The United States has a gerontocracy problem.
This was clearly demonstrated in the recent hearings concerning Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the supreme court, during which Chuck Grassley, the 85-year old chairman of the Senate’s judiciary committee, apologized to Kavanaugh for having to answer for his alleged crimes.
The generation that once declared not to trust anyone over 30 now appears to trust few under 70, and this is true of both political parties.
On the right, Donald Trump is 72, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is 76, and the ranking Republican senator, Orrin Hatch, is 84. And while the House speaker, Paul Ryan, is only 48, he is set to retire in November, leaving it open as to who will replace him.
On the left, Nancy Pelosi, former speaker of the House, is 78, while Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member on the Senate judiciary committee, is 85. What is more, the two leading contenders to be the Democrats’ nominee for president, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are 77 and 69, respectively.
But it’s not just leadership that’s graying. The average age of congressional representatives has been increasing since 1981. In 2001, it was 55 years old; in 2011, 58, and in the current Congress, 59. Typically, congressional representatives are 20 years older than their constituents.
That raises the question: what’s behind America’s ageing Congress?
One plausible reason: demographics. Not only do baby boomers remain the largest age cohort in the country (although this will soon change), older people are disproportionately more likely to vote. In this sense, it’s not surprising that Congress looks like its most active voting bloc.
Moreover, there is the advantage of incumbency. However much Americans claim to dislike their representatives, the truth is that incumbents almost always win re-election, which over time has resulted in an aged Congress.
This trend will doubtless continue and may get worse, especially given that people live longer than ever before.
Granted, as the Hebrew prophet Job once remarked, “with the ancient is wisdom; and in length of days understanding” – a proposition that neuroscientists have confirmed. Nonetheless, it is also true that meaningful problems come with having political representatives significantly older than the median American, who is 37.9 years old.
First, there is the deficit of mental deterioration. In recent years, experts have begun to question whether former president Ronald Reagan, who was 77 when he left office in 1988, exhibited early signs of dementia. Similar questions have been raised about Trump, whose bizarre behavior, some psychologists suggest, might indicate impaired cognitive ability. Clearly, no nation, let alone one whose executive is endowed with enormous domestic and international authority, can afford to have a leader unable to adjudicate between the complex issues which define our era.
Also vital is the moral dimension: elderly leaders are making decisions for future generations that will have to deal with the consequences of these choices. Understandably, younger leaders probably would be more prone to address climate change than those who will not have to face the catastrophic effects of warmer temperatures, rising sea levels and reduced food production.
Additionally, the ever-present specter of death haunts elderly political leaders. This problem bedeviled the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, when no less than three general secretaries of the Communist party – Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko – died in quick succession.
But perhaps most significant is the fact that gerontocracies prevent new ideas from entering into the small elite that makes national policy.
The consequences of gerontocracy became clear last April, when Orrin Hatch asked the Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, how the company earned money (“Senator, we run ads,” Zuckerberg condescendingly responded). Such ignorance provides political cover for big tech and its apologists, which encourages monopolies. Unsurprisingly, older politicians are often out of touch with the political zeitgeist, a fact revealed when the 85-year-old Grassley declared that he wasn’t interested in what Kavanaugh did when he was in high school, even though Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault.
Meanwhile, the Democratic party has itself passed over a “lost generation” of generation Xers in favor of ageing boomers like former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who was 69 during the 2016 election. And, unlike their Republican counterparts, who have established term limits on committee chairmanships to ensure a steady rotation of leadership, the Democrats have done nothing to address gerontocracy. Indeed, the average age of ranking Democrats on House committees is nearly a decade older than their fellow Republicans.
How can we solve America’s gerontocracy problem? The simplest solution would be to make it easier for younger people to vote. Automatic voter registration, lowering the voting age, increasing the number of polling places at high schools and colleges, making it simple to file absentee ballots, and declaring election day a federal holiday would all increase youth turnout. We might even consider creating institutions that enable older politicians to retain an advisory role while allowing younger leaders to replace them as formal representatives. Such arrangements have existed before; for example, John F Kennedy consulted his predecessor, Dwight D Eisenhower, during the Cuban missile crisis.
At the very least, both political parties can make more conscious efforts to improve youth participation in their organizations, develop new leadership cadres and ease people into retirement.
It is true that wisdom is something that accrues with age and is indispensable to making political choices. But we must also have leaders who look more like the people they represent. After all, we are the ones who will be dealing tomorrow with the consequences of the decisions made today.