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"What starts out in the nighttime follows you in the morning light."
It's getting harder to ignore our gerontocracy.
This week’s soundtrack: Emma Ruth Rundle - “Real Big Sky”
Recently, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell froze up during a public appearance . It was the second time the 81-year-old Senator had such an incident at the Capitol while talking to reporters; cameras were trained on him, so he could not be more in public. This was not a secret thing and his doctors cleared him. Ashley Feinberg asked the operative question on Twitter about the entire situation.
These incidents shine a spotlight on the larger problem of gerontocracy and United States elected officials; last cycle’s top three Democratic presidential contenders were all septuagenarian Senators. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader, is a comparatively spry 72 and the previous – and maybe next – president is a smooth 77. The man who beat him in the previously mentioned 2020 presidential election was born in 1942 and is, of course, the oldest president in history (the previous holder of that title, let’s say, was famous for not exactly being all there during his second term).
This came up recently because one of the Senators from the most-populous state in the union is 90 years old and a cascade of anonymous sources have noted that she’s not in the best shape. The forgetful, doddering old person is a sorta funny trope in The Simpsons, but it’s not good for high-ranking public officials.
It’s hard to talk about for a variety of reasons – Baby Boomers see themselves in the mirror when they see this aging leadership and Boomers have money and they vote – most of all, the specter of ageism that hangs over it. If we’re lucky enough, age comes for us all, but that doesn’t mean that age doesn’t take a toll on people.
Father time, after all, is undefeated.
(I’ll caveat this with the note that lots of people are sharper in their senior years than most are in their “prime” years. And lots of young people have health conditions that can bring up voter concerns. )
But, as tough as it is to talk about – think “taking away the keys from your 80-year-old mom because her glasses are eight inches thick” tough – but it’s even harder to watch as a citizen. Sen. Debbie Stabenow talked to Isaac Chotiner in April about the sexism inherent in the Feinstein conversations, citing people like Strom Thurmond and his time in the Senate. It goes without saying that the McConnell stuff gives that interview some very different context.
Of course, much of this is moot because of the rules in our electoral system. In the case of Feinstein and McConnell the voters of their respective states are the ones who make these decisions, also, as I wrote about George Santos, this could also be in the hands of party leadership. In McConnell’s case, he’d be the one to kick his own ass out and his caucus and probably isn’t quick to do so. In Feinstein’s case, she’s decided not to run for reelection next cycle, so someone will replace her in that seat in 2025. But, we’ve got two more years of the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee being essentially non-functional.
The common refrain around these elected officials – particularly in the Senate – is something like “this puts the unelected Senate staff in the position of doing everything that the Senator was elected to do.” That’s not without value; any organization, in theory, bases itself on the person at the top. But, the cold truth is that no one elected to the Senate reads every word in every bill, so the staff is already shaping a lot of policy.
But that doesn’t change or alter the broader problem of gerontocracy. The previously-mentioned oldest president in history was asked about McConnell and said he talked to the Kentuckian and everything was copacetic with his health (he’s “back to his old self,” Biden said. Which is funny, you gotta admit.). This, of course, makes sense, as the absolute last thing Joe Biden wants to mention is age, considering his age comes up a lot in polling, as Nate Silver notes in his newsletter this week.
In Biden’s case, I tend to think that it comes back to the crappy nature of our electoral system. The incumbent advantage is so powerful that no one of consequence is challenging him (no, RFK Jr. and Marianne Williamson aren’t serious people). The Democratic voter base remains fairly old (though not as old as the GOP’s), so they see themselves in Biden. But, more than anything, there are only two real parties in the U.S. and the other guy – assuming Trump gets the nomination again – is only a few years younger. Obama-McCain, this is not.
Not to be a sledgehammer here, but I imagine a lot of voters will see the options as a very old Democrat and a very old Republican. They’ll vote their parties accordingly without an option of someone who maybe knows where they are at all times. Hell, even most Democrats think Biden is too old, but the hatred for Trump in Democratic circles is such that Biden could be actually dead and they’d still vote for Biden.
Julia Azari has written a lot about the power of parties in the highest levels of politics and I think she’s made the point that more powerful parties might keep things like this out of the general elections. In the past, more levers would’ve been turned in 2016 to make sure Trump didn’t win the nomination in lieu of someone like Jeb Bush. The Democrats have a stronger party structure – Bernie Sanders supporters will never stop telling you about it! – but that structure is older than dirt, so Biden’s age isn’t an issue to them.
Who loses out? Most of us, as the problems that older, richer representation know are different than the rest of us. To say that rich, old leadership is out of touch is fairly rote, but it is absolutely true. As happened in a previous failing empire, it’s hard not see this playing out very poorly in an already dying world power.
I don’t have much exciting to write here about Lulu, except that I had to go into the office earlier this week to record a podcast and that meant she had to be alone for longer than usual. I’ve gotten so used to working at home that I felt like I was betraying her. She didn’t care, as dogs never care about this stuff and because we’ve been five feet from one another for the vast majority of the time we’ve lived together. Still, I felt guilty.
A Recommendation: Going to Middle Aged People Concerts For Artists You Love
I realize the irony of me writing this while being arguably ageist above, but I saw an aging(ish) singer (Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie) on Saturday at the Atlantis (this little annex to the 9:30 Club here in D.C.). As it was with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs earlier this year, seeing an artist whose heyday was literally 20 years ago is very nice. The whole crowd was around my age, I knew pretty much every word to every song and it was an acoustic show and people weren’t talking like assholes!
Get off my lawn and such.