America, the Gerontocracy

My Comments: For some reason, I don’t feel threatened by having political leaders much younger than I. I do feel threatened by the passage of time and how it erodes the skill sets of people, me included.

Cognitive dissonance is a term I’m perhaps not qualified to use, but I’ve been around enough people in their 70’s and beyond to know it when I see it. When it’s obvious, it can be very disturbing and worrying, especially when it happens to elected leaders, ostensibly in charge of my welfare and that of my family.

People across the globe are living longer and longer. Those of us still on this side of the grass have an obligation to our children and grandchildren to leave this place as least as well off as we found it. That doesn’t seem to be happening today.

We cannot change the past; we can only work in the present and try to influence the future. It’s one reason I keep writing these posts. Given a choice, I’d prefer to vote next fall for someone younger than either Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden. Given a viable candidate, I’d vote for a millennial.

by Timothy Noah \ September 03, 2019 \

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.

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!

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.

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.