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America, the Gerontocracy

Timothy Noah is the employment & immigration editor at POLITICO. He has previously written for the New Republic and Slate, and is author of The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.

Hate crime is rising, the Arctic is burning, and the Dow is bobbing like a cork on an angry sea. If the nation seems intolerant, reckless and more than a little cranky, perhaps that’s because the American republic is showing its age. Somewhere along the way, a once-new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal (not men and women; that came later) became a wheezy gerontocracy. Our leaders, our electorate and our hallowed system of government itself are extremely old.

Let me stipulate at the outset that I harbor no prejudice toward the elderly. As a sexagenarian myself, not to mention as POLITICO’s labor policy editor, I’m fully mindful of the scourge of ageism. (I’ve had the misfortune on occasion to experience it firsthand.) But to affirm that America must work harder to include the elderly within its vibrant multicultural quilt is not to say it must be governed almost entirely by duffers. The cause of greater diversity would be advanced, not thwarted, if a few more younger people penetrated the ranks of American voters and American political leaders.

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Let’s start with the leaders.

Remember the Soviet Politburo? In the waning years of the Cold War, a frequent criticism of the USSR was that its ruling body was preposterously old and out of touch. Every May Day these geezers would show up on a Moscow reviewing stand, looking stuffed, and fix their rheumy gaze on a procession of jackbooted Red Army troops, missiles and tanks. For Americans, the sight was always good for a horselaugh. In 1982, when Leonid Brezhnev, the last of that generation to hold power for any significant length of time, went to his reward, the median age of a Politburo member was 71. No wonder the Evil Empire was crumbling!

Soviet Communist Party leader Yuri Andropov, with other high ranking officials flanking him atop the Lenin’s tomb, speaks at the funeral of Leonid Brezhnev in Red Square in Moscow on Monday, Nov. 15, 1982.

Soviet Communist Party leader Yuri Andropov, with other high ranking officials flanking him atop the Lenin’s tomb, speaks at the funeral of Leonid Brezhnev in Red Square in Moscow on Monday, Nov. 15, 1982. | AP Photo 1982

You see where this is going. The U.S. doesn’t have a Politburo, but if you calculate the median age of the president, the speaker of the House, the majority leader of the Senate, and the three Democrats leading in the presidential polls for 2020, the median age is … uh … 77.

It doesn’t stop there. We heard a lot last November about the fresh new blood entering Congress, but when the current session began in January, the average ages of House and Senate members were 58 and 63, respectively. That’s slightly older than the previous Congress (58 and 62), which was already among the oldest in history. The average age in Congress declined through the 1970s but it’s mostly increased since the 1980s.

The Deep State is no spring chicken, either. POLITICO’s Danny Vinik reported two years ago that nearly 30 percent of the civilian federal workforce was over 55; two decades earlier, it was closer to 15 percent. Of course, the entire U.S. workforce is getting older, thanks to the aging of the Baby Boom—that giant Hula-Hoop-shaking cohort born during the prosperous post-World War II years from 1946 to 1964. But the federal bureaucracy is even older, apparently because civil-servant Boomers, despite their defined-benefit pensions, are less inclined than their private-sector counterparts to retire.

America’s ruling class is of course more nimble than the Politburo ever was. And indeed, the two Democratic presidential candidates proposing the most dramatic departure from the status quo are Bernie Sanders, who’ll turn 78 on September 8, and Elizabeth Warren, who’s 70. Still, there’s something to be said for youth and vigor. John F. Kennedy (then 43) tapped into that feeling in his 1960 bid to succeed Dwight D. Eisenhower (then 70) when he campaigned on the slogan, “Let’s get America moving again.”

Why should we care how old our leaders are? As the journalist Michael Tortorello reported three years ago in POLITICO Magazine, cognitive functioning declines dramatically on average after age 70, and the types of intelligence that decline most sharply on average are “the capacity to absorb large amounts of new information and data in a short time span and apply it to solve problems in unaccustomed fashion.” It would seem advisable to have at least a few more people in the higher reaches of government on whom we can rely still to possess this skill in youthful abundance.

