How powerful is America's gerontocracy? In One Nation Under AARP: The Fight Over Medicare, Social Security, and America's Future, Frederick Lynch contends that you can't properly understand senior citizens' political power without understanding AARP, the organization that purports to speak for them.
In 1950, 12.2% of all Americans were at least 60 years of age. In 2000, 16.3% were. By 2030, according to Census Bureau projections, 24.7% of our population will be 60 or older. Steadily growing life expectancy, the birth of 78 million baby boomers between 1946 and 1964, and markedly lower birth rates since then made this demographic shift inevitable.
It has been clear for many years that our geriatric baby boomers would: 1) be ill prepared to provide for their retirement; 2) have very few children to care for them in their dotage; and thus 3) demand a continuing supply of entitlement goodies from the government. The aging baby boomers have not coalesced into any kind of coherent political movement, however—not yet, at least. This group's enormous diversity, argues Lynch, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, guarantees that affinities based on race, religion, education, or income trump any generational political solidarity.
You can see the practical effects of these differences in boomers' relationship with President Obama. Highly-educated, affluent, urban boomers were a pillar of Obama's coalition, even as working-class, suburban, religious boomers formed the backbone of the Tea Party, which rose up to oppose him. As one Republican strategist tells Lynch, "By the numbers, boomers are the ‘pig in the python.' But that's about it." In other words, they're massive and unavoidable, but as a political force they lack any sort of central nervous system.
Enter the American Association of Retired Persons, which a retired high school principal from California, Ethel Percy Andrus, founded in 1958. Under Andrus the group's motto was "What we do, we do for all" and its mission was to advocate for better benefits for retirees. The organization would have been just another civic group except that Andrus's successors hit upon an ingenious formula, turning the Association into an enterprise that partnered with investment firms and insurance providers to offer discounted deals for its members. Joining AARP once you turned 50 became like joining AAA after you got your first car: the fee was so nominal and the benefits so substantial that lots of people joined simply because it was easy and there was no reason not to.
Today AARP has 40 million members, making it, after the Catholic Church, the second-largest organization in the country. (This number is particularly impressive considering that 2 million members die every year.) All those membership checks add up to an operating budget of $1.4 billion, money that's put to numerous but not necessarily modest uses. For instance, in the early '90s AARP built an 820,000 square foot headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C.—a building so massive it sports its own zip code. The group's bi-monthly magazine has 23.7 million subscribers, the largest circulation of any American periodical.
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What AARP really does is lobby. So do many organizations based in Washington, of course, but what makes AARP so distinctive is the disconnect, sometimes even the contradictions, between its organizational agenda and its members' interests. In 1993, for instance, AARP vigorously supported Hillary Clinton's health care reform program, then did the same for Obamacare 18 years later—even though internal polling showed that its membership was solidly opposed to the plan. In a giant report issued by AARP in 2006, the group advocated raising taxes, also not particularly popular with seniors. In 2008, it lobbied for expansion of the States Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), a non-sequitur if ever there was one. After that crusade failed, it championed the TARP bailout plan for banks and lobbied in favor of President Obama's stimulus package in 2009.
AARP's membership is overwhelmingly white and middle-class-88% are non-Hispanic Caucasian and 65% have at least some college education. Yet the group is relentlessly committed to the idea of diversity. Not only in the pandering, pedestrian sense—it frequently sponsors conferences with groups such as the NAACP—but in the radical, redistributionist sense, too. Lynch notes a speech by the group's "chief diversity officer," Percil Stanford, which helpfully explained to members that "diversity may be difficult to accept, for it means sharing or giving up of power and resources."
It might seem odd for an organization designed to amass power on behalf of its members to lecture them about the virtue of giving up power. But, like SCHIP and all the rest, it's ultimately of a piece with AARP's organizational worldview: look down that list of advocacy and it's plain that AARP isn't really an advocate for the needs and concerns of seniors. It's simply a client of the Democratic Party.
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Frederick Lynch's deep point about boomers and the gerontocracy is that even though senior citizens themselves haven't organized into an effective political movement, AARP has made itself a de facto power by speaking in their name. The group has done it not by channeling its members' political convictions, but by offering cheap insurance and good discounts to old people who don't care much about progressive politics, but know a good deal when they see one. In a way, Lynch's book is comforting. If retirees ever did organize and wage generational war against the young, it would tear at America's social fabric. All things considered, AARP's dull-witted partisanship seems a far less destructive alternative.