In politics, age is not just a number—it’s a weapon. Recently, we’ve seen it wielded in a spate of articles, from The New York Times to The Atlantic, seeking to attack President Biden’s potential reelection campaign. But such attacks are hardly new, with Biden enduring an avalanche of them in both the 2020 Democratic primary and general elections. In fact, criticizing elderly politicians for lacking sufficient “fight” is among the oldest—and dirtiest—campaign tricks in American politics.
It’s part of a simple but devastating playbook. Rather than substantively critiquing Biden’s policies or governing, one can call him “too worn-out and unfocused” or “far past his prime.” Maybe say he’s not “vigorous enough” for good measure. Slowly but surely, you can construct a narrative that a country beset by crises hurtling from every conceivable angle is struggling because their leader is old, not because of those crises or the policies that led to them.
Ironically, a young Joe Biden actually got his start using the same playbook. While running against aging Senator Cale Boggs in 1972, Biden argued that Boggs had “lost that twinkle in his eyes” and was “just not a fighter.” You can swap the names Boggs and Biden, and these attacks from 1972 would be indistinguishable from those used in 2022. Of course, such comments about age are far from a one-way street. Biden, who was 29 when first elected senator, faced criticism for his youthfulness and was derisively referred to as a “young kid” by Delaware Governor Russell Peterson.
That’s the problem with ageist campaigning—it’s mutually assured destruction for the old and young alike. The old are accused of being weak. The young are accused of being naive. In the end, the political perspectives of both age groups are disregarded.
Despite that fact, polling data shows that over half of voters under 34 support a maximum age limit on elected officials. Young voters are concerned about a political establishment that is hard to call anything other than a gerontocracy. But ageist policies would radically decrease the political power of young people.
A majority of those who support a maximum age for elected officials say that it should be either 60 or 70 years old. Well, say goodbye to leaders often beloved by young progressives: Bernie Sanders is 80, Ed Markey 75, and Elizabeth Warren 73. The list goes on.
Sure, you’ll also be ruling out folks whose policies you don’t support. The retirement party for Mitch McConnell, who turned 80 this year, would certainly be a raucous affair. And at 76, Donald Trump wouldn’t be able to run again. But the problem with these politicians is not their age—the problem is their agendas.
Last year, CNN estimated that 40 percent of Democrats in the House were over 65, while only 23 percent of Republican members were. The current GOP candidate in Ohio’s Senate Race is a millennial facing a Democrat who is over a decade older than he is. If you voted in that race only using age as a factor, you’d be supporting J.D. Vance. Clearly, there are more important characteristics to consider.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an age problem in our politics. According to Pew Research, Millennials make up only 7 percent of the House of Representatives and 2 percent of the Senate, while being nearly 22 percent of the general population. Our government is not representative of the people, but disqualifying another age group isn’t the solution.
The real problem isn’t older politicians; it’s that we’ve accepted ageism as such an entrenched norm in our politics that the system is deliberately constructed to make it more difficult for young Americans to participate. Just look at the age limits that we already impose on elected officials: the Constitution requires a minimum age of 25 for the House, 30 for the Senate, and 35 for the presidency and vice presidency.
Yet the rationale behind these minimums today is shaky. As Scott Bomboy of the National Constitution Center explained, George Mason used himself as an example in debates over such minimums during the writing of the Constitution, stating that “his political opinions at the age of 21 were too crude and erroneous to merit an influence on public measures.” As a 21-year-old myself, I prefer the arguments of James Wilson, who argued that the minimums “would damp the efforts of genius and of laudable ambition.”
James Monroe further argued that the presidential age minimum prevented the creation of hereditary rule as “very few fathers leave a son who has arrived to that age.” But modern life expectancies have rendered such thinking outdated. George W. Bush did not become president until 2000, but he was constitutionally eligible in 1992, while his father was still in office. The same applies for Donald Trump Junior and Senior.
Even in the 1700s, these requirements were hypocritical. As Bomboy writes, many of our founding fathers were old enough to establish the political bedrock of our country, but too young to hold its elected offices. Jefferson was old enough to write the Declaration of Independence in 1776, but if the Constitution had been in effect that year, he would have been too young to serve as president.
Ageism has been accepted as a matter of course in this country since its inception. When we discuss the gerontocratic tilt of our government, we should think critically about the age-related barriers in our system and the actual ideas of each candidate, regardless of their age. Young people seem to understand this better than anyone. Despite the fact that—according to a recent Siena College poll—94 percent of Democrats under 30 want a different nominee in 2024, “younger Democrats are those least likely to cite Biden’s age as a reason for opposing his renomination.”
While young people are frustrated that they are underrepresented, they generally don’t care about a candidate’s age—they’re equally used to being written off unfairly—and look at the candidate’s platform instead. That’s how Bernie Sanders, the oldest candidate in New Hampshire’s 2020 Democratic primary, was able to get more votes from young voters than everyone else combined.
Columnists and politicians who attack Biden for his age are claiming to speak for young people, but failing to actually listen to them. Biden is old, but that isn’t the problem. Rather than succumb to lazy generalizations, we should question the barriers we construct—for the old and the young—to get involved in politics. Instead of critiquing politicians for their age, we should be having a conversation on how we can build a political system where every generation is included and age really is just a number.