"Media descriptions of the conservative movement's protests are incomplete without references to a Walmart's worth of wheelchairs and walkers amid a sea of gray heads. Surveys of tea party supporters have found that half are over age 55 and something like a third are 65 or older."
Many experts have suggested that the elders were motivated by fear that the Obama administration will cut their Social Security or Medicare payments. But new research into the roots of elders' political and cultural attitudes suggests there may be other factors at work as well.
Spencer Platt, Getty Images
Tea party supporters attend a rally for the Tea Party Express national tour Oct. 19 in Las Vegas.
The tea party movement presents itself as the defender of traditional values such as balanced budgets and freedom from government interference. In a New York Times/CBS News poll, just 16 percent of the group's supporters approved of gay marriage and only 20 percent thought abortions should be "generally available."
Such positions can have substantial psychological benefits for the elderly, according to researchers at Ghent University in Belgium.
In their study, they gave participants, age 60 to 97, tests measuring their self-esteem, on the one hand, and their attitudes toward such issues as women's role in society and abortion, on the other. Those with conservative views measured significantly higher on the self-esteem scale than the more liberal participants.
Belief in the culture and traditions of the society they were part of in years past, the researchers say, makes older people feel better about themselves -- and better able to cope with the negative effects of aging. As the authors of the study put it, "Right-wing beliefs are good for old people."
Numerous studies have found that the elderly tend to be more prejudiced than younger people toward other ethnic and racial groups. Though the tea party movement is not explicitly racist, its rallies sometimes include speakers and sign-bearers expressing racist sentiments.
Just 1 percent of the group's supporters are black -- and the results of the New York Times/CBS News poll suggest some reasons why. Fifty-two percent of supporters say too much attention is being paid to black people's problems. Seventy-three percent say whites and blacks have an equal chance to get ahead in today's society.
Scientists generally attribute the prejudice of the elderly to growing up in an era when such attitudes were common. A recent study by researchers in Australia and the U.S. confirm a somewhat different explanation.
Two groups, one 69 to 88, the other 18 to 25, read four stories that contained stereotypical hints about blacks, Jews and people from Appalachia. The participants were then asked to judge whether a series of sentences had actually appeared in the stories. Half of the sentences contained the stereotypical references.
The result: The older group remembered the stereotypical hints much better than the younger. The researchers' conclusion: Even though many of the elders consciously avoided such attitudes, they had lost over the years some of their brain's ability to inhibit unwanted thoughts. That loss, they found, rather than having grown up in a more conservative era, was a better explanation of elderly prejudice.
Are the psychological benefits of conservative views and the inability to inhibit racist thoughts part of the reason so many older people have joined the tea party movement?
Robert Binstock, a professor of aging, health, and society at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and an authority on the political behavior of age groups, advises caution.
"When it comes to the political realm," he told AOL News, "categorizing older persons in broad terms can be very misleading. In the last 10 presidential elections, for example, they split their votes among candidates pretty much like all the other age groups except the very youngest."
In 2004, for instance, voters 65 and older voted 52 percent for George W. Bush and 47 percent for John Kerry, while the voting of all age groups was 51 percent for Bush and 48 percent for Kerry.
Like other age cohorts, Binstock says, the elderly differ from each other in a multitude of ways -- income, religion, health, education -- and their voting record reflects that fact. Yes, the current crop may lean toward Republican candidates, but he suspects it's primarily because so many of them were socialized to politics during Dwight Eisenhower's two terms in the presidency.
Sponsored Links In 2008, John McCain won the votes of 54 percent of those 65 to 74 years of age. Those 75 and older, who were already of voting age when Eisenhower took office, gave McCain just 51 percent of their votes.
Some pundits had expected that the elderly would be much more inclined than other age groups to vote against Barack Obama in 2008 on the basis of his race. As it turned out, the totals for white voters 65 and older were right in line with the votes of white voters in other age groups except the youngest. The old white voters were no more -- and no less -- prejudiced, in their voting at least, than younger generations.
"Theories about the political behavior of such a heterogeneous group as the elderly are certainly interesting," Binstock says, "but sometimes facts can get in the way."
Same people that are dependent on socialization.:laughing: