Making Things Happen

Political activism among seniors

Last fall, World War II veteran Lawrence Lader '41 and several octogenarian Harvard classmates marched in uniform in front of the White House to protest the possibility of war in Iraq. It was one of countless political stands Lader has taken since his days as a Crimson editor—when he rallied opposition to American intervention in the "European war"—and throughout his subsequent 40-year career as a leader in the abortion-rights movement. "I've marched in every parade you can think of," he said in an interview from his Manhattan home. "And I'm still marching." Lader is a founding member of the National Abortion Rights Action League and president of Abortion Rights Mobilization. His most recent book, Ideas Triumphant: Strategies for Social Change and Progress, was published this year.

Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, A.M. '45, founder and president of the pro-family Eagle Forum, also has a new book out, entitled Feminist Fantasies. "Politics has been a lifelong hobby," she explains. "All the older people I work with started out in politics a long time ago, and have grown old with me. But political activism is a great thing for older people who have time on their hands and care about the future of our country." Personally, she has found life in a political vortex stimulating. "It's important work," she says.

Lader and Schlafly are examples of that politically potent group of older people who are educated, active, and actively courted by politicians. Americans aged 65 to 70 have the highest voting rate in the country, followed by those over 75, and, in third place by a slim margin, the "younger older" people, aged 50 to 64, reports Kevin Donnellan, director of grass roots and elections at AARP. "People's interest in politics and legislation increases with age," he says. "Once people are retired, they're generally living off pensions and Social Security and they have different healthcare coverage than they had when they were working. Financial security is a big driver for getting involved, because people realize how much the whole political process impacts the ability they have to lead the kind of life they want."

Many people also feel an increased sense of civic duty as they grow older, along with a desire to leave a legacy. Former Lexington, Massachusetts, selectman Dan H. Fenn Jr. '44, A.M. '72, spent much of his career working in local and federal politics (from Lexington's Town Hall to the Kennedy White House) and teaching government, which he still does; he retired in 1986 as founding director of the Kennedy Library. "All of us would like recognition. We'd like people 15 or 20 years from now to remember that the reason something took place was because we did it, we made it happen," says Fenn, who received the 2003 Keeper of the Flame Award from the American Society of Public Administration in March. But life in politics, he concedes, is "a hard process, personally and professionally. You may have a strategy for what you want, but politics involves human beings and human attitudes and feelings, so projects rarely work out exactly as you had planned." He occasionally wonders, "Why didn't I do something sensible with my life, like sell shoes?"

Better educated and wealthier elders are much more likely to be more politically active than other seniors. (The exception comes in the case of Social Security, which draws more lower-income elder activists who are more dependent on government income. The poorest quintile relies on Social Security for 80 percent of their income, compared to the richest elders, for whom the program supplies only 18 percent of their total income.) Political action is not limited to casting ballots on election day, social scientists say. In her 2000 book, Targeting Senior Voters, Florida political scientist Susan A. MacManus writes, "Older people...write letters, lobby, protest, and are not shy about calling on their connections when they want attention paid to their needs."

Elders are still the group most likely to identify themselves as members of a specific political party and to vote a complete partisan ballot (though that is changing), as compared to younger voters, who are more likely to vote as independents. Older people are also much more likely than younger people to get their information from a diverse range of news outlets, to contribute to campaigns and think tanks, and to volunteer their time for political work. "They are the backbone of activism," says MacManus, a professor at the University of South Florida, Tampa. "You go to any city council meeting, and it's not going to be the younger people there unless the municipality is planning to do something horrible in their neighborhood." Politicians are increasingly savvy about mobilizing older people, who are contacted at a significantly higher rate than are younger voters.

This is a relatively new phenomenon. Elders historically were among the poorest, most politically disenfranchised group in America, reports Harvard assistant professor of government Andrea Louise Campbell '88. In the early twentieth century, men generally worked as long as they could, then relied on family care or charities for food and shelter; women were equally dependent. In her recently published book, How Policies Make Citizens: Senior Political Activism and the American Welfare State, Campbell argues that Social Security (enacted in 1935, but not widely distributed until the 1950s) dramatically altered elders' political status. "Social Security enabled this group to become the political powerhouse that they are today," she says. "It gave seniors resources—free time and money—because it enabled them to retire, with a pension. Social Security also had the effect of increasing their interest in politics, because they get such a large share of income from the government." Finally, the program helped define seniors as a politically relevant group. "Social Security takes this otherwise disparate group," she says, "and lends them a new political identity, creating a group that is ripe for political mobilization by interest groups and political parties."

These days the "FDR generation"—long presumed to vote Democratic—is giving way to a more diversely partisan political body fractured by varying levels of income and education, as well as by gender and minority status. "There is also a younger generation of seniors who were socialized post-FDR, and who, if they have higher incomes, are more likely to vote Republican"—especially if they are male, Campbell says. Politically, senior citizens—taken as a whole—are similar in profile to white women, in that they are a swing group with diverse interests and voting patterns. In the 1996 presidential election, she says, seniors accounted for 26 percent of all people who voted for Clinton, and 23 percent of the coalition for Dole—and so they are "a group in play for both major parties." Higher incomes among many elders, MacManus notes, have also changed "the political focus on things like economic security: it used to be a monolithic issue, but that is not so much the case anymore"—especially for women who have worked. "The younger older women have had better employment and better investments of their own than in the past," she says. "They also had more education than their parents, which makes their politics more varied than would have been true in the formative days of the AARP. These are the major reasons why the elder population as a whole is no longer this monolithic community."

