America’s Gerontocracy Poses Great Risks

 

Americans seem oblivious to the implications of our government becoming a gerontocracy, governance by the elderly. All three branches of the federal government have key leaders who would be deemed long past retirement age in the private sector.

Ronald Reagan was so far our oldest president. Opponents derided his age and purported lack of attention to governing. Yet President Trump will be 74 in June, a year older than Reagan when he sought reelection in 1984.

Trump’s leading challenger, Joe Biden, is 77. Bernie Sanders is 78, Michael Bloomberg is 77, and Elizabeth Warren is “only” 70, older than Reagan when he was first elected.

President Trump was impeached recently in the House, where “senior“ leadership means just that. Nancy Pelosi, soon to become the oldest House Speaker ever, is 79, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is 80, and Majority Whip James Clyburn is 79. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is 77, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is 69.

The Supreme Court has two even older justices. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 86, and Stephen Breyer at 81 are members of that small, elite group who are the deciders on many of the major policy issues of our day.

How did we drift into this position of having so many super-seniors at the helm? One answer is that life expectancy generally for Americans has increased, so it’s inevitable that, absent the restrictions faced by those in other walks of life, the average age of politicians (and justices) would rise.

Plus, most politicians at or near the top like their gig. They are the center of attention, their opinions are solicited, and they have large staffs who do the actual work and make them look good. Electoral politics selects for those people who value such things.

Yet while advances in medical care have improved life expectancy and quality of life, physical and mental deterioration are still part of the aging process. The rise in life expectancy has resulted in millions of Americans living with diminished capacity, some of whom hold office.

For now, the situation seems under control. One presidential candidate has noticeable difficulty organizing his thoughts into coherent sentences, much less paragraphs. At least one Supreme Court justice is physically and mentally compromised, but nothing important has gone off the tracks. Yet.

Americans are taking a risk we are likely to lose eventually by having so many elderly leaders. Death in office itself doesn’t greatly affect the interests of the republic. Replacing a leader who passes away is handled through clearly defined legal procedures and seldom causes much disruption.

The more problematic scenario would involve gradual mental deterioration. The 25th amendment provides that the president can be removed “whenever the vice president and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide” offer a “written declaration that the president is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

But it wouldn’t be that simple. Anyone who has tried to talk an elderly parent out of driving when a few dents appear on the car may have a small taste of what it would be like to attempt to convince the powerful POTUS, who would likely still have some loyal supporters, to leave office without causing a political conflagration.

We have some experience with disability in office and it’s not good. Many historians feel that Woodrow Wilson‘s exit from the world stage following his stroke post World War I may have enabled the other victors to impose onerous conditions on Germany, which led to the rise of the Nazis and World War II.

At the Yalta summit concluding WW II, a feeble, ailing FDR was unable to stand up to Joseph Stalin (nor to Soviet sympathizers on his own staff). The result was the needless surrender of eastern Europe and China to the communist sphere, which has shaped world affairs ever since.

There aren’t obvious, short-term answers. The Supreme Court should have constitutional term limits or age restrictions to update their conditions of service to modern times. For the rest, Americans should recognize that our elected politicians aren’t a super-race immune to decline in their golden years.


Thomas C. Patterson served as both Minority Leader and Majority Leader in the Arizona State Senate, where he served for a decade. He was the chairman of the Goldwater Institute, Arizona School Choice Trust, and the Arizona Advisory Council for the US Commission on Civil Rights. Patterson also served as President of Emergency Physicians, Inc.

There are 15 comments.

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  1. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    It takes a certain kind of ego to be a politician. Most of us would have preferred to retire.

    • #1
  2. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    its not just that we are living longer its that we are healthier longer as well.

    Boomers are still our largest voting block

    Gen X basically doesn’t exist sandwiched between our 2 largest generations Boomers and Millennials.

    The oldest Millenials are just starting to hit their career stride.

    • #2
  3. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    I don’t see why we should be taking this kind of guff from some young whippersnapper who has no respect for his elders.

    • #3
  4. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    How did we get here? Because it is nice and cozy to have that gig for decades – at least the presidency is only two terms, and we we should have term limits. These lifetime politicians become very powerful.  I am all for making them step aside, like a company makes you retire at a certain age. There are some who don’t have all oars in the water and it’s obvious (sleepy Joe and Nancy P come to mind).

    • #4
  5. OldPhil Coolidge
    OldPhil
    @OldPhil

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    I don’t see why we should be taking this kind of guff from some young whippersnapper who has no respect for his elders.

