November 2013
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Seniors’ Political Participation:

Key to a New, Transformative Politics


by Peter Bearse

Old folks are treasures to both families and communities. They are founts of history and wisdom. They are also great, potential resources for any movement to take back our politics and government. Why “potential”? Because, like the young folks noted earlier, they have more time and less in the way of urgent personal responsibilities than do the middle-agers. This is largely the case even though an increasing number of elderly people are having to work in their old age because their pensions are inadequate. Old folks are also more likely to have a larger view of life and responsibility owing to their surviving the hard lessons of life and experience. They are also more likely to recognize that citizenship comes with responsibility. That is apparent in their high voter turnouts. Many also seek to “give back”.


Thus, both young and middle-aged citizens should seek allies from among their elderly neighbors on any number of issues.[1] On their own, retired folks should be looking for ways to make a difference on public issues reflecting their own most heartfelt concerns. Thus, the question we addressed earlier for young folks arises here as well.[2] What issues?


We often see the elderly stereotyped as if their only serious concern is Social Security. They are also shortchanged by pandering from politicians rather than being provided serious proposals to strengthen Social Security. And obviously, there are other serious issues of concern to seniors, including health care and the huge overhang of debt we are passing on to our grandchildren. The most serious “issue,” therefore, is what we have found earlier with respect to younger age groups. It is not elders’ ability to identify and prioritize serious matters of concern. It is how they can make even an iota of difference as to how they are resolved.


One positive sign for elders is that they are already members of, or have ready access to, group settings such as senior citizens centers, churches, civic associations, local committees of political parties, various clubs or assisted living facilities, and/or they can readily create some, such as book clubs, knitting circles or discussion groups. Such settings provide fertile contexts for discussions of shared concerns or public issues. The latter can be more readily crystallized by the fact that seniors’ shared concerns are more likely to be issues at the national or state than the local level, and therefore receive more media attention. And so, seniors can look to national associations (e.g., AARP, AMAC) and their state chapters for information and support. As members of self-organizing bodies, they could also seek to adapt Christakis’ SDP approach to produce strategic plans for addressing major issues.[3]


The model for a Peoples’ Congress set forth in Chapter 4 of my new book recognizes that it makes more sense for Members of Congress to hire wise, experienced elders as their staff, rather than unwise, inexperienced young people aiming to become career politicians.[4] Yet, leaders in all age groups should seek to establish intergenerational alliances, especially given the dangers of intergenerational conflicts over public policies. In political jurisdictions from local to congressional districts, seniors could join with fellow young and middle-aged citizens to make important contributions as members of independent citizens committees on various issues. If groups are pitted in conflict, fighting for shares of a diminishing pie, we all lose.


There are many ways seniors’ political participation can help shape a better future for their grandchildren and others. For example:


ü      Pay attention to what’s going on in state government via the Internet and other media. For example, check your state legislators’ legislative calendar online weekly. Identify bills that deal with issues of your greatest concern, which legislative committees are handling them, and make known your position on bills to the relevant committees [support/oppose, and testimony, if any].


ü      Identify folks who share your concerns by putting out messages to Facebook “Friends” or Twitter “Followers”. Then gather them together in a face-to-face group setting to talk turkey.


ü      Work with others in your community for changes in state election laws that inhibit people’s participation in politics, bias elections or constrain movements for change.


ü      When your national (U.S.) Representative (Congress-man or -woman) or U.S. Senator is at home in the district, make sure to attend a “Town Hall” or other meeting with him so that you can ask questions, make points, share your views with others and learn from them. 


ü      If your Member of Congress seems to be more attentive to his political career than to his constituents, or if he or she does little to inform or otherwise empower you and other citizens, then join or form a “Change Congress” group in your Congressional District. Return to Chapter 4 for details. Later, establishment of an alternative (or “shadow”) congressional office would provide a place for a cross section of people -- across ages and issues -- to work together.


ü      Share with friends, relatives, peers, younger colleagues and others information, bills or petitions urging Constitutional Amendments that would remove barriers to real change. Urge them to sign the petitions or call on legislators to vote for relevant bills; for example:


ð     HR 2 in the NH General Court, and in Massachusetts:


ð     “H.J. Res. 20 restores Congress’ and the states’ authority to limit campaign gifts and spending…(and)


ð     H.J. Res. 21 makes it clear that corporations do not have constitutional rights, as if they were people…”[5]


In addition, Senator Jon Tester of Montana introduced a People’s Rights Amendment in the U.S Senate to reverse the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC and to make it clear that corporations do not have constitutional rights as if they were people. In addition, Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico introduced a new version of a constitutional amendment bill he sponsored in 2012, with support from 25 other US Senators, that would enable us to end the outsized influence of big money over our politics and allow for overall limits on campaign spending. Senator Udall’s amendment bill would overturn an earlier Supreme Court ruling in Buckley v. Valeo (from 1976), which said that campaign spending is a form of “free speech”. As Warren Rudman, the late Republican US Senator from New Hampshire, wrote, “free speech can hardly be called free when only the rich are heard.”


Obviously, this is but a small sample of what seniors’ can do to “make a difference.” The general formula is: Y + U = C, where “Y” = Younger folks, “C” = Change, and “U” = YOU!


                PETER BEARSE, Ph.D., 11/05/13; comments welcomed to:

[1]    A personal aside here: My reference to elderly neighbors indicates that I, at 72 years old, am also one of the aged. For I grew up in a community of a type that is now increasingly scarce where one could find elderly neighbors nearby. Now, one is more likely to find the elderly segregated in gated communities, assisted living complexes, or public housing. Thus, one may have to drive a distance to find elderly neighbors.

[2]   See Bearse, Peter (2013) article on “Millenials”, THE ETHICAL SPECTACLE (August).

[3]   See Christakis, Alexander (with K. Bausch, 2006), How People HARNESS THEIR COLLECTIVE WISDOM and POWER to Construct the Future in Co-Laboratories of Democracy. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

[4]   Bearse, Peter (2013), 1% + 99% =100%: How “We the People” can occupy politics, change Congress and renew the American Dream (Amazon e-book).

[5]     Source: E-mail from Free Speech for People entitled Overturn Citizens United. Amend the U.S. Constitution. (February 21, 2013).