‘I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.’
When Ronald Reagan was running for his second term, he was seventy-three. There were many concerns about having a man of that age run for another term yet Reagan defied those worries.
Thirty-eight years later and it seems that America’s worry about aging politicians has almost vanished. From the White House to the legislature, the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers are ruling the roost.
The most noticeable example of this strange trend is President Joe Biden. America’s 46th President was 78 when he swore the Oath of Office. If he chooses to run again and wins, he’ll be 82 upon his second inauguration. Making it to the end of two full terms will have him at 86. Considering the US life expectancy is around 78, it’s almost impressive really.
His predecessor, Donald Trump, was 70 upon his inauguration. Whilst old, it’s still eight years younger than Biden. As Trump has expressed a wish to run again and has a good shot of winning the nomination, he’d be 78 at the start of a second term. Again, that matches up with the average US life expectancy. These are not young men.
There are twelve men who ascended to the Presidency who were 60 and over. Until the late 20th century, illnesses could take many people into an early grave. Even as medicine has advanced well, the fact remains that Biden and Trump are still old. Both of them have had COVID. Trump was hospitalized. Biden has tested positive more than once. We can be concerned about even the healthiest of men advancing in years.
The age of Congressional members make Biden and Trump look positively young. The following members of the current Senate and House of Representatives are 80 or older:
Bernie Sanders (80) D
Nancy Pelosi (82) D
Patrick Leahy (82) D
Steny Hower (83) D
Maxine Waters (83) D
Hal Rogers (84) R
Grace Napolitano (85) D
Bill Pascrell (85) D
Eddie Bernice Johnson (86)
Jim Inhofe (87) R
Richard Shelby (88) R
Chuck Grassley (88) R
Dianne Feinstein (89) D
This list includes the Speaker of the House, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Dean of the House and the House Majority Leader.
Donald Trump, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were all born in consecutive months in summer 1946.
Joe Biden is older than Dan Quayle and Al Gore.
There’s only been one President born after the 1940s.
Barack Obama was about to start middle school when Joe Biden became a Senator.
Baby Boomers make up 70% of Congress. The overall demographic in the US for boomers is 21%.
Joe Biden had been in the Senate for ten years before Pete Buttigieg was born.
Beyond the Statistics
First of all: why are American politicians so damn old?
Well, there’s no one definitive factor here. One case put forward is that voters tend to prefer candidates closer to their age. As those over sixty tend to vote more than their younger cohort, then it would make sense that the politicians they elect are older. Whilst it’s certainly a factor, I disagree. Look at how much support the older Bernie Sanders received from young progressives. Joe Biden received 61% of the under 30s vote. Ronald Reagan won 61% of 18-24 year olds in 1984. Hillary Clinton got 58% of 18-29 year olds. The list goes on.
There’s also the fact that older people have three major bonuses that the young do not: money, time and connections. Politicians like Dianne Feinstein and Maxine Waters have been in the game for decades. Their names are synonymous with politics. They know everybody. They’ve got seniority and power. Their fundraisers receive big bucks because they know people. Whilst younger people can have those things, they are more likely to be working, have less money and know fewer people. Unless they’re born into money or politics then they won’t have more connections than the Silent Generation.
Experience also matters and people like experience. It’s why Hillary Clinton was a deadlock for the nomination and why people wanted Joe Biden after the inexperienced Trump. Younger presidents like JFK and Obama have to pick more experienced VPs for people to take them seriously. The older you are, the more likely you are to have put the hours in.
Some argue for an age or term limit. Of course term limits can affect younger people, but it’ll also stop the long tenure of those mentioned. There’s a minimum age for the House, the Senate and the Presidency. A maximum would surely clear out the elder generation, surely? Still, it’s a contentious issue.
Finally, a lot of the people mentioned here are in ultra safe-seats. Nancy Pelosi has a majority of over 300K. That number is nearly one million for Dianne Feinstein. They’re basically unopposed. No young Democrat or Republican can hope to oust them. They don’t get this far in swing seats.
Is it a major concern?
To put it bluntly, yes.
Firstly, health is a concern. Yes, young people can die suddenly from illnesses but older people can too. Robert Byrd, the late Senator from West Virginia had to be wheeled out of the chamber at some points. John Lewis and John McCain were 80 and 81 respectively when they died of cancer in office. Don Young was 88 when he passed away earlier this year.
Donald Trump was hospitalised with COVID and his age made it significantly more likely that he’d be very ill. Joe Biden has had COVID more than once. Ronald Reagan was shot and only survived because he was in marvellous physical health for his age.
Cognitive decline is also an issue. Reagan famously developed Alzheimer’s in office and to the extent of which it affected his capacity for decision making is unknown. Whilst Joe Biden has no official diagnosis, many of his actions and words have raised concern. Even if it’s not a disease, it’s just getting old. Strom Robert Byrd was suffering decline when they passed away. Strom Thurmond and Thad Cohran both reportedly had cognitive decline when they died soon after retiring.
Word has spread that Dianne Feinstein has undergone significant mental decline. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle detailed this. Four Senators, a Representative and three former staffers were all interviewed. They said that Feinstein forgets names, cannot do work without help and repeats herself often. This is by no means a daily occurrence and Feinstein is often perfectly lucid, but the point remains. Feinstein has defended her record and states that she’s perfectly capable of continuing her role.
Having older politicians also locks the new generation out of politics. If the same politicians are ruling the roost for years then when will the younger ones get their chance to shine? By the time the older politicians die or retire then the young ones will also have aged. New blood can’t seep through.
That doesn’t mean that the younger generation can’t try. The next crop of Democratic and Republican candidates include relatively young and fresh politicians. Unfortunately, there’s a good chance that Biden and Trump could be their respective party’s candidates.
Meanwhile, Congress remains pretty stale. Nancy Pelosi is going to run again and considering she’s in an ultra-safe seat, she’s probably safe. If the Republicans take the House, then she’d be demoted but still be a powerful force. The Senate’s youngest member is Georgia’s Jon Ossoff, who is 35 at the time of writing. The median age of Americans is 38.5. The House’s youngest member is Madison Cawthorn at 27, though he has lost his re-election bid. The average age of Congress is 64.3.
If things stay the same then politics in America won’t change. Power will stay in the hands of an older generation who don’t always represent everyone fairly. Old politicians themselves aren’t inherently bad. They’re often experienced, intelligent and sharp. Unfortunately, when a country’s leadership is overwhelmingly elderly, then the nation isn’t moving forward.
America the Ancient indeed.
[Next birthday post Sunday evening,
PS. What do you think?]