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Gerontocracy in U.S politics endangers the country

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Gerontocracy in U.S politics endangers the country

Sep 20, 2023 | 7:00 am ET
By Barrington Salmon
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Gerontocracy in U.S politics endangers the country
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WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 19: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) arrives to a news conference following the weekly Republican Senate policy luncheon meeting at the U.S. Capitol Building on September 19, 2023 in Washington, DC. Senate Republicans spoke to reporters about the House Republicans' negotiation on government funding legislation. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

For the second time in two months, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suffered some type of health crisis, stiffening and freezing up during a press conference. McConnell – one of the longtime political powerhouses of the U.S Senate – was unable to answer questions directed to him. In each case, he stood motionless at a podium, seemingly rooted to the spot and staring blankly, until aides and colleagues hurriedly stepped in to intervene.

McConnell, his staff and assorted Republican lawmakers have tried to downplay what happened to him and at a recent press availability, he waved around a doctor’s note which he said gives him a clean bill of health. After that announcement, McConnell made it clear when asked by reporters that he intends to serve out the remainder of his two-year term as party leader in 2025, as well as finishing his full term in office in ’26.

What happened to McConnell, 81, the longest serving party leader in U.S history, has thrown fuel on a quickly escalating national debate. These health scares have elicited deepening expressions of concern from the public and some politicians, calling into question issues of age, fragility, cognitive function, competence and the ability of older politicians to adequately and competently perform their duties.

As a stroke survivor and a person who had a number of family members who have lived and died from strokes and aneurysms, I believe McConnell suffered some type of stroke, as happened to my mother and her siblings. I would hurry to say though that I’m not a doctor, so this is just my opinion.

Be that as it may, the ages of McConnell, President Joe Biden and others are serving as a catalyst for Americans to begin to take a closer look at an issue that has consequential and far-reaching implications for the country: gerontocracy.

They want a younger president

Gerontocracy in U.S politics endangers the country
President Joe Biden talks on the phone with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, June 7, 2023. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Polling shows widespread bipartisan concern for Biden’s health. An AP-NORC poll says 77 percent of Americans think he is too old to be effective during another term, while 51 percent believe that 77-year-old former president Donald J. Trump is too old to serve another four years.

Meanwhile, 57 percent of registered voters told pollsters at Economist/YouGov they felt age has severely constrained Biden’s ability to do his job. About 75 percent of Americans say they want a president younger than 65 and more than a few Americans are clamoring for term limits to curb aging political leaders who’re clinging to power.

Although these two medical episodes have placed McConnell squarely under a harsh spotlight, he’s not alone. One example is the assorted health and age-related health challenges being experienced by California Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Feinstein, 90, has been in and out of hospital several times over the past year. She contracted shingles in February and was home in California recovering for several months. Earlier this summer, a “hot mic” picked up Feinstein’s apparent confusion during a routine Senate committee hearing where she started reading from prepared remarks when she was only required to say “aye” during a roll call vote. She was guided by an aide who knelt beside her and instructed her what to do.

Gerontocracy in U.S politics endangers the country
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a fundraiser for the Alabama Republican party Friday, Aug. 4, 2023. Alabama Reflector, Stew Milne)

Feinstein’s illness-induced absences from the upper chamber – where Democrats have a razor-thin 51-49 margin – has complicated efforts by Democratic leadership to stave off the baser and more cruel anti-democratic impulses of their Republican colleagues, be it on the issues of reproductive justice; support of Donald Trump and other insurrectionists and coup plotters; a blatant disregard for law and order and rule of law; voter suppression; and noisy opposition to affirmative action, diversity, equity and inclusion.

New Yorker staff writer Susan Glasser calls the time we’re living in as “the dangerous reign of the octogenarians.”

And Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley agrees, archly stating to Fox News recently that “the Senate is the most privileged nursing home in the country.”

Gerontocracy in U.S politics endangers the country
GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley. Credit: Wikipedia.

