Modern era of longer lifespans exposes fatal flaw of democracy: the need to disenfranchise the old

When the US constitution first written, the qualifications for voting were based on the fact that all men were created equal.   Over the centuries, there were numerous changes to the voting rights in order to better define the word “men”.  Over time, we eliminated distinction of property rights, sex, race, and age.  The more controversial changes at the involved the extensions of voting rights to women and to non-whites.   Today, we accept the interpretation of equality of all men to mean the equality of all adults.

The distinction for age was originally tied to property ownership.   At first, the requirement for voting was based on possession of a clear title of property of sufficient extent.   This implied a lower age limit to those who have reached the age of majority in order to have the legal right to enter contracts.   In practice, the lower age limit was older because of the time needed to accumulate wealth to pay for such property.   After eliminating the requirement to own property (a requirement more appropriate for rural areas than for cities), there was a need to explicitly define a lower age limit for voting.  Eventually, we agreed on a universal definition of a minimum age of 18 to be able to vote.   This is probably not much different than the typical age of people first able to vote in the early 19th century.

Just as the original definition of voting qualifications did not explicitly identify a lower age limit, it did not identify an upper age limit.   Certainly there were old people in the early 19th century.  They would have the right to vote if they owned property, but for health or stamina reasons they may not have voted in large numbers.   During most of the 19th century the median age of the population was under or near 20 due to high birthrates and low life expectancy. Through the 19th century, voters under the age of 40 probably decided most election because there were far fewer older voters.

Democracy survived well because the demographically decided elections matched the demographic with the energy and enthusiasm to defend the consequences of the elections.    In earlier posts (starting with this post), I argued that a democracy must be able survive rebellions by a minority by being muster a super-majority consent to put down the rebellion.   Surviving a rebellion requires a population that can decisively fight back.  To be effective in maintaining the government, there must be a sizable population of younger people on the side of consenting to continued government by the majority.   These younger adults will be the ones who will defend the government.

When it comes to fighting, older people are outmatched by younger people.  Even when they are equally armed (such as the use of fire arms), the younger people will tend to fight with more enthusiasm and less thoughts of caution.  Younger people are less restrained by considerations of their preserving their wealth and obligations.   Certainly, there will be exceptions.  Some older people, especially those who are themselves veterans, may be able to be a match to the less experienced younger group, but eventually they’ll become casualties and the remaining population of older people will be no match to the younger people.   In an imagined battle between equal numbers of older people (say, for example, people over 40) and younger people, the younger people will prevail.

To survive, a democracy needs to have overwhelming appeal to young people.   To put down a rebellion of young people, the established government needs access to sufficient numbers of motivated young people who will outmatch the rebelling population.

This was not a problem throughout the 19th century because the voting population was dominated by younger people.   The election of Andrew Jackson was a significant example of a hand-off of governing to a younger generation.    Not only did his election bring in new people, the election brought many new ideas about government.  Many of these ideas were (and remain) controversial and some have led future problems for the government, but my point is that the ideas were fresh and they appealed to the younger generation at the time.   The opposition (emerging Whig Party, for example) were in part reactionary to these changes, led mostly by older men and whatever younger people they could convince to join them.   The Whig opposition was ineffective because they lacked sufficient appeal to the younger generation eager for new ideas and for their chance to participate.   This changed when the next generation found the Republican party appealing in its opposition to slavery, the opposition was an appealing new idea that attracted the young population and caused the older population (previously coming to power under Jackson) to be reactionary.  The younger population outnumbered the older and they were able to attract more to their ranks even as the war dragged on.

The antebellum and civil war period are well studied and I don’t even qualify as a neophyte scholar in that era, but my impression is that this period was strongly affected by two generational hand-offs: one from the founders to the Jacksonian generation, and the other from the Jacksonian generation to the Republican (abolitionism) generation.  Each hand-off occurred because the generation of the young voters finally outnumbered the generation of the older voters.   When that happened, there was a lengthy conflict with the reactionary but futile attempts by the older generation to cling to their power.  When it comes to democratic government, the younger people have the advantage.

A similar hand-off occurred recently at about 2006-2008 where a new generation began to assert its electoral strength to advocate new ideas.  Their success motivated a reactionary movement dominated by older people.  That reactionary movement labeled itself as the Tea Party, but it more closely resembles the Whig Party reaction to Jackson’s Democratic Party.   Unlike the Jacksonian revolution, the initial success in 2006-2008 did little to raise the younger generation to power because the elected representatives in the Democratic Party were mostly from the older generation.   The later elections of 2010-2014 allowed younger people to gain positions of power in the Republican party where these vacancies were made possible by the purges in 2006-2008.   My prediction is that there will be one more shift back to the Democratic party now that it is purged of old incumbents, offering the opportunity for younger people to take over from the boomers in the Democratic that I expect will find a way to make peace with Tea Party so they can commiserate.

