A Tug of War

June 7, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Is grandma your enemy? An uncomfortable thought. Different generations have different concerns. Funding a solution to one generation’s problem may take resources from other generations. Grandma wants to protect her Social Security and Medicare. Grandma votes her interests.

The introduction of Social Security eighty years ago marked an extraordinary shift in federal policy. For the first time in the history of this country the government took money from one set of people – those who were younger and working – and gave it to other people. This transfer was not a reward for military service – an old soldier pension – but a reward for getting old.  

During the Great Depression thousands of banks failed and millions of people lost their savings. That crisis called for a solution. Instead of addressing the problem, FDR and a super-majority of congressional Democrats created a permanent program that transferred money from people raising families to retired people. No military or community service required. The combined tax contribution to fund the program was 2%. It is now more than six times that.

In 1965, Democrats again enjoyed a super-majority in Congress and a Democratic President. Never waste a super-majority. There are no checks and balances. They passed the Medicare program, funded by a tax on working families who were ineligible for benefits under the program. In every election, old people vote to keep their benefits, and are the largest demographic of voters (Census Bureau, 2019). 

Younger voters change addresses more often. In dense urban areas with multiple voting districts, they are more likely to have out of date voter registration. Voters in rural districts remain in the same voting district when they move a few miles. Rural voters are predominantly older, white and conservative. In the first half of the 20th Century, rural populations migrated from the farm to the city. Rural voters controlled political power in many states because one rural vote counted far more than one urban vote. In two decisions in the 1960s, the Supreme Court interpreted the Constitution to mean one person, one vote (Mosvick, 2020).

As the children of farmers continued to move away in the last half of the century, rural voters adopted other strategies to control electoral power. Less funding for polling places in urban areas, claims of voter fraud, lifetime restrictions against voting by convicted felons, and locating prisons in rural areas where the prisoners are included in the county’s population, but the prisoners cannot vote. Groups like Judicial Watch initiate hundreds of lawsuits in Democratic leaning counties to invalidate the registrations of many voters (Lacy, 2020).

In 1965, a year after passage of the Civil Rights Act, President Johnson hoped that the newly instituted Medicare program would help stem the defection of Southern voters from the Democratic Party. It didn’t. The Party had successfully stifled the voting power of black people in the south for a century. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments which gave black people voting power and citizenship status had been forced on the Southern states after their defeat in the Civil War. Feeling that President Johnson and the party had betrayed them, voters sought a champion who could protect white voting power. 

Richard Nixon became their champion by default. In the 1968 race, the Republican candidate employed a “ southern strategy” that spoke to white voters worried that the recently passed Civil Rights Act would give blacks too much electoral power. In the spring, riots and demonstrations broke out after Martin Luther King’s assassination. At the Democratic Convention that summer, bloody conflicts broke out between Chicago police and anti-Vietnam War demonstrators. Nixon promised to be a law and order President, protecting the “old order,” older Americans and the white rural domination that had been the calling card of the Democratic Party in the South. When leading Democratic candidate Robert Kennedy was assassinated that summer, the party was too disorganized to mount a challenge to Nixon. He won by a convincing margin in the electoral college, but bested Hubert Humphrey by only ½% of the popular vote (Wikipedia, 2020). 9 million voters chose Independent Party candidate George Wallace, who appealed to disaffected conservative Democratic voters in the South (PBS, n.d.).

Some of us have supremacist attitudes, some of us condemn those attitudes. Some of us feel threatened at the sight of a black man and call the police. Some of us understand Black Lives Matter; others don’t. We all understand our point of view a lot better than our neighbor’s. We all want to be believed more than believe.

We grant police the sanctioned use of force but we require temperance in their use of it. Clearly, there are many officers who do not have a tempered behavior. The lie is that it is a few bad apples. Smart phones have become common only in the past decade and there are hundreds of videos of officers acting without restraint. In another ten years, there will be thousands.

 One person, one vote. This country has been engaged in a tug of war since its founding. Regional and generational interests pitted against each other. Rural against urban. Businesses vs workers. City governments vs. workers. States vs. citizens. Decide which end of the rope you are on and pull. Grandma grabs the rope. In every election, a lot of money and effort is spent to prevent people from voting. If you don’t vote you are doing those on the other end of the rope a favor and they thank you.



Photo by Arnaud Jaegers on Unsplash

Census Bureau. (2019, July 16). Behind the 2018 U.S. Midterm Election Turnout. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2019/04/behind-2018-united-states-midterm-election-turnout.html

Lacy, A. (2020, May 28). Right-Wing Groups Aims to Purge 800,000 Voters in Pennsylvania. Retrieved from https://theintercept.com/2020/05/28/pennsylvania-voter-rolls-purge-judicial-watch/

Mosvick, N. (2020, March 26). On this day, Supreme Court reviews redistricting. Retrieved from https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/blog/on-this-day-supreme-court-reviews-redistricting.  Also, see Stahl, 2015.

PBS. (n.d.). Thematic Window: The Election of 1968. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/johngardner/chapters/5a.html

 Stahl, J. (2015, December 7). Baker v. Carr: The Supreme Court gets involved in redistricting. Retrieved from https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/baker-v-carr-the-supreme-court-gets-involved-in-redistricting

Wikipedia. (2020, June 06). 1968 United States presidential election. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968_United_States_presidential_election

2 thoughts on “A Tug of War

  1. Beth Davies-Stofka says:

    Such a good job. Three things I have been thinking about:

    1. Will organizers amplify the energy of the current protests into a “Get Out the Vote” campaign?
    2. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” so said Lincoln, er, Jesus. But maybe it can? Is the house called the United States a fundamentally divided standing structure? Challenging a bit of received wisdom here. (Sorry, Jesus.)
    3. Are efforts to defund the USPS intended to suppress votes in favor of Republican Party interests? (“suppress” is the wrong word but I don’t want to fall into the weeds)


    • sgstofka says:

      1. I have not seen any registration drives at the protests. Did organizers not want to dilute the message of the protests? I think most get out the vote campaigns start in earnest in the fall. The majority of states require voters to be registered 30 days or so prior to election day. (https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/same-day-registration.aspx) Will the protest impetus carry forward to the fall? Not so sure about that.
      2. James Madison was worried most about factions. 2500 years ago, Aristotle identified 3 forms of government: monarchy, timocracy and democracy, with democracy being the lowest form of government. In a timocracy, the aristocracy uses their control of property to capture the resources and political power in a country. The U.S. Constitution outlawed a titled aristocracy, but Madison saw no solution to the problem of factions. What he did was craft a constitutional structure so that factions are always [EMPHASIS] fighting for control. So yes, America is the longest lived democracy because it encourages a competition of interests.
      3. The USPS is where local political interests meet national business interests. Long before there was much mail in ballots, Libertarian and conservative Republicans wanted to put the USPS on a competitive footing but most smaller communities do not want to give up their post offices, no matter how little business they do. Powerful marketing businesses, both locally and nationally, lobby heavily to keep subsidies for 3rd class mail. Some kind of postal system is a part of the constitution so there would have to be a constitutional amendment to get rid of the post office entirely.


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