One solution offered by Haley, 51, is mental competency tests for any politician older than 75. While complimenting McConnell for his service to the country, Haley – who has been arguing during her presidential run that America needs a new generation of leaders – said those in office “have to know when to leave.”

“It’s sad,” Haley said on Fox News. “No-one should feel good about seeing that any more than we should feel good about seeing Dianne Feinstein, any more than we should feel good about a lot of what’s happening or seeing Joe Biden’s decline.

“I think we can all be very clear and say with a matter of fact that if you vote for Joe Biden, you really are counting on a President Harris because the idea that he would make until 86 years old is not something that I think is likely.” Haley added.

Aging reps and senators

The average age of members of the U.S Senate is 65. The gerontocracy issue is a bipartisan one. Some examples:

Besides Biden, 80, running for reelection in 2024, is the oldest president in U.S history. Trump, 77, is running again too. Then there is:

Sen. Chuck Grassley, 89, R-Iowa

Rep. Grace Napolitano, 86, D-CA

Rep. Bill Pascrell, 86, D-NJ

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, 85, D-DC

Rep. Harold Rogers, 85, R-KS

Rep. Maxine Waters, 84, D-CA, 84

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, 83, D-MD

Rep. Jim Clyburn, 82, D-SC, 82

House Speaker Emeritus Nancy Pelosi, 82, D-CA, 82 (who just announced that she’s running for a 19th term).

Sen. Bernie Sanders, 81, D-VT

Rep. John Carter, 81, R-TX

Rep. Danny K. Davis, 81, D-IL.

Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Florida, 80.

While most elected officials are tiptoeing around the issue and have had a hands-off approach saying McConnell, Feinstein and the rest should decide for themselves whether to stay or go, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, 61, was more blunt.

Gerontocracy in U.S politics endangers the country
GOP presidential candidate Chris Christie. Credit: Wikipedia.

“They’re both too old,” he said of Biden and Trump in a recent television interview. “That’s why I’m running because I don’t want the choice to be Trump against Joe Biden. The fact is, this is an awful choice. The last poll I saw said 70 percent of Americans don’t want the choice to be between Joe Biden and Donald Trump and let’s face it, President Biden, in my opinion, I’ve said this before publicly, is too old for this job.”

“… I’ve said both of them are too old. I’ve said they’re both past their “sell by” date and they are. We do not need a choice in 2024 between two candidates who are a combined age of 160 years old. I’m sorry,” said Christie, – one of 10 Republicans vying for the 2023 Republican presidential nomination.

Christie agreed that his comments amount to “ageism.”

“I think there is something to the fact that you get to a certain age, and you shouldn’t be President of the United States because the job itself is too hard,” he added.

Cognitive diminishment

Last June, Nicholas Goldberg, who served as editor of the LA Times editorial page for 11 years and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion section, wrote a scalding column about America’s gerontocracy crisis.

“Incumbency turns out to be a very pleasant place, and power an aphrodisiac that is difficult to give up — to the point that the word “gerontocracy” has suddenly become common,” he said. “Is this a problem? I think it is. In Feinstein’s case, it is especially so because of the parade of reports on her cognitive diminishment, including a San Francisco Chronicle article in which sources described her memory as “rapidly deteriorating” and a New York Times story that described her increasing “befuddlement.”

Charlie Sykes, editor-in-chief of The Bulwark, who called the age problem “a sensitive and difficult subject,” said he hopes the country can handle this issue with either nuance or restraint.

“It is very painful to watch, it’s very alarming,” the political commentator said during an interview on MSNBC. “It is most consequential, affecting powerful members of the U.S Senate, but this is a reminder of how fragile power can be in a gerontocracy. This is one of those moments you step back and you think, ‘okay we think we know what’s going to happen in American politics,’ but when you have figures who have these health problems the unexpected is always there.”

“This is a kind of a warning shot that when you have people who have health problems and you decide not to step aside, there can be these kinds of difficulties. I hope people can react with restraint to this but we don’t live in an age of either nuance, restraint or compassion do we?”

