US politicians are too old and the short-term philosophy this encourages creates a vicious circle that is dooming the country
Both US presidential candidates would break the record for oldest age if elected, and many in Congress are pushing 90, with every reason to pursue short-term gain and leave the country holding the bag. How did this happen?
When conservative organization Students for Trump posted a video in which House Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler (D-New York) appeared to have soiled himself on live TV, even conservative media hesitated to pick it up, and quite a few Twitter users shamed the organization for mocking the 73-year-old, 15-term congressman. Even in 2020’s hyper-partisan climate, some thought it beyond the pale to make fun of an old man for apparently losing control of his bowels. And Nadler is actually youthful and vibrant compared to many of his colleagues.
Jerry Nadler ”Swalwelled” himself pic.twitter.com/s1L2Dsculf
— Students For Trump (@TrumpStudents) September 23, 2020
California Senator Dianne Feinstein, for example, is 87 years old. When a Politico piece recently referred to the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee as “frail” and admitted she occasionally seemed confused during press conferences, it was notable mostly for the rarity of that kind of criticism. The oldest member of the Senate, Feinstein should probably have retired long ago, but that same advice could be given to any of the senior members of both houses of Congress. Most have reached an age where one typically spends time playing golf or bridge and enjoying visits with the grandkids, not making laws that affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
Democrats aren’t the only party led by particularly elderly people, of course. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is 78 but sometimes seems even older, with the turtle-like pace at which he brings legislation to the floor matched only by his turtle-like visage and mannerisms. And 87-year-old Alaska Republican Don Young is the oldest member of the House, as well as its longest-serving member with 24 terms in office.
Thus, while it’s easy to pile on “Dementia Joe” Biden for his forgetfulness, confusion, and increasingly bizarre ramblings – “We hold these truths to be self evident: all men and women created by…you know, the thing” – this problem sprawls far beyond the presidential contest. At age 77, Biden would be the oldest president ever elected to the office, but Donald Trump’s not far behind. While a comparatively youthful 74, he, too, stumbles over words at times and is notably obese – a major risk factor in many life-shortening diseases.
This isn’t lost on the American people. More than half of voters in six swing states recently expressed doubts about the mental fitness of either candidate, although that hasn’t stopped scientists from gaslighting the American public. A study due to be published next month in the Journal on Active Aging claims both Trump and Biden are “super-agers” whose family history of longevity suggests they will both likely finish the next four years in good health.
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Why, it must be asked, are American politicians so old?
Old age in and of itself isn’t an impediment to statesmanship, of course. But the septuagenarian politicians running the country hail from a different generation than the majority of Americans, a time when government was respected instead of loathed and when gentility reigned in Washington. In 2019, just 17 percent of Americans told Pew Research that they felt they could trust the government “always” or “most of the time,” a near-historic low.
Fewer than three in five Americans bothered to go to the polls in 2016, and more Americans now identify as independent than with either of the two major parties. With such a large percentage checking out of the process entirely, it’s clear the superannuated politicians in key power positions are not doing their job in a way that satisfies the country. Worse, they’re coasting on a long-departed sense of respectability not felt by their younger constituents.
Growing up with the grotesque circus that Washington politics have become splashed across their TV screens, young people might be avoiding politics because they’re just not interested. Especially in the era of social media, when all of one’s youthful indiscretions can be dug up with a few mouse clicks, who would want “opposition researchers” digging through college party pics and police records, harassing friends and family, to hold a job that’s universally reviled?
Watching president after president promise an end to wars and a wealth of opportunities, only to deliver more of the same, younger generations are ever more disillusioned about the potential to make a difference by “going into politics.”
The gridlock one sees in Congress does not inspire faith that the important decisions are being made under the Capitol dome. Instead, the offices of Wall Street or think tanks or deep-pocketed NGOs beckon to power-hungry youngsters who’d rather get something done than bicker over minutiae and spend their time “dialing for dollars,” and even well-meaning civic-minded youngsters may avoid seeking office entirely to work in other sectors.
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Politicians in their twilight years also lack personal investment in the long-term outcome of their policies. So, what if opening up the Arctic Wildlife Refuge and other preserves to oil drilling (at a time when there’s so much oil on the market companies can’t even sell it) means cities like Miami and New York run the risk of ending up under water? They won’t be around to see it. And who cares if creating trillions of dollars out of thin air to keep the economy temporarily afloat will drown the nation in so much debt it will never realistically recover? That’s a problem for future generations! The advanced age of American politicians encourages the worst kind of short-term thinking, which is then absorbed by their younger colleagues.
In some ways, those politicians who refuse to leave Washington except in a box are acting out the fate of their constituents. Decades of plundering Social Security and other aspects of the New Deal safety net constructed during the Great Depression have left many elderly Americans with no choice but to keep working.
The desperation is so rampant that media have begun spinning it – a ‘feel-good’ story about an 89-year-old pizza delivery worker who received a generous $12,000 tip from a customer who felt sorry for him triggered a backlash last week as many argued no one should be forced to humiliate themselves for minimum wage at such an advanced age.
However, Congress has ensured its members’ own retirement will be comfortable, with cushy benefits that are more than enough to live on, even for those who don’t use their political posts to feather their nests.
As American politicians age further and even adopt party rules that bar young primary challengers from accessing party resources, the problem will only get worse. If the US doesn’t want to end its empire period as a disgraced gerontocracy, however, these elder statesmen would be wise to start thinking in the long term.
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