Seniors: A Lesson in Democracy

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In about a month, millions of Americans will go to the polls and exercise their democratic right to vote. Voter turnout has been steadily increasing since 1996, which saw the lowest turnout ever in a presidential election year. If the recent primary elections are any indication, voter participation should continue along this upward trend in 2016. With an increasing population of elderly in the United States, along with a traditionally high turnout rate among this group, we can expect more senior citizens than ever to vote this coming November.

The role of seniors in this year’s election is worth pondering for a couple of reasons. First of all, in a close election, every vote counts. When a certain demographic participates at a higher rate than any other, it tends to carry relatively more political clout. When either candidate addresses an issue that is important to America’s elders, such as Social Security and Medicare, it is an effort to reach out and appeal to a group that can be relied upon to actually translate support into votes. Yet this does not mean that all seniors vote the same way and thus decide elections. People do not suddenly abandon their lifelong political philosophies and vote in lockstep just because they have reached a certain advanced age. The senior vote is quite diverse, and statistics from past elections actually confirm that presidential voting preferences among the elderly do not differ much from those of the general population.

The more salient point of this discussion, in my opinion, is the importance of civic participation. In the 2003 book, How Policies Make Citizens: Senior Political Activism and the American Welfare State, by Andrea Louise Campbell, makes the case that the political activity of senior citizens is a great model of a healthy democracy. Using Social Security as a central issue, Campbell shows how voting and policy outcomes become a mutually reinforcing cycle among elders. Through campaign donations, letter writing, and voting, senior citizens have been able to defeat numerous efforts to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits. Beneficial policy outcomes then serve as proof that the democratic process really is responsive, thus reinforcing the importance of political activity. In this way, senior citizens have been able to defend their hard-earned and well-deserved benefits from some very powerful corporate lobbies over the years.

The lesson for the rest of us is that democracy can work. When politicians know that their actual bosses (their constituents), are paying attention, keeping them accountable, and exercising their patriotic right to vote, they will listen. If we only spent less time watching American Idol, and spent more time learning about the issues that matter most to us as a nation, we would have a government that actually works for and responds to “We, the people.” In this, as in so many other things, we would be wise to follow the example of our elders.

This article was written by Kryspin Turczynski for Alameda Senior Magazine, reprinted with permission.

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