Gerontocracy in U.S politics endangers the country
Gen Z U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost in Washington D.C. on July 25, 2023. Frost’s Twitter page.)

Other than the impact on the country more widely, perhaps those most affected by the current situation of old politicians operating and hanging onto the levers of power are young people. Polls, surveys and interviews with Millennials, Gen Z and Gen X’ers reveal a common thread that the gerontocracy is out of touch with issues that are most meaningful to them, including climate change, affordable housing, soaring inflation, reproductive justice, the proliferation of guns, student loans and a living wage.

Further, young people are increasingly angered by the deep political polarization, the hyper-partisan bickering, the ideological stalemate and the unwillingness of those in power to address consequential issues affecting their daily lives.

Young people have said in interviews they are being suffocated and squeezed by a gerontocracy and regard the old ways of doing things as counter intuitive. Overall, political experts and pundit say, young people are deeply unsatisfied with this iteration of representative government and less satisfied with the returns to them from a deeply skewed political system geared to respond more quickly to the needs of seniors.

A third party?

An NBC News/GenForward poll in 2017 noted that a strong majority of millennials – 71 percent – said the Republican and Democratic parties do such a horrible job of representing the American people that there needs to be a third major party.

Gerontocracy in U.S politics endangers the country
People waiting to vote in the elections. Credit: Getty Images

With the way that the electoral system has rigged, it’s unclear when a third party strong enough to challenge the political duopoly will emerge. But in the meantime, more young people are voting in greater numbers and more and have begun to run for office at the local, state and federal levels.

Millennials were the largest generation group in the U.S. in 2022, with an estimated population of 72.24 million. And in that same year, the Gen X population numbered 65.1 million, each a formidable voting bloc that has already begun to sway elections, as the 2022 midterms illustrates.

But the political elders appear to not be paying attention.

Even though older politicians possess long institutional memories and represent stability and security the question is when do they step aside? When is it time to move on? And why aren’t they making room for younger people?

Greed, a lust for power and myopia may all have a hand in bringing the country to this point but whether the old folks like it or not, they are shuffling off-stage and young people are and will take their rightful place. At the end of the day, it’s time for them to move over and make room for a new generation.

Rather than ignoring, dismissing or marginalizing the next generation, the elders need to identify those with potential and promise, bring them into the fold, mentor and guide them and whenever and wherever possible, put them in positions of leadership where they can learn and grow.

Gerontocracy in U.S politics endangers the country
U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney from Utah. Credit: Wikipedia.

As we move closer to the 2024 presidential election, the issue of age isn’t going away.

On Wednesday (Sept. 13), Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee for president, offered some sound advice. While announcing that he would not seek re-election in 2024, he said he was doing so to make way for a “new generation of leaders” and suggested that Biden and Trump do the same.

“The times we’re living in demand the next generation step up and express their point of view and to make the decisions that will shape American politics over the coming century,” said Romney, 76, said in a news conference at the U.S Capitol.

He said Trump and Biden should move aside to make space for younger people because neither man is leading in a way to confront the varied critical challenges America faces.

“At the end of another term, I’d be in my mid-80s. Frankly, it’s time for a new generation of leaders … They’re the ones that need to make the decisions that will shape the world they will be living in,” said Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts.

While most Americans have sharply fewer options as to whether or not to continue working — despite age, sickness and other challenges, there is a vital need to transform Congress’ seniority system,” said journalist Erin Corbett in a 2020 Refinery29 story.

Corbett quoted a political pundit and observer who said, “Senior officials who hold some of the most important positions in government need to step down when they are dealing with disruptive health problems that clearly [undermine] the Senate’s ability to function.”

“So rather than merely call out Feinstein, who very well may have outlasted the appropriate amount of time in the Senate, let’s point to all the other leaders — current and past — who have done the same. Whether it be due to age, mental decline, or just an inability to represent the needs of their constituency, the crisis in American leadership is not relegated to Dianne Feinstein — it’s much deeper, widespread, and deserving of real attention and action,” Corbett concludes.

Advice the country and the elders of both parties would be wise to heed.