The political environment of the 1830s-1840s with the Whigs counter-movement to Jacksonian Democrats appears similar to the modern environment of the Tea Party counter-movement to Obama’s Democrats.   Given the distance in time and my own relative ignorance of the older period, I am poorly qualified to compare the two in much detail.  However, I suspect the conflict today is a little more serious because of the age demographics.   A larger portion of the population is attracted to the older-generation movements like the Tea Party than what was available to the Whigs.  Perhaps this is a good thing to avoid the excesses that might occur with an even weaker opposition.   But it may present new risks of a more violent confrontation seemingly between ideologies but in fact between generations.

In an earlier post, I described a stable democracy as a government of “now it is our turn“.  A stable democracy earns a super-majority consent where the minority out of power grants its consent to be governed by the opposing majority because the minority party believes it is one or two elections away from having their turn.  Together, the majority party and the minority party patiently waiting their turn at power combine into a super-majority consent to effectively prevent any rebellion from destabilizing the government.    That post made an assumption of a similar make-up of each part so that the parties are primarily distinguished by ideologies rather than age.

In today’s post, I’m arguing a similar source of stability is the hand-off of power between generations.   Instead of being defined by ideology, age has a more natural form of taking turns.   Natural maturation processes make younger people enter adulthood with a need to have a meaningful place in society.   In the past, we benefited from a natural process of taking the older people out of their places through failing health or death.  As a result of these two processes, there was a stability of “now it is our turn” applied to generations.   Eventually, the younger generation will have its turn when vacancies become available.   The younger generation grants its consent to be governed by older people because they anticipate that they will soon have their turn.

Now, however, we have very healthy and long-living people who can retain their positions indefinitely.  This prevents vacancies opening up for young people.  The celebrated success in lengthening life-expectancy and improved quality of life for elders has made it possible for older people to retain in positions of authority (especially in mid-level positions) for a much longer period of time.   This medical success presents a new problem of discouragement to younger people that their turn will arrive any time soon.

The aging demographic of the electorate is a recent phenomena for democratic governments.  The earlier success of democracies occurred at a time when the electorate was much younger.  The consequences of elections often impose the most burdens on the young adults as in the examples of military, policing, heavy labor, and even in labor-intensive medical work such as nursing.  The younger adults will also be the ones providing a major part of the tax revenues.   The young population was more likely to accept these burdens when their members had a dominant influence on deciding the election.

The challenge for a government of an aging population is whether the younger generation will support the government policies that are dominantly in the interests of the more populous older generations.   In order to enforce the laws that provide these benefits to the older generations, the government needs the labors and cooperation of the younger population.   Without this cooperation, the government will not be able to deliver the benefits to the older generation.

Currently, our government is enjoying a peaceful domestic environment.   This peace is a result of momentum of several decades of relatively calm domestic politics without massive riots or turmoil.   Young people in particular have not experienced in their life-times the challenging movements that occurred in the 1960s or the even more challenging progressive movements that occurred a century ago.   Perhaps the young people remain relatively comfortable so they are not demanding large scale action.   Recent protests concerning perceived police violence indicate some new interest in protests, but these have not caught on in a large scale like the progressive movements of a century ago.

The Middle East provides a different example where we are seeing a lot of instabilities.  In particular, we see even recent democratic elections being ineffective against destabilizing efforts.   For example, the elections in Iraq have not helped solve the problems in that country.   This lack of success of democracy occurs despite their age demographics are more consistent with the demographics in early US history.

In the Middle East, the instability seems to have a very explicit explanation of a conflict of Ideologies.   This may be an accurate explanation, but I wonder about the possibility that the vocal justification of the conflict may hide a deeper truth of a generational conflict.  This alternative explanation is contradicted by the facts of a low median age for the population. Recent elections that should have given the younger generation an adequate opportunity to be represented.

The ideological explanation seems to have stronger explanatory power because the competing ideology explicitly rejects the validity of democratic government because it prefers a theocratic form of government.  If they reject democracy, they are not participating in elections.

The problem with this explanation is that it does not help much to explain why this theocratic form of government has become popular only recently.   The advocated theocratic government is a return to practices that occurred for many earlier centuries.  This ideology of government is not new, but the popularity and success is.

I have a theory that the recent success of disrupting government has a root in frustration of a younger generation that are prevented from represented appropriately in the democratic government.  Their age group has sufficient numbers to affect elections, but the elections did not offer the choices they want.   I naively imagine that there may have been choices that could provide new opportunities for younger people within a democratic government, but those choices were not made available in the elections.   Instead the elections provided options of continuing a government that primarily benefited older people or people who inherited an older status.   The elections may have offered no promise that any resulting government could accommodate they younger generation’s need to have a place in society.