    See the source image

    • #5
  6. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    OldPhil (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    I don’t see why we should be taking this kind of guff from some young whippersnapper who has no respect for his elders.

    See the source image

    It’s true – Clint can kill you with a can of beer . . .

    • #6
  7. Philopus Inactive
    Philopus
    @Philopus

    My understanding is that “retirement” was a concept promoted for the sake of industry. Retirement was a way for businesses to get rid of old, worn out, workers. People who do hard manual labor typically are worn out by 60 or so. Industrial age structures don’t seem justified with the current workforce. This seems evident when you see how many “retired” people are gainfully employed after their retirement.

    While there are a good percentage of older people who have cognitive issues, the same can be said for younger people too.

    It seems to me that term limits is the best way to prevent older, and younger, politicians from staying around longer than they should.

    • #7
  8. colleenb Member
    colleenb
    @colleenb

    Instead of term limits maybe go with age limits? Supreme Court, Senate, and House members would all have to leave/retire at 80? And I would disagree just slightly that someone dying in office or getting so sick they can’t work is not a problem. Its expensive to have these extra elections and you get the Thad Cochran situation where they run and they quit almost immediately. In fact barring death or sickness, I would make a rule that you have to stay in office and complete your term. Who was the California rep who almost immediately retired after winning office to take over the Wilson Institute? What a waste of (voter’s)time and (taxpayer’s) money. At the least, you should have to pay for the extra election. 

    • #8
  9. Bishop "Ciaramella" Wash Member
    Bishop "Ciaramella" Wash
    @BishopWash

    Guruforhire (View Comment):

    its not just that we are living longer its that we are healthier longer as well.

    Boomers are still our largest voting block

    Gen X basically doesn’t exist sandwiched between our 2 largest generations Boomers and Millennials.

    The oldest Millenials are just starting to hit their career stride.

    For thirty years we’ve had Presidents, with the exception of Obama, born within three months of each other. Is Obama considered the tail end of Boomers? With a Boomer almost certainly going to win the next election and Millenials hitting their career stride, a Gen Xer might never see the Presidency.

    • #9
  10. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    Bishop "Ciaramella" … (View Comment):

    Guruforhire (View Comment):

    its not just that we are living longer its that we are healthier longer as well.

    Boomers are still our largest voting block

    Gen X basically doesn’t exist sandwiched between our 2 largest generations Boomers and Millennials.

    The oldest Millenials are just starting to hit their career stride.

    For thirty years we’ve had Presidents, with the exception of Obama, born within three months of each other. Is Obama considered the tail end of Boomers? With a Boomer almost certainly going to win the next election and Millenials hitting their career stride, a Gen Xer might never see the Presidency.

    Correct Gen X has been and will continue to be irrelevant to american politics.

    • #10
  11. Charles Mark Member
    Charles Mark
    @CharlesMark

    I think Biden, Sanders and Trump are all too old to be running for President, with the proviso that Trump does seem to have extraordinary energy-levels. 

    • #11
  12. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    Charles Mark (View Comment):

    I think Biden, Sanders and Trump are all too old to be running for President, with the proviso that Trump does seem to have extraordinary energy-levels.

    He is legitimately a genetic freak which also is part of his disorganization and extraordinarily low sleep levels.

    • #12
  13. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    I remember when Strom Thurmond was in his 90’s and one of his constituents remarked, “We have to keep re-electing Strom.  The shock of losing an election could kill him.”

    JoelB (View Comment):

    It takes a certain kind of ego to be a politician. Most of us would have preferred to retire.

    Yeah, John McCain considered himself so absolutely vital to the Senate that he refused to step down even though he knew he was dying. 

    Tom Patterson: Trump’s leading challenger, Joe Biden, is 77. Bernie Sanders is 78, Michael Bloomberg is 77, and Elizabeth Warren is “only” 70, older than Reagan when he was first elected.

    I haven’t seen Bloomberg on TV all that much but I would not have thought he was that old.  I guess being a New York billionaire keeps a man young.  I’d give it a shot myself but I just don’t want to live in New York.

    • #13
  14. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    Some traditional societies recognize the wisdom that comes with age. Age itself must not be a criteria, but recognizing the frailties that come with it, perhaps we must seek some better kind of accommodation when performance of duties becomes an issue. 

    • #14
  15. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Charles Mark (View Comment):
    Trump does seem to have extraordinary energy-levels.

    Melania does smile a lot . . .

    • #15

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