Growing up, I was taught to honor my elders, to acknowledge that their experience made them wiser in the ways of the world. For this reason, I internally cringe when I write the words, “Old white people need to die.” It seems callous and disrespectful rather than what it is – a fair and reasonable analysis of the demographics in the recent elections in Alabama.
In Alabama, 74% of the voters for Roy Moore – a homophobic, racist, misogynist accused of sexually assaulting and harassing multiple teenage girls – were 45 or older. Since 92% of Moore supporters were white, we can safely conclude that a majority of older white people in Alabama either approved of or did not object to Mr. Moore’s opinions or actions. In addition, we know from the exit polls that the older a white person was, the more likely they were to vote for Moore. While only 36% of white people younger than 45 voted for Moore, nearly 60% of those older than 65 supported Moore. This may explain the recently popular sweatshirts emblazoned with “F*ck Your Racist Grandma.”
White grandpas and grandmas are a big part of the problem in America. This shouldn’t surprise us. A person who is seventy years old today was born in 1947. This means they spent their most formative years growing up in a nation where black people were second class citizens, homosexuality was an abomination and women were considered the weaker sex. While they may have reluctantly acquiesced to the cultural changes around them, this doesn’t mean their perspectives and prejudices have significantly changed. Indeed, with age comes nostalgia.
I see this dynamic in my own father, a progressive liberal in his 70s. In these past few years, he has spent countless hours and thousands of dollars seeking and buying the cars he drove as a teenager. While I find his obsession odd, I am increasingly thankful that his nostalgia is for the trappings of the past and not its values. This is obviously not the case with many older white people in Alabama. Roy Moore stated America was greatest during the days of slavery and they voted for him. Donald Trump ran his whole campaign on a nostalgic theme of “Make America Great Again.” The subtext of “Make America Like It Was During Your Childhood” was especially appealing to older white people.
This is not to say there aren’t millennials with racist and misogynist opinions. Most of the white supremacist marchers at Charlottesville were 45 or younger. However, demographically, they are a decreasing minority. Without old white people, Donald Trump would not have been elected and Roy Moore would not have come so close to being a US Senator. While education and dialogue are important ingredients in shifting our culture away from its bigoted past, the chief contributor to social change in the next 25 years will be funerals. Those white people born before the Civil Rights movement need to die.
We also need to stop electing old white people. Regardless of whether Trump or Clinton had won the election, the United States would have had its oldest elected president – an old white person. Nostalgia aside, this is not a positive trend. While cognitive decline begins at about the age of 45, we know that this deterioration accelerates after the age of 60. I’ve seen this in my father and recognized the beginnings of this in myself. I am not as sharp and creative as I once was. I am more forgetful and less flexible. You should not elect me to political office.
Unfortunately, in a society that can medically extend life span, we’ve enabled older people to remain in power and influence even when their mental capacities are in serious decline. We’ve created a society where people who grew up using typewriters and who struggle to navigate e-mail are being asked to make important decisions about net neutrality and cyberwarfare. This should frighten us. Regardless of what you think of Donald Trump today, you can rest assured that his mental faculties are not going to improve over the next three years.
Here is our dilemma. Right now in America, the vast majority of the wealth, voting power and political influence in the United States is in the hands of old white people who grew up in day when “colored” people drank from a different water fountain, when being gay was a crime and men were the “head of the household.” Though some of these old white people are committed to creating a different and better world for their children and grandchildren, many are not. They are only capable of looking backward. Until they die, they are a drag on the progress of our nation.
I say all of this aware that I may be accused of ageism. So let me end with this clarification. It is time to redefine what it means to honor our parents and grandparents. We do not honor them by allowing their past prejudices and cultural calculations to persevere. We honor them most by learning from their mistakes, honestly recognizing their limitations and building positively on the world they created. And, for some of them, perhaps we honor them by refusing to drive them to the polls. If there is age before which you should not vote, there should probably be an upper limit as well.
While I wish Roy Moore had lost the election in Alabama by a much larger margin, the demographics of the election give me hope. In 25 years, the people of Alabama may not vote like the people of California, but I expect they will no longer consider someone like Roy Moore as an acceptable candidate. Those of his ilk and era will have died. A younger generation, exposed to a vast, vibrant and divergent world through the internet, will gradually take power. Raised in a multicultural nation, they will make America greater than it has ever been.