The cognitive-function issue is not a theoretical one, if political commentators are to be believed. The past month has brought near-daily speculation about our 73 year-old president’s state of mind. “He’s getting worse,” CNN’s Brian Stelter said last month. “We can all see it. It’s happening in public.” In recent weeks, Trump has canceled a meeting with the Danish prime minister because she wouldn’t discuss selling Greenland; suggested that his own Florida resort be the site of the next G-7 conference; and been quoted suggesting that hurricanes be deterred from reaching landfall in the U.S. through the detonation of nuclear weapons. “If Donald Trump were your father, you would run, not walk, to a neurologist for an evaluation of his cognitive health,” John Gartner, a psychologist, wrote in an April USA Today op-ed.

Trump, McConnell, Schumer and Pelosi at the White House

President Donald Trump speaks to, from left, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., during a meeting with Congressional leaders in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) | Evan Vucci/AP Photo

Whether Trump’s cognition is declining is a question muddied by a wealth of evidence that his speech and behavior were always at least somewhat erratic. (This is a man, recall, who more than 30 years ago confessed to giving his second-grade music teacher a black eye, which may not even be true.) A similar ambiguity surrounds Joe Biden, 76, whose well-documented history of verbal gaffes helped sink two previous presidential candidacies, one of them (similarly) more than 30 years ago. “Biden has always made gaffes by the bushel,” Fox News commentator Brit Hume (who’s also 76) tweeted last month after Biden appeared to think he was in Vermont when he was really in New Hampshire (a state of no small significance in the primary race). “But some of his recent ones suggest the kind of memory loss associated with senility.” (Trump and Biden’s physicians, I should note, have vouched emphatically for their mental fitness.)

Even if the speculation that Trump and/or Biden might be a little bit gaga is unfounded and terribly unfair, isn’t it strange that we’re talking about the 2020 front-runners in the same worried tone we might adopt discussing with our siblings whether Mom and Pop should still be driving? It isn’t the first time. The 2016 election occasioned more muted speculation along the same lines about Trump, and even a little bit about his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, who’s only slightly younger.

None of this means a septuagenarian can’t function effectively as a political leader. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell are 79 and 77, respectively, and by all reports they’re operating at peak mental capacity. But to affirm that not all elderly people are impaired cognitively is very different from affirming that none is.

Even the healthy older brain is, well, different from the healthy younger brain, and if you care about politics that’s worth making some effort to understand. Certain tasks are just harder as you get older, even if you’re very smart. Your mental reflexes are slower. (How do I know? None of your damn business.) It takes you longer to remember someone’s name. Multitasking is more challenging. Learning foreign languages is more difficult, and adjusting to unfamiliar cultures is perhaps a bit harder. You can overcome these obstacles if you make some effort, but not everybody—not even all American leaders—makes the effort.

The most important compensating benefit to old age is greater wisdom, which comes from experience. When you’re making decisions that affect others, it’s much better to have a deep well of experience to draw on than to maintain the mental reflexes of an auctioneer. Wisdom may be more valuable in the digital age than ever before, because the velocity of information and normative judgments on social media, cable news and elsewhere constantly threatens to make glib idiots of us all.

But here’s the rub: The aging of America’s ruling class does not automatically increase its experience level. In presidential politics, notes Brookings Institution senior fellow Jonathan Rauch, political experience, which “used to be a selling point,” has “become a liability. Voters and the public have come to see experience as inauthenticity.”

In a November 2015 Atlantic article, Rauch plotted experience level for presidential candidates from 1960 to 2012. His graph showed a clear increase in experience level among the losers and a corresponding decrease among the winners. Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter. George H.W. Bush won with more political experience than Michael Dukakis, but four years later lost to Bill Clinton, who had less. John McCain lost to Barack Obama, who’d been in national politics a mere four years.

Donald Trump, who is 73, entered the Oval Office with no political experience at all. The single greatest mental compensation that age provides was therefore unavailable to the oldest president in American history.

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statistics from the story about elderly voters

Pew Research Center / Portland State University

Why is America governed by old people? Maybe because it has so many elderly voters.