Kevin Donnellan, who monitors political participation on issues promoted by AARP, says seniors are now focusing less on political parties and candidates and more on specific issues. "What they are looking for is, 'Which of these candidates are looking at the long-term solvency of Social Security?' and 'Where do they stand on prescription drugs?'" Age discrimination is also gathering steam as an issue, he says, because many more older people—especially baby boomers—are staying in the workforce longer than they used to.

Just what effect the aging baby boomers will have on political demographics and rates of activism among elders is hard to tell, both Campbell and Donnellan say. Growing up, boomers may have become more accustomed to engaging in activism outside the ballot box and traditional party affiliation. But, at the same time, many of them are now taking care of elderly parents, and thus are keenly aware of the impact of traditional elder issues like Social Security, pension reform, and Medicare. "We do know that when [baby boomers] become seniors themselves, they will not have saved money at the same rate as their parents," Campbell notes. "Even though they made more money, they have spent it all, so they may be more sympathetic to secure government funding. Affluent baby boomers [with IRAs and other nongovernmental savings plans], however, will probably continue to support Social Security privatization, as they do now."

Donnellan has been surprised by the high rate of political participation among 50- to 64-year-olds, especially when mobilized by AARP on issues like prescription medication. "If those numbers continue," he asserts, "that younger group will be as politically active, if not more active, than their parents were." Phyllis Schlafly, however, reports that she has found young adults, and those in their 30s and 40s, to be more inclined toward privatization because they "do not see government as the solution to the problems they face....They do not have the expectation of enjoying Social Security in the way seniors do today because of the financial difficulties of Social Security—with the money running out."

Dan Fenn makes the point that the very way in which generational political activism plays out, especially in local communities, has changed dramatically during the last four decades. Voting rates alone cannot measure rates of activism. "We have found, since the 1960s, different routes to accomplishing things," he says. "In the old days, if you wanted to do something about the high-school curriculum, you'd join the PTA and/or work for some school-board candidates and talk to successful candidates about the issue. Now, you bypass all that and you organize: you find friends and neighbors, and get candles and hold vigils and sign petitions and march and chant and run around putting the heat on the superintendent and the school committee. People have just found different ways to participate. There is a huge difference in people's sense of empowerment."

Younger and older citizens may also find that they have more in common than they think, and that perceived demographic divisions are not accurate—or politically effective. Robert H. Binstock '56, Ph.D. '65, professor of aging, health, and society at Case Western Reserve University, takes issue with ubiquitous myths about older people, such as the idea that seniors vote against referendums to increase property taxes to help schools, or that they vote in self-interested blocs. "You have to throw in all the other people who do not have children in the school system," he says. "The assumption is that they only care about their own needs, yet the real-estate value of a house is greatly enhanced by the quality of the local school system"—and that is a major concern among older people, who may need to liquidate assets.

"In general elections, [older people] distribute their votes among candidates in about the same proportion as younger segments of the electorate," he adds. "Older people are heterogenous politically just like everyone else"—although some surprising trends can sometimes emerge. In the 1998 congressional elections, for example, older women voted for Republicans in much higher numbers than usual, and in higher numbers than younger women. "Why?" he asks. "What was going on at that time? It was Monica Lewinsky. And if you imagine who, of all the groups in the electorate, might be the most outraged by this, it might be the older women."

Simmering political issues for seniors include long-term-care insurance, which affects both elders and their families, the privatization of Social Security, and Medicare. Republican congresswoman Nancy Johnson '57, who chairs the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health, which has direct jurisdiction over Medicare, calls the program "a family issue." "Seniors put pressure on their elected officials regarding Medicare—but so do younger people who see that it is important," says the Connecticut representative. "Seniors are keenly aware of the importance of access to medical care, and they want the latest medicine and treatment, but they are also conscious of the cost of healthcare, and what it means to the future, and to their grandchildren."

Her own political career stems from volunteer work for the PTA and other community projects; she first won her House seat in 1982. In reflecting on what older people bring to politics, she cites life experience. Growing older in the Beltway has helped her appreciate the political process all the more. "To be a good politician, you have to listen carefully to understand what a community needs, and what you can offer to assist them," she says. "And then you get to watch this community shape its own future. The more experienced you are, the longer you're in government, the more you can assist."

What is it that has focused the interests and talents of lifelong political activists like Lader, Schlafly, and Fenn? Lader calls himself "a street fighter who likes to take an idea from A to Z and win good causes." Schlafly is drawn to "the challenge of it—it's a battle, always a battle, and there's controversy, and political conflict, and I enjoy that—I guess for the same reasons that people like sports." For Fenn, it is the thrill of "making something thread your way through the process, whether it be a big thing or a little thing, and think, 'That was good. Things are better than they were before.'" In the end, it doesn't really matter what age group is more or less politically active. "Who the hell knows?" he asks. "The real question is 'How can we encourage more involvement, more understanding of the process, and more participation among young and old people?' Obviously, in politics, the more people involved, the better."

All three activists strongly encourage the involvement of older people in, as Fenn calls it, the "much-maligned" but noble business of government. "It's more fun—and more stimulating—to be a player than to sit on the bench."        

Read more articles by: Nell Porter Brown

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