Grand Old People Party

Republicans are old and getting older. That’s a huge problem for the GOP.

A spry Trump supporter at a primary-night event in Donald Trump’s “Donald J. Trump Ballroom” at the Mar-A-Lago Club, March 15, 2016 in Palm Beach, Florida.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

A short while ago, I was talking to a close friend and fellow conservative about Fox News, and its outsized influence on the American right. It soon became clear that neither of us had spent much time watching the network. We were familiar with it, certainly—I’m a fan of Fox News Sunday, and I’ve caught a few episodes of Special Report while idly channel-surfing. As a close follower of conservative media, I also know a fair bit about its intrigues, and about the quirks of its various personalities. Yet it’s rare that I’d ever sit down to actually watch the channel. Honestly, I’d rather put on Seinfeld reruns or the Fung Bros on YouTube than take a load off and settle in for some Sean Hannity.

Is that weird, given that right-wingery is a pretty central part of my life? After all, Fox News is the supposed media mecca of movement conservatism. My lack of interest in Fox News makes sense, though, when you realize that it isn’t a channel for Republicans. It’s a network for old people.

As of the end of last year, the primetime median age of Fox News viewers was 68. Mind you, I’m not particularly young. I’m deep into my 30s, and I’m profoundly unhip. My favorite thing to do is to hang out with my parents over heaping plates of steamed broccoli. Like many elderly Americans, I am suspicious of communism, and I often fret that the country is going to hell. While I wouldn’t describe myself as a doomsday prepper, I don’t find the idea of prepping for doomsday totally absurd. Why not stockpile MREs in the basement? Add it all up, and I’m about as likely to watch Fox News as anyone born since the Johnson administration.

But I don’t watch Fox News, because it’s not really meant for me. It is meant for aging conservative baby boomers, which is why the network is so fixated on the particular concerns and tastes of aging conservative baby boomers. Night after night, you get nonstop coverage of left-wing protesters run amok and ISIS recruiting America’s grandchildren, delivered by perky blondes and square-jawed anchormen. 

I bring this all up not to poke fun at Fox News, which employs a number of excellent, hardworking journalists. Rather, I’m struck by the parallels between the demographics of Fox News viewers and the demographics of Republican voters. The Grand Old Party circa 2016 is the Grand Old People Party.

The advanced age of the Fox News audience tells you everything you need to know about the topics it covers, the look of its most prominent personalities, and its many advertisements for pharmaceutical solutions for older gentlemen who still like to get it on. Similarly, the advanced age of Republican voters explains the contours of the GOP agenda. Democrats have a substantial edge with voters under 35 while Republicans are more likely to be on the older side of middle age and septuagenarians. The beauty of the over-65 set is that they are reliable voters. The bad news about them is that they are not long for this Earth, and they are not always in tune with the fears, hopes, and dreams of voters who will be around for decades to come.

How does the age profile of the Republican base shape the party? Back in 2012, I had the good fortune to attend the Republican National Convention in Tampa, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was hobnobbing with the exact same people that had cheered on Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. One friend, a left-wing essayist, told me about a delegate he had met—a single mother who’d been in her late 20s at the tail end of Reagan’s first term, and who capitalized on the economic recovery by going into the then-booming office-furniture business. Companies were starting to revamp their offices to install cubicles and computers, and she was there to sell them swivel chairs and desks. The Reagan years were the best years of her life. She was making money, she found love, lost it, and found it again. America was in full bloom. How could she not be nostalgic for those years? It’s hardly surprising that she’d contrast the Obama years unfavorably with a time when she was healthy and happy, and when life seemed full of promise. So why wouldn’t she want the party to keep preaching that old-time Reagan religion of supply-side tax cuts? Is it any surprise that even youngish Republicans like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio sing the virtues of Saint Ronald, even though they were still in short pants when he first came into office?

Or consider Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump is not a conventional conservative, but by promising to “Make America Great Again,” his campaign is making an emotional appeal to older Americans who very viscerally miss the good old days. To be sure, Trump appears to have done about as well with young GOP primary voters as he does with older ones—it’s just that there aren’t all that many young GOP primary voters. A new USA Today/Rock the Vote survey finds that among voters under 35, Hillary Clinton would defeat Trump by a margin of 52 percent to 19 percent. One doesn’t want to be too hard on Trump: I can easily imagine other candidates who’d do worse among the youth, e.g. past-his-prime 1980s spokesdog Spuds MacKenzie. But if you’re a human Republican hoping to woo the voters of the future, you’d have reason to be disappointed by this 19 percent figure.

When mainstream conservatives fret about how Trump is wrecking the GOP, I nod along with them. I’m not a fan either. Among the less-than-ancient, however, the GOP brand has already been wrecked by the less-than-dizzyingly-successful Bush years, which saw a bloody quagmire in Iraq, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, and a catastrophic financial crisis that scarred the lives of tens of millions of young people, and from which roughly half of the country hasn’t fully recovered. What have Republicans done in the Obama years? They’ve said precious little about youth unemployment and student loan debt while attacking Obamacare subsidies out of a fear that they might threaten Medicare benefits for retirees. Trump is promising to bring back manufacturing jobs from China and Mexico which have mostly been lost to machines while saying virtually nothing about where the jobs of the future will come from.

If Donald Trump is the Republican nominee and Hillary Clinton wins the general election in a landslide, as seems increasingly likely, Democrats will be in a triumphal mood, at least for a while. But I believe that a new, younger conservative party will emerge in the aftermath of 2016. There are tensions within a bigger, more diverse Democratic Party—between urban socialists and centrist suburbanites, for instance, and between middle-class black Americans and working-class Hispanics—that will inevitably grow more pronounced. A new opposition party will arise, and chances are that it will be to the right of the party of Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. And though members of this party will probably call themselves Republicans, we can safely say that it won’t look like your grandfather’s GOP, because your grandfather will be dead.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.