The democratic elections across the region repeatedly fail because the elections do not offer meaningful options for the more populous young people.  When it was time for an election, they either decided not to vote or decided to cast a vote that they didn’t intend to support.   As a result, the elections were decided by the older people for the benefit of the older people.   The new government left out the younger people and yet depended on the younger people to defend the country and to provide the hard work of maintaining the peace in the country.  In many places, when the need for defense came there was no one to defend the government.

Again, I realize the entire region is very complex with very volatile ideological and tribal differences.   Reducing the entire problems to a problem of inequality of opportunity for different age groups appears ridiculously naive.   The ideological and tribal animosities have been going on for centuries and yet for some reason they have become especially acute only recently.   I suspect that the generational conflict may be a trigger for destabilizing the earlier truce of these old complaints.

My point in this post is to identify a particular vulnerability of democracy.   Effective and stable democracy depends greatly if not mostly on the cooperation and participation of the young adults.  Without young people to defend the country, maintain the peace, or perform labor-intensive jobs, the democratic government will deteriorate.   Even worse, if the young people actively rebel against the government, even a super-majority of older people will not be able to defend against the rebellion.

The defining strength of democracy in the statement that all men are created equal may be a confounding variable to explain the early success and resilience of the government.   We learned that extending the definition of “man” to include all races, both sexes, and all adults irrespective of property seemed to strengthen rather than weaken the government.

This observation of equality may confound an hidden variable that we ignored.  That hidden variable was the generally younger age of the population.   The earlier success of democracy may have depended on an implicitly restrictive definition of all young people are created equal.   Nature taking its course for the first several generations eliminated the older population as a significant contributor to the electorate.

As we see in elections in other countries, the seemingly successful democratic process of elections do not necessarily result in a stable democracy.   Instead the successful elections may have misled us into thinking that the resulting government will be stronger than it actually turned out to be.   While many people voted in the elections, the wrong people voted.   The voters were either older adults or younger adults who voted consistently with the elders they respected.    The elections were not a reliable measure of democratic sentiment or widespread consent.

I am suggesting that a democracy can not survive if elections are dominated by older people.  Healthy democracies depend on elections results are determined by younger people who are most needed to defend and to sustain the government.   If this hypothesis were true, then our US government is likely to experience a problem in the near future.   Currently, older people are deciding elections in favor of policies that benefit primarily the older people through lower taxes, higher benefits in social-security or low-cost health insurance.   The younger people will have to make up the difference with fewer benefits of their own, more taxes on their labor, and the eventual responsibility to service the debts accumulating due to the generous benefits to the current population of older people.

A democracy can not remain stable when its elections are dominated by older people.  Also, there will be increasing frustration when older people do not relinquish their positions of authority to make vacancies for younger people.   We will probably not recognize this until a crisis occurs.  Such a crisis could easily resemble what happened recently in Egypt, for example.

Assuming that a democracy is strongest when the demographics of the eligible voters are younger, we can redefine the eligibility for voting rights from the current eligibility to all adults to a new eligibility of all young adults.  In other words, we need disenfranchise adults after they reach a certain age.  This mimics what nature did for us in the 19th century.  In the modern era, older adults will continue to enjoy long lifespans and pension-like benefits.   The only change will be that they will lose the opportunity to vote after reaching a certain age.

With this rule in place, we can get a better sense of the stability of the government.  Eligible voter participation rates will be relative to a proportion of young adults available in the democracy.   Election results will reflect the interests of the majority of the younger people who have the higher burden to maintain the government.

As we had previously rejected the setting of a minimum voting age based on property ownership, we should not accept some condition (such as retirement) to set a maximum age.   Instead we should a firm age limit for the maximum age for voter eligibility.   I think this age limit should reflect the age when people become less qualified for the strenuous defense of the country through military or policing, or in other highly strenuous labors.   The maximum age for voting eligibility should be close the earlier end of typical ages of retirement: 55 for example.

Given the modern benefits of extended life expectancy with good quality of life, we need a way to restore the effects of reduced numbers of eligible older voters that occurred naturally with shorter life expectancy and declining quality of life.   We can restore the balance by setting a maximum age for eligibility to vote in elections to be around 55.

Disenfranchising a large portion of the population will not be popular.  However, these are older adults who previously enjoyed about 4 decades of voting rights that gave them the government they have now.  These older adults are unlikely to stage violent or destabilizing protests.  They have a huge incentive to keep the peace in order to continue to enjoy their benefits or their status.   If they do revolt, the government with super-majority support of younger adults should not have much trouble in restoring order.

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7 thoughts on “Modern era of longer lifespans exposes fatal flaw of democracy: the need to disenfranchise the old

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