Voters Literally Dying, The Conservative Dilemma, and the 2022 Midterms

Jesse Callahan Bryant
6 min readNov 19, 2022

Here’s the big dumb explanation for why there was no big scary #RedWave this past midterm: Young people turn 18 years old and then can vote. These days they mostly vote for Democrats. Old people die and then cannot vote. These days they would have mostly voted for Republicans. In a country where elections function on razor-thin margins, each year that goes by this unavoidable trend will continue to bear its teeth.

It’s important to remember also that this is a majority-Democratic country in which Donald Trump got only 45.9% of the popular vote in 2016 and only 46.9% in 2020 as the incumbent President.

Anyway, every year 4.5 million young Americans become voting-eligible. That means that since Trump was elected president, 27 million more young Americans who disproportionately vote for Democrats (literally about two-to-one) became voting eligible. However, of course, only around 25% of them actually vote (6.7 million).

At the same time, 75-year-olds are around sixty times more likely to die in any given year are 18-year-olds, a differential that was even more exacerbated by COVID. For old folks the chance of dying in any given year is further worsened by not getting vaccinated, by being poor, by lacking education, and by living in rural and isolated conditions without access to good and affordable healthcare.

This is, again, the big dumb explanation for what we saw this past election day, but I think it’s important: The Republican Party in its current form is not attractive to younger people, who are each year becoming a bigger part of the electorate. At the same time, the true demographic base of the Republican Party — (white) old people — are literally dying. Can this get anymore obvious?

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In classic moving-the-goalpost fashion, some tiny conservative pundits are suggesting that the voting age should be raised because they deserve to win:

“Raise the voting age to 21,” Gabriel tweeted, immediately after noting that “We were promised a red wave and we got a red puddle.”

Another sad little turd suggested raising the voting age even higher:

Peter Schiff suggested cutting out current Gen Z voters altogether. “Let’s raise the voting age to 28. If I was still 18 I’d support this,” the 59-year-old tweeted.

The bigger picture of what is falling apart here I think is best understood through the concept of “the Conservative Dilemma,” which Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson outline in their great book Let Them Eat Tweets.

The Conservative Dilemma is a property of all societies in which there are simultaneously popular elections and an entrenched conservative elite who wish to retain power. The political dilemma, from the perspective of the elites, is: How to convince 50% of the voters to support the demands of the 1%? It’s been solved in different ways throughout history. Nazism was one solution, solved primarily through latent antisemitic anxieties. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” was another, solved primarily through latent anti-Black racist anxieties. This is an unavoidable property of all modern democracies. Sometimes its referred to as plutocratic populism.

Today, the sort of post-Reagan, Bush, Gingrich solution to the Conservative Dilemma has been largely to pray on latent anti-Federalist anxieties in the United States. This is all about lowering taxes, the deep state, draining the swamp, freedom, individualism, deregulate deregulate deregulate even at the cost of millions of lives and trillions of dollars.

And this solution to the Conservative Dilemma is what’s coming apart. The people who buy it are dying. Suspicion of the Federal Government is most intense in the generation affected most by the Vietnam War. And by the way, this distrust of the Feds because of Vietnam, for me, is totally warranted.

Vietnam was a disaster, and the Federal Government has blood on its hands. This is the generation who was young during Kent State and Watergate and the Church Committee and MK Ultra…This was the generation who experienced the US Government high on their New Deal expansion and recent heroism in the wake of World War II, the generation who had their number drawn and was sent for no clear reason to die with their friends in the jungle. This is a generation for whom the US Federal Government actually created real scars.

That generation is dying and their scars will be decomposed. The generational trauma of Vietnam and the enormous scale of anti-federalist anxiety that it caused, let alone the anti-collectivist anxiety generated by the Cold War that followed, is laid to rest more every year that passes. As a result, the solution to the conservative dilemma will be less possible through the neoliberal anti-federalism of the 90s, 00s, and 10s.

I think maybe Trump is best understood as the dying cry of this whole ideological conservative coalition. Not having a campaign platform just doesn’t work in the long term. I mean, how fucking insulting to your constituents?

Young people are, in fact, very ideological. Most haven’t had time to differentiate their ideas from the ideas of textbooks, teachers, their family, their community, the influencers they follow…I mean, that’s all they got! And so, I think there is something to be said for being resentful of the perspective of an 18-year-old on politics. 18-year-olds are, on the whole, immature idiots.

And until 1971 the voting age was actually 21! Why did it change? Vietnam. The reasoning went something like this: if the Federal Government can force (male) Americans to go die on the other side of the Earth, then those same people should be able to vote against the elected officials holding their life in their hands.

Anyway, the anti-federalist solution to the conservative dilemma that held the Republican Party together for the past three decades is falling apart because young people today don’t have the anti-federalist wound of Vietnam.

As the Republican Party has searched for a new solution, they tried some anti-communist shit, which also didn’t work because young people also have no anti-collectivist trauma from the Cold War.

So the elite plutocrats continue to search…what about racism! Let’s reboot the Southern Strategy! Another failure. The internet and our increasingly globalized society has significantly depressed the racist anxieties that led Nixon to a 49-State landslide in 1970 Presidential.

So, where will the GOP go? I think if they were serious they’d turn to the environment and the climate crisis. If DeSantis et al. became champions of carbon capture, renewable energy, and small scale organic agriculture it would put a lot of people in my generation in an ethical bind. This would be especially potent since the right has more of a history of environmental protection anyway than does the left. It’s the looming anxiety, and solving the conservative dilemma requires tapping into existential fears just beneath the surface of huge swaths of the voting base. I guess that’s just one option. What other anxieties you think lie just beneath that the 1% will latch onto?

But they won’t figure it out, because they’re idiots. They’ll delay real reflection by continuing to move the goalposts. The Federalist Society was probably the best investment they made. Each year that goes by 4.5 million new young people will come of voting age and another million older people will die, exacerbating the impossibilities of the current conspiratorial anti-federalist Republican coalition in our democratic society. It’s falling apart now, and has been since 2012. Trump was just like a WWE wrestler mimicking pain as he gets pinned in some sham showdown. Kari Lake is the same shit, though I’m sure the whole time she just wanted a nightly Fox News show: The Kari Hour. Ugh…

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Jesse Callahan Bryant

Jesse is a Ph.D. student at the Yale School of the Environment, creator of the Yonder Lies podcast, and instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School.