The American electorate is older than it’s been for at least half a century. One reason is aging Boomers. The other is the greater tendency (despite a rising mortality rate) of people who make it into old age to go on living. By 2030, every living Boomer will be elderly (that is, age 65 or older), and by 2035, the Census Bureau projects, the elderly will outnumber minors for the first time in U.S. history.

This demographic trend has an exaggerated effect on politics. According to the Pew Research Center, in the 2020 election nearly one-quarter of the electorate (23 percent) will be elderly, “the highest such share since at least 1970.” But that understates the size of the elderly vote because the elderly are much likelier than any other age group to show up on Election Day. Old people really like to vote. In 2016, for instance, 71 percent of eligible elderly voters reported to the Census that they voted. For other age cohorts, the turnout percentages were 67 percent (aged 45-64), 59 percent (aged 30-44) and 46 percent (aged 18-29).

The electorate is even older in primaries, and older still in local elections. In 2016 Phil Keisling, chairman of the National Vote at Home Institute, led a Portland State University survey of 50 cities that found the median voter age in municipal elections was 57, “nearly a generation older than the median age of eligible voters.”

The broad outlines of this trend are widely understood, which explains why, for instance, Donald Trump said in 2015 that “I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican.” (He nonetheless proposed in this year’s budget to cut more than $ 500 billion from Social Security and Medicare, which he’d also pledged to protect, but that’s another story.) It helps explain why the federal government spends more on Medicare, which provides medical coverage to elderly people, than it does on Medicaid, which provides medical coverage to poor people. (Another reason for the difference is that the elderly require more health care.)

It also may help explain why racial tolerance seems in some respects to be in decline, as measured, for instance, by the unnerving quasi-respectability afforded white nationalism by some mainstream players in national politics (including Trump). The elderly, polls show, are in the aggregate less concerned about racial prejudice than the young. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey found a 21-point spread between the elderly and young adults (18-29) when they were asked whether racial discrimination was the “main reason many blacks can’t get ahead,” with 54 percent of young adults answering in the affirmative but only 33 percent of the elderly. The age divide on this question was almost as wide as the 24-point divide between black respondents and white.

Similarly, political support for immigration restrictions may reflect an aging electorate. Pew found a majority in all age categories agreed that “immigrants strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents,” but the spread between the elderly and young adults was 31 points, with 51 percent of the elderly answering in the affirmative but 82 percent of young adults.

It’s often claimed that the elderly care less about the future than the young, but that’s a canard. The elderly care quite a bit about what will happen to a world they spent a lifetime building and populating with their children and grandchildren. (Their lives wouldn’t have much meaning if they didn’t.) Recent polls show the elderly care, if anything, slightly more about the budget deficit than other age groups (despite not wanting to give up Medicare and Social Security benefits), and are slightly less inclined to complain they pay too much in taxes.

That said, the young care a lot more than the old about climate change. Polls aggregated by Gallup from 2015 to 2018 show that concern about it drops with age. Fully 70 percent of respondents age 18-34 worried “a great deal” or “a fair amount” about global warming, compared with 63 percent age 35-54 and 56 percent age 55 and up. That’s a 14-point generation gap between the young and the elderly and near-elderly.

You often hear older Americans complain that the younger generation, with its fixation on social media, can’t distinguish between fact and opinion, making it difficult for them to apply the critical thinking necessary to consume news and be responsible citizens. A 2018 Pew survey found that Americans do indeed experience great difficulty telling these two things apart: Given five factual statements and five statements of opinion, a majority of Americans couldn’t identify them properly.

But younger Americans actually scored better on this test than older ones. Thirty-two percent of 18-49 year-olds were able to identify all five factual statements, and 44 percent were able to identify all five statements of opinion. Among the over-50 cohort, only 20 percent identified all five factual statements correctly, and only 26 percent did the same with the statements of opinion.

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U.S. Capitol paintings. Declaration of Independence, painting by John Trumbull in U.S. Capitol, detail II

U.S. Capitol paintings. Declaration of Independence, painting by John Trumbull in U.S. Capitol, detail II | Library of Congress

The final leg of America’s gerontocratic triad is its system of government. That, too, is old and a bit creaky.

