America's extremely elderly politicians have had their day in the sun. They should step back and let the young start making decisions that will shape the future they'll have to live in.
The Senate is a social club for old people.
It’s right there in the name. The word comes from the Latin senex, meaning “old”. It’s the same root as in words like “senior” and “senile”.
Idealistically, the US Senate, like the Roman Senate, was meant to embody the collective wisdom of the aged. It was supposed to temper the fiery passion of younger people with its maturity and gravitas. The founders famously called it a “cooling saucer” to contrast to the scalding tea of the House of Representatives.
That didn’t work out the way they hoped.
A kingdom of the very old
Instead, the Senate has become the source of gridlock and stagnation. It’s the body that most reliably prevents those who win an election from being able to govern.
It’s also a gerontocracy. It’s a kingdom of the very old, who cling to their seats as fiercely as if it might stave off approaching death. One of those seats has just been freed up from the cold, dead hands of its previous occupant:
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was first elected to the U.S. Senate from California in 1992 in a wave election known as “the Year of the Woman” and went on to champion gun control, has died at her home in Washington, D.C. She was 90 years old.“Dianne Feinstein, longest serving woman in the Senate, has died at 90.” Scott Schafer, NPR, 29 September 2023.
If I sound overly flippant, that’s not my intention. I don’t mean to be cruel, but I can’t ignore the dark irony of this situation.
If Dianne Feinstein had retired earlier, she’d have had a distinguished career to boast about. Instead, she made herself a punchline by clinging to her seat long after she should have relinquished it. Indeed, she may have held on so long that she no longer had the capacity to give it up. In the months leading up to her death, there were persistent rumors that she had dementia and was being puppeteered by her staff.
This isn’t solely a Democratic problem. On the Republican side, Iowa senator Chuck Grassley is 90 years old and just won reelection in 2022. There’s also whatever malady (a mini-stroke?) afflicted Mitch McConnell, on camera, twice:
Sen. Mitch McConnell appeared to freeze momentarily at an event in Covington, Ky., after having been asked by a reporter about running for reelection in 2026.
It’s the second time that the 81-year-old Republican seemed briefly unable to speak in public in a little over a month.
…In all, the six-term senator silently held on to the podium silently for about 30 seconds and failed to answer the posed question.“Mitch McConnell appears to freeze again while talking to reporters in Kentucky.” Sylvia Goodman, NPR, 31 August 2023.
If this problem seems like it’s gotten worse, you’re not wrong. This is one of the oldest Congresses ever, even put against a trend of both the House and the Senate getting older over the last few decades. Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation make up more than half of Congress, as compared to about 17% of the overall U.S. population. (And yes, this is an argument that could be made against Joe Biden running for reelection—but it also applies to Bernie Sanders or to Donald Trump, who are all about the same age. It’s truly a bipartisan issue.)
Why not just enjoy retirement?
There are several reasons for this. There’s the overall aging trend of the population, which results in a greater number of elderly people participating in society in general.
There’s the advantage of incumbency, which matters more and more in a deeply polarized country where few elections are truly competitive and most of the action is in primaries.
There’s the fact of skyrocketing inequality, which favors the older generations who’ve had the most time to accumulate wealth. Meanwhile, the younger generations are further behind than ever. Millions can’t even afford houses or retirement savings, let alone the kind of financial war chest it takes to wage a campaign for office.
But while that explains why the old have a structural advantage, it doesn’t account for why they themselves choose to cling to their seats past the point of absurdity, when they could have been enjoying a comfortable retirement.
Mitt Romney had a theory that seems to explain this:
He joked to friends that the Senate was best understood as a “club for old men.” There were free meals, on-site barbers, and doctors within a hundred feet at all times. But there was an edge to the observation: The average age in the Senate was 63 years old. Several members, Romney included, were in their 70s or even 80s. And he sensed that many of his colleagues attached an enormous psychic currency to their position—that they would do almost anything to keep it. “Most of us have gone out and tried playing golf for a week, and it was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna kill myself,'” he told me. Job preservation, in this context, became almost existential. Retirement was death. The men and women of the Senate might not need their government salary to survive, but they needed the stimulation, the sense of relevance, the power.“What Mitt Romney Saw in the Senate.” McKay Coppins, The Atlantic, 13 September 2023.
I’d imagine this is what happened with senators like Feinstein and McConnell. And the country as a whole is worse for it.
It’s one of the deficiencies of our Constitution that it doesn’t account for this. The 25th Amendment allows an incapacitated president to be removed from office, but there’s no such provision for members of Congress. There should be.
There’s danger in this, because it’s easy to imagine how this power could be abused. It shouldn’t be possible for a single doctor to override the collective will of the voters on a mere say-so. Nevertheless, with adequate due process, there should be a way to medically compel a member of Congress to step down so they can be replaced.
The humility to step aside
Beyond the specific problem of medically unfit elected officials, there’s the broader problem of Congress and our leadership just being too damn old.
You could argue that there’s advantage in this, because the elderly have more wisdom and experience which they can bring to bear on solving tough problems. However, you could also argue that the old have had their day in their sun already and should know when to step back. They might be suited as advisors and counselors, but they shouldn’t be dictators.
The younger generations deserve a chance to shape the future they’re going to inherit. They shouldn’t have to live under the heavy burden of choices made by those who won’t live to see them play out.
Indeed, that’s the counterargument to the “wisdom and experience” argument. The dark side of that is that the old can make destructive decisions that aid their reelection in the short term, because they don’t have to concern themselves with the long term.
An ideal example is, yes, Dianne Feinstein arrogantly telling young constituents that she wouldn’t vote for the Green New Deal because it’s too expensive to save the planet from climate change:
In a video posted on Facebook by the Sunrise Movement, a youth climate-change advocacy group, more than a dozen children and several adults from multiple advocacy organizations including Sunrise Movement and Youth vs. Apocalypse, another youth climate-change advocacy group based in the San Francisco Bay Area, meet with the senator to present her a letter they wrote and ask her to vote yes on the deal. The California Democrat argues that the policy is unworkable and says she doesn’t agree with it.
“There’s reasons why I can’t, ’cause there’s no way to pay for it,” she says, adding, “I don’t agree with what the resolution says. That’s part of it.”
…The conversation at times grew heated, especially when Feinstein dismissed the group’s request due to their tone and their youth.
A young woman tells Feinstein she’s “looking at the faces of the people who will be living with these consequences” of climate change.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I know what I’m doing,” Feinstein says. “You come in here and you say, ‘It has to be my way or the highway.’ I don’t respond to that.”“Dianne Feinstein’s climate change discussion with schoolchildren gets heated.” Caroline Kelly, CNN, 23 February 2019.
There’s no better example of a decision that the very old should stay out of. They’ve done enough damage. Their children and grandchildren are going to inherit a hotter, more dangerous, more chaotic world thanks to them. They should at least have the humility to step aside and let younger generations decide among themselves what to do about it.
We don’t need more Dianne Feinsteins. We don’t need more ossified leadership, clinging to power as their bodies and minds disintegrate, standing in the gap and preventing desperately needed change one last time.
Despite his advanced age, I’ll give Joe Biden credit because he hasn’t done this. His leadership has been admirably progressive and responsive to issues that concern the young. Even so, his day will be over soon, along with other politicians of his generation. It’s inevitable that the Silents and Baby Boomers will give way to the Millennials and Gen Z. Hopefully, that transition will be a dam breaking that clears the way to a brighter future.