Very Old People Run America

Elderly political leadership is a symptom of a broken system.

“Gerontocracy is alive and well in the Kremlin,” read a New York Times editorial in 1976 that mocked the outcome of the 25th Soviet Communist Party Congress. “The clique of elderly gentlemen that has ruled the Soviet Union… remains in control.” There had been the token appointment to the Politburo of a new member who was “a mere stripling of 53,” said the editorial, but “the real kernel of power” remained with a small group of men whose average age exceeded 70. That included Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev, who died in office six years later at 76.

It was all good for a laugh back then, but reading the editorial now isn’t nearly as amusing. The political leadership of the United States is dominated by a clique of men and women well older than their 1970s-era Soviet counterparts. Joe Biden is 79, the oldest man ever to hold the presidency. Donald Trump, his predecessor—and likely opponent in 2024 if both men are still alive and choose to run—is currently 76.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Whip James Clyburn are 82. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is 83. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is 71. Vice President Kamala Harris is a youthful 57. The GOP’s leadership isn’t as elderly, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is 80. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is 57. Meanwhile, 54-percent of GOP senators are 65 or older (versus 46-percent of Democrats.) The median age of all members of congress is 60, versus the median age of 38 in the United States.

Just as it was in the Soviet Union, age is not the primary cause of our political problems, rather it’s a symptom of a system that is fundamentally broken. The Soviet Union was a one-party state where the Communist Party ruled unimpededly. Members of the Politburo—the top policy-making body—were nominally elected by the Party’s Central Committee, but it was in fact “a self-perpetuating body that itself decided which new members would be admitted and which members expelled.” If they hewed closely to the Communist Party line, as they invariably did, Politburo members could keep their posts for decades.

The US, of course, is a two-party system that is nominally a democracy but more accurately described as a plutocracy. Campaign finance laws allow the rich to contribute as much as they want to candidates and the political parties, much of it through Super PACs and dark money groups that mask who their donors are. Since it is so expensive to run for office, it’s almost impossible to do so successfully—unless you are rich yourself—without tailoring your positions to satisfy the wealthy donors needed to pay the campaign bills.

If members of Congress hew closely to the wishes of their wealthy donors, they’ll have no problem bringing in the necessary campaign cash (which is why incumbents almost inevitably vastly outraise challengers, especially ones deemed unreliable by the plutocracy). With flaccid campaign finance laws, no term limits and egregious gerrymandering of congressional districts by both parties, it’s virtually impossible for an incumbent to lose. The reelection rate in the House in 2020 was close to 95 percent and in the Senate it was almost 84 percent. And so, like the Soviet Politburo, Congress has become largely a “self-perpetuating body” where “aging, sclerotic political leaders… are unwilling to transform the systems that have so faithfully mirrored, elevated, and entrenched them,” as David Rosen of Public Citizen noted in an excellent Twitter thread on the topic.

When Trump was in office Democrats alleged he was mentally feeble and now Republicans say the same of Biden. Neither is as addled as their political opponents portray them, but it’s safe to say that both are in a state of mental decline because cognitive abilities diminish with age, and especially after reaching 70.

But even putting that aside, there are real problems with having such an elderly political leadership. Gerontocrats, as Rosen notes, often “misinterpret novel events and situations through the prism of outdated assumptions, experiences, and beliefs.” In other words, elderly political leaders often look out of touch because they are. Harken back here to 2006, when Ted Stevens, then the 82-year-old GOP senator for Alaska in charge of the Committee tasked with overseeing the internet, famously said that the internet is “a series of tubes… Those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it’s going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material.”

Gerontocrats also “tend to seek consensus with other leaders in their age cohort,” Rosen noted. This may partially explain why no one in Congress seems willing to talk directly with California Senator Dianne Feinstein about retiring, even though it’s an open secret that she is mentally addled. Feinstein is 89 and has been in office for 30 years. She has not ruled out running for reelection in 2024, when her current term ends. 

“Feinstein sometimes struggles to recall the names of colleagues, frequently has little recollection of meetings or telephone conversations, and at times walks around in a state of befuddlement,” said a New York Times story in May. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle said many colleagues believe she is “mentally incompetent” to serve.

Another likely explanation for the failure to confront Feinstein is that those in a position to do so are older too and if they show no signs of cognitive decline at the moment, they may be hesitant to speak out on the topic of aging members of Congress. After media accounts about Feinstein were published, Pelosi said it was “unconscionable” that she was “being subjected to these ridiculous attacks.”

The gerontocracy problem shows no sign of abating. During the 2020 congressional elections, the age groups with the biggest gains were “in the 80+ and 50-59 age group… while the 30-39 age group saw the biggest losses,” according to the website FiscalNote. Many elderly members are running for reelection this year, including Chuck Grassley—the second oldest senator at 88, and who has held that office since 1981.

Political reform would be harder because “Brezhnev and his colleagues have hoarded power so long” and hadn’t “been willing to retire gracefully before death or illness forced them to,” said that Times editorial back in 1976—written 17 years, incidentally, after Grassley began his political career as a member of the Iowa House of Representatives.

It’s impossible to miss the similarities to our current political situation, and wonder about the consequences.

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KEN SILVERSTEIN is an investigative reporter based in Washington, DC. His work has appeared in dozens of outlets, including VICE, Harper's, The New Republic, Slate, and The Nation.


KEN SILVERSTEIN is an investigative reporter based in Washington, DC. His work has appeared in dozens of outlets, including VICE, Harper's, The New Republic, Slate, and The Nation.

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