In the last decade of the Cold War, triumphalist anti-communists often gloated over the fact that the Soviet Union had degenerated into a gerontocracy. To be sure, the United States was presided over by a doddering Ronald Reagan, but he was surrounded by a staff, and a cabinet that was reasonably robust. The Politburo, by contrast, seemed to offer up nothing but sickly and wheezing old men, whose occasional disappearance from public life was unconvincingly ascribed to a cold.
Yet, with the eyes of the 21st century, what is striking is that the geezers who oversaw the decrepit Soviet Union were a half-generation or generation younger than the current American ruling class—especially the Democratic wing of the political elite. Leonid Brezhnev was 75 when he died in office, to be replaced by Yuri Andropov (dead at age 69), who was in turn succeeded Konstantin Chernenko (dead at 73). This chain of codgers was only broken by the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev, who was a baby-faced 54 when he became president.
Yet compare these ages with the leadership class of the United States now. President Joe Biden is 79 years old; when he was born in 1942, there was a shorter span of time separating him from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural in 1865 than from his own inauguration in 2021. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 82 years old. Democratic party whip James Clyburn is 81 years old. Chuck Schumer is 71 years old. Outgoing Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is 83, although, in an unusual move, he stepped down just barely in time to have his replacement named by a Democratic president. His late colleague Ruth Bader Ginsburg was 87 when she died, which opened the way for Donald Trump to replace her with Amy Coney Barrett (a vigorous 50) and solidify a deeply reactionary court.
This is a problem that has a partisan skew. It’s true that there are also old Republicans (minority leader Mitch McConnell is 80, Senator Chuck Grassley is 88). But, leaving McConnell aside, the Republicans have made more of an effort to nurture and promote young blood. According to a survey of the current congress by Quorum, “The average age of the Democratic House leadership is 72 years old, whereas the average age of Republican House leadership is 48 years old. This trend continues in House committee leadership with Republican chairmen averaging 59 years old and ranking Democrats averaging 68 years old.”
Do the Democrats have a gerontocracy problem? This is a touchy subject that raises accusations of ageism and sexism (because women like Pelosi and Ginsburg often don’t get to reach positions of power until later in life, so calling on them to step down in effect limits the power of women to participate in the highest levels of power).
In the latest issue of New York, Rebecca Traister brings a needed clarity to this issue by profiling the oldest sitting senator, Dianne Feinstein, who is on the cusp of her 89th birthday. In recent years, Feinstein’s age and alleged mental impairment have been the subject of much whispering and increasingly public controversy. In December 2020, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker reported that “many” who were “familiar with Feinstein’s situation describe her as seriously struggling, and say it has been evident for several years. Speaking on background, and with respect for her accomplished career, they say her short-term memory has grown so poor that she often forgets she has been briefed on a topic, accusing her staff of failing to do so just after they have.” Feinstein’s staff pushed back against these allegations but they were more recently supported by reporting from the San Francisco Chronicle and The New York Times.
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Feinstein sits on the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, where her performance in recent years has been, to put it politely, uninspiring. In 2020, during the hearings that ended with Barrett’s elevation to the highest court of the land, Feinstein seemed disengaged. At the end of the hearings, she hugged her Republican counterpart Lindsey Graham and said, “This is one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in.”
That hug stays in the memory as a lasting source of regret and anger. It would be a pity if Feinstein, whose checkered career has also included moments of being a progressive champion on issues like gun control and CIA oversight, were remembered mainly for an image of her in decline.
The achievement of Traister’s article is that it allows us to see that debates about Feinstein’s age and supposed cognitive impairment need to be placed in the broader context of the senator’s ideology. Feinstein’s genuine legacy as a feminist trailblazer and her strong stance on select issues like gun control were made possible by her instinctive centrism. Like many pioneers, Feinstein found that precisely because she came from a historically oppressed group, it was necessary for her to play the game of respectability politics and reaffirm her faith in the system.
As Traister makes clear, this was not just talk on Feinstein’s part. No mere performer, Feinstein was a political method actor who has come to fully inhabit her script. She suited her role as establishment pillar perfectly thanks to her upper-class background and equanimous temperament. Although progressive on occasion in politics, she’s an instinctive institutionalist who believes that her job is uphold norms and foster cooperation. She wants orderly change without rocking the boat.
First elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1969, Feinstein forged her political identity amid the tumult of the 1970s, when the city’s rising gay rights movement met with a ferocious and violent backlash. In 1978, a former police officer and supervisor named Dan White assassinated the mayor, George Moscone, and Harvey Milk, whose position on the Board of Supervisors made him the first openly gay official in California. Feinstein was the one who found Milk’s body—and, after she tried to test his pulse, ended up putting her fingers on the bullet wound that tore into his wrist.
The assassination was a personal political pivot for Feinstein. She had been on the verge of quitting politics but was now elevated to the mayorship. The main lesson she took was the need for moderation. As she wrote in an essay for a 2000 book Nine and Counting, featuring essays by female senators, “The city needed to be reassured that there would be some consistency as we put the broken pieces back together.… From that nonpartisan experience, I drew my greatest political lesson—the heart of political change is at the center of the political spectrum.”
Observers of all political stripes agree that Feinstein has arrived at that destination. According to gay and labor activist Cleve Jones, “It’s that she believes in the power of the system to protect and manage. She’s all about order.” George Shultz, who was secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, concurs. “Dianne is not really bipartisan so much as nonpartisan,” he told The New Yorker in 2015.
In a judicious appraisal, Traister concludes that Feinstein’s “devotion is to the system, in which laws are made, regulations are implemented, and oversight is prized. She is stalwart in her conviction that the way to make progress is to maintain open, friendly lines of communication with members of the opposition party, a stance that her defenders argue is crucial to getting anything accomplished in the Senate.”
This approach to politics might have had a place when Feinstein first entered the Senate in 1992, although even then Republican Representative Newt Gingrich was on the verge of upturning the norms of bipartisan cooperation in the House of Representatives. But is there really any justification for Feinstein’s reflexive centrism given the intensification of polarization that Gingrich initiated? After the 2000 election was decided along partisan lines by Gore v. Bush, after McConnell put the Republican Senate on war footing to sabotage Barack Obama’s presidency, after Merrick Garland was denied even a Senate hearing to evaluate his nomination, after the GOP embraced Donald Trump and his demagoguery, after the aborted coup of January 6, 2021—after all this and much more—Feinstein’s centrism is merely an exercise in fatuous and feckless nostalgia. Nor is this fantasy of restoring bipartisan comity Feinstein’s alone. It’s now the dominant ideology of the Democratic Party’s leadership, including Biden and Pelosi.
Which makes the issue of gerontocracy a distraction—a superficial analysis focused on the symptom rather than the real problem: centrism. If the Senate Democrats had 50 octogenarians, but they all had the politics of Bernie Sanders (who is 80) and Elizabeth Warren (only 72), the party would be in fine shape. Even if a few of those senators were occasionally forgetful, there would be no issue. Senators, after all, have staffs. The real issue isn’t just that the Democratic Party’s leadership class skews old. Rather it’s that they remain committed to a fantasy politics unsuited to our age. They are old and they haven’t evolved, and that means they have to go.