I was chatting with a similarly-progressive friend about politics recently and they bemoaned elderly politicians ruining a future that they won’t even live long enough to reap the dire consequences of.
“There should be an age limit for politicians,” they said.
I got where they were coming from. How could I not?
Joe Biden comes across as “older, deflated, and stuck on revisiting a bygone era of American politics” in which parties could actually meet in the middle. If he weren’t the president, the trust he places in a party and its politicians that will stop at nothing to deny Americans democracy and civil rights would be merely laughable. Ha ha, he’s like trusting Charlie Brown and Mitch McConnell is Lucy pulling away the football.
But he’s the president. His inaction is dangerous and infuriating.
And Dianne Feinstein’s mental faculties have been in question for a while; she’ll be 89 in a week. But even if she didn’t forget conversations she just had, she would still no longer be a good political fit. While I respect her political achievements from decades ago, her being tougher on youth climate activists than a relatively inexperienced and clearly partisan Supreme Court pick shows just how useless she is in dealing with today’s pressing issues.
But still, some are more active, mentally alert, and compassionate at 80 than others are at younger ages. To the friend I stood with for hours to attend a Bernie Sanders rally, I posed the question: would you want Bernie to have already left office? It wasn’t a “gotcha” question — just curiosity.
“You’re right,” they acquiesced. “I wouldn’t want him out of office. Maybe that was a little ageist.”
I think many young progressives, myself included, can attribute a rise in political interest and activity to Bernie Sanders. As old as he is, he didn’t pander to us; our positions had already been his positions for decades. Or otherwise, we had ignored those positions because we didn’t think they would ever be embraced by a presidential candidate commanding sizable attention.
Yet as much as I respect Sanders, it’s not as though no young person could take his place. There could very well be someone half his age in Vermont who could do a better job but is unable to raise the money to run for office or command voters’ attention as a relative nobody.
In any case, I would guess he feels obligated to stay in office as long as he can, no matter what. To leave now as one of the only progressives in the Senate at a critical point in American history would probably feel like betrayal for many.
At age 80, Sanders is slightly older than many of the politicians I’ve seen most criticized as being “too old for politics,” such as Biden or Trump.
I usually hear a maximum age limit for holding office being embraced by progressives, frustrated by old politicians truly not understanding and acting on the economic and environmental issues that instill deep — and well-founded — pessimism in the future.
However, that observation is probably stemming from my own political echo chamber. In a YouGov poll, Republicans were actually the most likely group to support such a policy.
Nevertheless, a majority of Democrats, independents, and Republicans polled actually all agreed on this topic, with 58% of Americans believing there should be a maximum age limit.
There are admittedly very few old politicians I can trust to do the right thing. However, there are also just not that many politicians of any age who I trust.
The main issues I’ve heard people cite in favor of an age limit are an inability to care about or act on critical issues that will make or break young people’s futures — such as climate change and student debt — as well as potential mental declines.
Yet if a politician doesn’t embody either of those traits, I personally don’t see an inherent problem with that individual holding office.
As a trend, however, it’s more troubling, indicative of a system that resists change, relies on money, and champions adherence to party lines.
The ages of American politicians are strikingly high, especially relative to other countries. The average age of a world leader whose country belongs to the 38-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is twenty years younger than Trump, almost twenty-five years younger than Biden (as of 2020).
Unlike many European parliamentary systems, a presidential system — America’s in particular — is driven primarily by who has the most resources. Long-time political insiders, through decades of accruing the right connections within the establishment, can better withstand the huge financial pressures of a major campaign.
The presidential campaign between Trump and Biden was “projected to cost $6.6 billion — more than was spent on the White House race and every congressional campaign combined in 2016.” And based on the steady increase in spending each election year, it seems likely that amount in 2024 will grow.
And even the candidates who are independently rich—Bloomberg, Trump, Steyer — entered politics relatively late, after they had built their wealth.
However, Republicans are actually doing a better job in this regard. Despite their share of elderly politicians, they still elevate and value young counterparts more than Democrats do. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could be the face of a new Democratic Party: young, progressive, not beholden to lobbyists, and a political outsider. A 32-year-old woman of color who had worked as a waitress and bartender and has student loans is much more likely to resonate with many overlooked voters.
The Democratic Party needs her, and others like her, to be relevant and useful to the demographics it takes for granted — young people and people of color —who are becoming increasingly politically disillusioned and less supportive of Biden. Older politicians like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren may have inspired many, but the party needs others to pass the torch to.
And yet Ocasio-Cortez considered sitting out after her first term, citing “the lack of support from [Democrats], [Democrats] thinking [she’s] the enemy,” despite all she brings to a party “blinded [by] anti-activist sentiment.” For example, her assistance in swing district elections in 2020 was proven extremely valuable — to the few candidates who actually accepted her help.
Going forward, the older politicians with all of the power must realize that it’s political suicide to ignore the concerns of young people and the benefits that younger politicians bring to the table. Enacting spending limits in political campaigns would also be key in making room for younger candidates.
Yet even in a better United States where that actually happened (I am pessimistic), not all problems would be fixed. Alongside other possible safeguards, no doubt there should be cognitive testing for older politicians to ensure those like Dianne Feinstein are in their right minds when making hugely influential decisions :
The right old people can definitely bring value when holding office. Yet part of why I find myself attached to Bernie Sanders staying in office at his age is because there are so few like him in the Senate, and because he is actually taking the threats of these tumultuous times seriously. Honestly, those reasons indict a declining democracy and I hope one day progressives can feel less reliant on octogenarian figures like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Bernie Sanders to ensure our basic rights.