Dianne Feinstein is 89. Steny Hoyer is 83, Nancy Pelosi and Pat Leahy are 82, and Bernie Sanders is 80. Ben Cardin is 78, Richard Blumenthal is 76, Jeanne Shaheen is 75, Elizabeth Warren and Ron Wyden are 73; Debbie Stabenow is 72 and Chuck Schumer is 71. And that’s just the Democrats. In total, 46 percent of Senate Democrats and 40 percent of Democrats in the House are 65 or over. (Republicans in Congress are also way up there, but that’s their problem.) Unlike Europe, where leadership is comparatively youthful, America is a gerontocracy: President Biden is 79, and the average age of current Congress members is the highest it’s been in 20 years. That’s not good!
Is it ageist to point out what the problems are? I’m a year older than Schumer—in fact, we were in college together, although I didn’t know him—so I can say freely: No, it is not. For one thing, not too long from now, many of these fine people will be incapacitated or dead. Who will take charge then, if younger people have not been brought in and prepared? And by younger, I don’t mean sixtysomethings. Half the US population is under 40. With the best will in the world, someone born during the Truman administration can barely grasp what life is like for them.
I think a lot these days about what it means to grow older. One has more experience, and hopefully more wisdom and patience, with a broader perspective on life. I can’t believe how hard and judgmental I used to be! But at the same time, one is shaped by one’s circumstances, which may not be relevant later on. When I was young, rent was cheap, college was (more) affordable, and you could live in New York City with a part-time job and not need five roommates to survive. It isn’t easy for my generation to understand the very different economic conditions of people in their 20s and 30s. If you’re going to be paying off student loans till you’re 40, you might as well have—yes—that avocado toast and a $5 latte to go with it.
Would a younger set of Democrats put more energy into doing something about student loans, housing costs, or the astronomical child care costs that keep mothers at home when they want go to work? Very likely—it was young people who pushed Biden to announce student loan forgiveness. Would a new crop of Democrats be less likely than their elders to hope for fellowship and compromise across the aisle, which existed in Pelosi’s and Biden’s early years in politics but is a pipe dream today? That seems likely too. They’ve never known a time when Republicans were sane.
It was shocking to see Dianne Feinstein praise the tepid Amy Coney Barrett hearings as “one of the best” she’d participated in, which left her with “some ideas perhaps of good bipartisan legislation we can put together.” Not to mention that she followed these remarkably clueless statements by hugging Lindsey Graham. A lot of liberals considered this proof that Feinstein was senile, and maybe it is, but it also shows how old habits of comity and compromise die hard. After all, these oldsters have been in the Senate together for decades.
And that’s part of the problem. Amassing ever more power and privilege, sheltered from everyday struggles by personal wealth and a bevy of staffers and flatterers, constantly mingling with the comfortable and powerful—most of us would find it a challenge to keep our bearings. It’s amazing that Bernie Sanders is still crusading for universal health care and not relaxing into speaking at AARP conventions and penning books with titles like Veggies for All: Bernie’s Guide to Health at Any Age.
I’m not saying younger politicians are automatically more in touch with the struggles of ordinary people or are ready to help them. Kyrsten Sinema is only 46, and she’s basically Joe Manchin (74) in a dress. Sometimes age really is just a number: I was appalled when Alessandra Biaggi (36), who ran for Congress in New York’s Rockland County and parts of Westchester County against Sean Patrick Maloney (56), tweeted this bizarre insult to middle-aged women: “At the risk of sounding ageist, it’s still important to ask: when a majority of Congress is past child-bearing age, how fierce can we expect their fight to be?”
Past childbearing age? What is this, The Handmaid’s Tale? Nice, too, how she singled out women when her opponent is a man.
Still, age isn’t just a number. It’s reality, too. Consider Ruth Bader Ginsburg. If she had retired at 80, when Obama was president and Dems controlled the Senate, we’d be living in a different world. But despite having several kinds of cancer, and despite the pleas of friends and admirers, she hung on. Vanity? Love of the work? Maybe she thought Hillary Clinton was sure to win and would eventually nominate her replacement. Now we have to watch RBG’s legacy destroyed by Amy Coney Barrett, who is only 50. Life expectancy on the Supreme Court being what it is, she will probably outlive most of you reading these words.
Many people can’t retire for financial reasons, but that is not the case for the political elites I’m writing about here. They could all have wonderful second careers: teaching, writing, lecturing, sitting on philanthropic boards, fundraising for worthy causes—or even unworthy ones. They could take up gardening or painting or Chinese cooking. They could learn Portuguese or raise Abyssinian cats. If you have health, there is no shortage of things to do in this world. My retired friends are all as occupied as when they had jobs and as happy, too—maybe happier. Some of them wish they had retired earlier, because there are things they would have liked to do that are now physically beyond them.
You’ll notice I’ve said nothing about whether Biden should run in 2024, when he will be 81. I have no idea: I’m for the safest option, whoever that is. But then I am 72 and cautious. Chalk it up to experience.