We think of ourselves as a young country, and in many respects we are. But we are also, as Paul Ryan famously noted in 2016, “the oldest democracy,” provided you exclude older ones that didn’t last (Athens, Rome) and ignore various undemocratic restrictions to the franchise that persisted into the 20th century. No nation in the world has a written Constitution older than ours. And it shows.

The list of the Constitution’s anachronisms and ambiguities is long.

Article One says Congress may “regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States,” phrasing that strictly limited the regulation of private business at the federal level until the New Deal, when the Supreme Court reversed itself and concluded the federal government’s power to regulate private business was pretty vast. Had the Founders grasped that the modern economy would all but eliminate purely local commerce—and that it could, unchecked, alter the very climate of planet earth—they might have had more to say on the subject. As things stand, the powers of the regulatory state are the subject of endless legal combat.

Article Two says you must be a “natural born Citizen” to be president, which excludes for no apparent reason Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jennifer Granholm, who previously governed two of the nation’s most populous states. The racist “birther” movement that challenged the legality of Barack Obama’s presidency (and that ushered Donald Trump onto the national political stage) wouldn’t have been possible without Article Two.

Article Two also established that presidents be elected through the Electoral College, an antique mechanism borrowed from the Holy Roman Empire that twice during the past two decades delivered the presidency to the popular-vote loser. Some people have a problem with that.

The Second Amendment frames the right to bear arms within the context of “well-regulated” state militias that no longer exist, an ambiguity that the Supreme Court interpreted in 2008 to mean the Constitution protected the right to bear arms, after holding for the preceding seven decades that it did not. Had the Founders known the extent to which the nation would tear itself apart over the regulation of firearms more deadly than they ever imagined, they might have laid down a few broad parameters.

Interior of the Capitol Building dome

The interior of the Capiotl Building dome | M. Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO

And so on. None of this would matter much if our government were more amenable to reconsidering first principles, but that’s getting harder, too. The Constitution can be amended, and it has been, 27 times. But growing political polarization in recent years has made that difficult. Only two constitutional amendments were ratified during the past half-century (one giving 18-year-olds the right to vote and another, more anodyne amendment that makes it a little harder for Congress to give itself a raise).

Congress could perhaps pick up some of the slack, but it’s slowed down, too. According to the Pew Research Center, Congress passes fewer substantive laws today than it did 30 years ago. Increased use of the filibuster (which is not mentioned in the Constitution, but has been around almost as long) almost certainly played a role, and a fed-up Senate has during the past decade started phasing out its use. In a provocative June 2018 essay in Commentary, the political scientist Yuval Levin posited that 231 years on, Congress had acquired a problem James Madison never anticipated: a reluctance to compete with the other two branches of government in the exercise of power. Partisanship, he concluded, had displaced ambition to legislate. Senators and representatives, he wrote, now “see themselves as players in a larger political ecosystem the point of which is not legislating or governing but rather engaging in a kind of performative outrage for a partisan audience.” Levin didn’t put it this way, but he seemed to be suggesting that Congress had grown decadent, like fin de siècle Vienna, but without the solace of Sacher tortes.

A more modest theory of governmental decadence was set forward by Rauch in his 1994 book Demosclerosis. The idea was that democracy had developed arteriosclerosis, not because its system of government was creaky, but rather because the accumulating power of interest groups over time was choking it like a weed. Demosclerosis differs from gridlock, Rauch argued, because gridlock implies that nothing gets done. In a demosclerotic government, plenty gets done. Rather, Rauch wrote, the government’s ability to solve problems is compromised because it can’t easily reassign a finite set of resources. Old allocations must continue, and therefore new allocations can’t be experimented with.

Think of it, Rauch says, like leaving a bicycle in the rain. The bicycle may be perfectly fine, but if you leave it outside long enough rust will corrode it. All things considered, Rauch says, the Constitution is in excellent working condition. But its machinery has been left out too long in the rain.

Bringing a bicycle in from the rain should be within the ability of America’s somewhat doddering polity. Our gerontocracy is a bit rheumatic, but it isn’t hopeless. Still, the task will likely be easier and go much faster if a few more young hands pitch in.

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