Earlier this week, progressive Representative Ro Khanna announced that he would not run to fill the US Senate seat left open by California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s decision to retire come the next election. Khanna announced that, despite enthusiasm for his candidacy from many in the Bernie Sanders camp, he had decided he could best push a progressive agenda from his position within the House of Representatives.
So far, so good. After all, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff are both already in the race, and Porter, in particular, has picked up strong momentum. If you’re Khanna, why risk alienating a progressive grass roots that has, in recent years, anointed Porter as one of the upcoming young heroes of the moment?
But now the bizarre twist: Khanna announced that, instead of throwing his own hat into the ring, he would endorse, and become a cochair of, Barbara Lee’s campaign for the Senate.
Now, don’t get me wrong: Lee, who represents Oakland and the surrounding area, has a sterling track record and a particularly consistent anti-war position. She deserves enormous historical plaudits for her prescience on how the War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq would turn out. There are solid reasons that progressive organizations, including The Nation, have long found her to be a compelling figure on the national stage.
But none of this is reason for Lee, in the year 2023, to suddenly make a bid for a US Senate seat. With the almost-90-year-old Feinstein being pushed out by a revolt from below—by a critical mass of voices saying that it’s time for new generations of California politicians to occupy powerful positions in Washington—it makes literally no sense for Lee, who will be 78 by the time of the November 2024 election, to become Feinstein’s heir, or to assume that progressives ought to automatically rally around her candidacy.
Only in D.C. could the idea of a near-nonagenarian being replaced by a near-octogenarian be seen as a changing of the generational guard. Only in D.C. could someone audition for a new job the first term of which, if she were to succeed in getting said job, would last until she was 84, and the second term of which would take her into her 90s.
Politics needs the dynamism of youth—perhaps not the pro-youth absolutism of Abbie Hoffman and his “never trust a person over 30” mantra, but certainly it needs a slant toward those with an actuarial chance of living long enough to see many of their policies and values implemented. Instead, we seem increasingly to be caught in a seniority system that perpetually awards those who hang around long enough rather than those with the most compelling vision of the future.
This country is already perilously close to being controlled by a gerontocracy, as was the Soviet Union in the period immediately preceding Gorbachev’s rise to power (Brezhnev followed by Andropov followed by Chernenko, each more doddering than the one before, though each far younger than America’s current crop of leaders). President Biden is in his 80s, ex-speaker Pelosi in her 80s, ex-President Trump in his late 70s, Senate minority leader McConnell in his 80s, Senate majority leader Schumer in his 70s, and Bernie Sanders in his 80s.
The average age of a retiring US Supreme Court justice is now 81. The average age of a US senator is now over 64 years, not far shy of the age of retirement for ordinary Americans. But that belies just how old many senators actually are: Seven are in their 80s, 23 in their 70s, and by the time of the next election, another four senators will have joined the octogenarian club. It is in fact the oldest Senate in US history. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is also one of the most sclerotic and ossified. Not far shy of 10 percent of members of the House of Representatives, including Barbara Lee, are 75 or older.
Lee might well have, by some measures, the most unabashedly progressive track record in the US Congress. She’s feisty and quick-witted. She doesn’t hold back on her criticisms of abuses of power. She speaks for the marginalized and the vulnerable. She routinely receives accolades for standing firm for an expansive rights-based politics.
But these same things could have been, and routinely were, said about Ruth Bader Ginsburg—and who can honestly say that the country was best served by RBG’s clinging to her Supreme Court job for so long that, in the end, she was replaced by Amy Coney Barrett? Most of RBG’s judicial achievements have been unraveled, within a stunningly short period of time, by a newly empowered ultra-right Supreme Court majority made possible in part by Ginsburg’s refusal to step gracefully aside during the Obama presidency.
I have nothing but respect for Rho Khanna, but endorsing Lee is hardly the best way to preserve and solidify the progressive agenda that he cares about. There are so many younger progressives making waves in California politics today that there really isn’t an urgent need to turn to the nearly octogenarian. Given how rarely Senate seats open up, it would be a waste, come 2024, not to pass the torch to a genuinely new generation.