Why Are Older Voters More Conservative?

Older voters always vote. (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

In Toronto, Canada — just across the American border — citizens there and across the province head to the polls on June 7 and may well elect an orange-haired populist who promises to lower taxes. As in the election of the original version south of the border, polls and general wisdom say he will lose to a left-wing woman.

But just as I predicted that Donald Trump might win the American election, I worry that Doug Ford will win the Ontario election, and for the same reason: older people and baby boomers turn out to vote in far greater numbers than young people, and older people are more conservative.

But why are they more conservative? A new study from the United States suggests that it's because the older white dudes live to an older age whereas the poor tend to die younger. Javier M. Rodriguez and Cristian Capotescu write in the Washington Post:

Research has shown that the haves have different political positions from the have-nots. By living longer and healthier lives, the haves have more opportunity to influence the politicians who craft the policies and programs that distribute public goods and services. Meanwhile, because low socioeconomic status leads people to be sicker and to die earlier, poor Americans have far less chance of shaping political life — or of pursuing the policies that would help improve their health and lengthen their lives, such as improvements in health care, education, child care, neighborhood safety, nutrition, working conditions and so forth.

Essentially, because poorer voters die younger, "wealthier Americans are therefore overrepresented in the middle to older age brackets of society." Of course there are many other reasons poor people are under-represented in voting. There are issues with voter registration, which make it harder for them to vote, and gerrymandering, which make their votes less effective. But is the death of poor people at a younger age the biggest factor, the biggest source of the conservative electoral power of older voters?

I'm not convinced. Older people, including the demographic bulge that is the baby boomers, control most of the assets in North America and (forgive me for generalizing) they don't like taxes, don't worry much about climate change or other things way down the road. They are not sociopaths, but they do like things the way they are. The study authors also give away the game in their conclusion:

... political participation in the U.S. is more skewed toward the rich than in countries with lower inequality (such as Australia, Canada, Germany, the Scandinavian nations or Japan), where fewer people die prematurely because their governments provide better health care for the poor.
Doug Ford
Doug Ford is leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario. (Photo: Wikipedia/ Bruce Reeve)

Meanwhile, I'm writing from Ontario, where we might well get a crazy unqualified orange-haired populist as premier of the largest economy in the country. We don't have much gerrymandering or voter suppression, because elections are run by an independent commission. People don't die young here simply because they can't afford a doctor. Populism is on the rise all over the world, including European countries, which have lower levels of inequality, with excellent health care and housing for everyone.

Ed Kilgour, writing in New York Magazine, suggests that older people are disproportionately conservative because they have "time-tested views, assets they want to protect, and a growing fear of the unknown and unfamiliar." In Ontario, Ford might win because people actively dislike the current gay woman premier, or because they love Ford's pitch that he will lower taxes (which are higher here to pay for all that health care), lower gasoline prices and bring back beer for a buck a bottle. Or all of the above.

The poor in the U.S. may die young and skew the vote a bit to the older and richer, but there are so many other factors. But the big one is self-interest, looking out for number one, me and my own. It's the way it has always been.

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