Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 14 February 2024

 The grip of America’s geriatrics


Edward Luce edward.luce@ft.com · Feb 15, 2024


Here is one measure of America’s democratic pickle. The third-party candidates lining up to challenge the creaking two-party stranglehold are almost the same age as the incumbents.

Joe Biden is 81. Donald Trump turns 78 in June. Their potential rivals are all 70 or above. Robert F Kennedy Jr, 70, Joe Manchin, 76, Jill Stein, 73, Marianne Williamson, 71, and Cornel West, 70, are each thinking about entering the fray as independents in one form or other. The old ways have failed America, these boomers are saying. Here are some alternative old ways that you should consider.

Or take Capitol Hill. The median age in the US Senate is 65, which is the birthday at which American airline pilots must retire. The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, is 73. Its minority leader, Mitch McConnell, is 81. McConnell’s most senior colleague, Chuck Grassley, who is 90, recently put his name down to run again in 2028. That means he is keeping the option open of going on until he is 101.

People are still stunned, meanwhile, that Mitt Romney, 76, has chosen to retire in the prime of his career. The Senate standard-bearer of the US left remains Bernie Sanders, who is 82. His former rival, and sometime ally, is Elizabeth Warren, who is 74. Who says Biden is an outlier?

At 58, the House of Representatives’ median age is slightly closer to America’s population as a whole. But it is still badly out of whack. Just 7 per cent of members of the US Congress are below the age of 40. America’s median age is 38.9, which means that half its people are younger than that.

There are questions — as there ought to be — about the poor representation of US minorities in America’s most powerful bodies. Nothing is quite so glaring, however, as the age mismatch between America’s leaders and its voters.

It is as though America went to sleep and suddenly awoke in Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. The former Soviet leader was 75 when he died.

What explains the grip of the old on a nation that is so young at heart? Part of it is the comfort of incumbency. There are French civil servants with less job security than US legislators. Because of gerrymandering and ideological sorting, Capitol Hill has a shrinking share of seats that are open to contest. In most cases, the only way of ejecting incumbents is by a challenge from within their party.

The more venerable the figure, the bigger the reputational risk to the aspiring Brutus. That is why no one dared take on the ailing Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic senator from California, who died in office last September aged 90. She was a political legend. It would have seemed cruel to point out her memory lapses in the twilight of her life.

Telling the old and experienced that their time is up takes gumption. Still, there are millions of liberals who wished they were a little more insistent that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court justice, had retired after she was diagnosed with cancer. Had she bowed out when Barack Obama was still president, the Supreme Court tilt would now be 5:4 against liberals, rather than 6:3. She died at 87 with just a few weeks left of Trump’s presidency.

Should Biden lose to Trump a fortnight shy of his 82nd birthday in November, he will turn into the ultra-Ginsburg of American history. It is hard to think of a parallel of an ageing politician wagering his vigour on such huge stakes.

To be sure, Trump is also old and mentally less sharp. If the choice is between two old men, one of whom supports democracy while the other openly threatens it, then it is no choice at all. But there are larger forces at work here. It is no accident that the age cohorts most sceptical of democracy are the youngest. Millennials and generation Z are the least pro-democratic generations in US history, according to the polls.

This is not typical of the young in previous eras, who agitated for more democracy, not less. Gen Z and younger millennials are far likelier to question America’s global military role, yet far more comfortable with globalisation. They are much more worried about climate change and far more welcoming of diversity. They are also least likely to believe in US exceptionalism. It is fashionable to joke about the young’s technology-addled attention spans. The observation may be fair. But it is no joke. They have something to say. Their minds urgently need to be engaged.

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