Ever Older

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Daniel Larison points out that young people still hate the Republican Party, which owes its recent resurgence almost entirely to a huge shift in voting preference among senior citizens. Ross Douthat correctly reads the tea leaves but doesn’t go far enough:

These figures should make small-government conservatives a lot more nervous than they make partisan Republicans. After all, you can win an awful lot of elections just by mobilizing the over-65 constituency — they’re well-informed, they turn out to vote, and there are more of them every day. But the easiest way to do it, as the Democrats proved for years and years and years, is to defend Medicare and Social Security.

….If the Republican Party depends too heavily on over-65 voters for its political viability, we could easily end up with a straightforwardly big-government party in the Democrats, and a G.O.P. that wins election by being “small government” on the small stuff (earmarks, etc.) while refusing to even consider entitlement reform. That’s a recipe for one of two things: Either the highest taxes in American history and a federal government that climbs inexorably toward 30 percent of G.D.P., or a Greece or California-style disaster.

This goes a long was toward explaining the recent Republican U-turn on Medicare and Social Security spending. Defending every last dime allocated to Medicare was, of course, a tactical move designed over the summer to gin up opposition to Democratic healthcare reform measures. But beyond that, it was also a metamorphosis that was almost inevitable. The 20-something generation has been trending Democratic so strongly for the past decade that Republicans have no choice anymore but to cater to seniors, the same way that the rise of the Christian right gave them no choice but to cater to religious fundamentalism. And catering to seniors means, above all else, defending Social Security and Medicare.

In the long run, contra Ross, this is a disaster not just for small-government conservatives but for the GOP as well. Their earlier embrace of social fundamentalism was largely responsible for driving away young voters in the first place, and now, left only with a core of middle-aged and elderly voters that they need to keep loyal, they’re likely to pursue policies that push the young even further away. This might produce occasional victories, but no political party can survive this kind of vicious cycle in the long run. Having long since alienated blacks, Hispanics, and virtually the entire Northeast, Republicans can hardly afford to permanently lose young voters as well. The white South and the elderly just aren’t enough to sustain a national party.

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