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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.