Not much is certain about the 2020 presidential race except one cold hard fact.
No matter who is elected—Joe Biden or Donald Trump, he will be the oldest man ever sent to the United States White House by American voters. At 77 and 74 respectively, neither Biden nor Trump is anywhere near spring chicken status, and that triggers more than a few thoughts about the aging of our nation’s leadership.
Are some of our leaders simply too old to serve—or as Trump sometimes put it, “losing it?”—or are we being ageist even to suggest that? Ronald Reagan was 77 when he left the White House, and more than one observer hinted that he had cognitive issues even then.
Here are the facts. We have age floors to run for political office—25 for the U.S. House, 30 for the U.S. Senate, and 35 for President.
We have no ceilings, however, and here are the ages of some of our other decision makers. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 80. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is 78. The oldest House member is Don Young of Alaska, 87, and seeking his 25th term in Congress. Senator Diane Feinstein is also 87 and has 3 years left in her current term. Senator Strom Thurman died at 100 and was by many accounts well into la-la land when he met his maker.
State and local officials around the nation skew a bit younger. Governor Roy Cooper is a spritely 63, and Fayetteville Mayor Mitch Colvin practically a teenager at 47.
Leaders of other nations are generally younger than ours as well. France’s President is 42; Austria’s 34; North Korea 36; and New
To what do we attribute our aging leadership, our gerontocracy, defined as a state, society, or group governed by old people?
Writing in Politico, Timothy Noah pictures a 3-legged stool.
Our leaders age in place. Many factors contribute to this. The power of incumbency keeps them in their jobs. The seniority system in Congress and state legislators guarantee that the longer one stays in office, the more powerful he/she is likely to become. And, over the last decade, extreme gerrymandering—North Carolina is ground zero of this phenomenon—makes the vast majority of seats in both Congress and state legislatures the absolute property of one party or the other. A small percentage of seats are actually partisanly competitive.
American voters are old. Pundits expound on the youth vote, which is certainly important, but reality is that Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, love to vote and do so reliably. This gives them clout that other demographics can only envy until they start voting in similar numbers.
And, finally, our nation itself is old. We like to think of ourselves as a youthful nation on the world stage, but in truth we are the world’s oldest existing democracy. According to Noah, no nation in the world has an older written Constitution than ours, and ours has become a tad creaky. In this election season, our Electoral College is front and center as a Constitutional relic that needs attention unless we want to continue seating Presidents who do not prevail in the popular vote. Other provisions, enacted by white property-owning men in the late 1700s, could stand another look as well.
So, do we establish mandatory retirement ages for our electeds? North Carolina has set 72 for our state judges, and we have lost many capable people and retained some we should not. The same could be true for Presidents, members of Congress, state legislators and others. There is a lot to be said for the wisdom that comes with age and the institutional memory that comes with service.
Once we install the next elderly white man into the White House, national, state, and local efforts to decrease gerontocracy should focus on the structures and processes that have allowed it to develop and take hold, not on the individuals blessed with longevity.