Presidential candidate Joe Biden and sitting President Donald Trump may be divided in ideology, but they are united in dotage. Whoever wins the US election in November will be the oldest ever president-elect. Both are white men and both were born in the 1940’s, before the invention of velcro and the independence of Israel or India.
When Joe Biden climbed to the stage in California to celebrate his Super Tuesday comeback in the Democratic primary, three things happened in a matter of minutes. He basked in the thunderous applause from the crowd. He mistook his own wife for his sister. And he delivered the sort of confusing, intermittently slurry, and occasionally indecipherable oration that has defined so many of his recent public appearances.
Under normal circumstances, one might expect a typical opponent to seize on these verbal slips and question whether Biden, 77, is too old to hack the day-to-day in the Oval Office. But his then rival for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders, is a year older and suffered a heart attack during the campaign. While the incumbent President, 74, has rejected suggestions that he is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, after footage emerged of him struggling to shuffle down a West Point ramp, and shakily sipping water on several occasions.
It is not a new phenomenon for a western world leader to be old and white, but old age runs deep in modern presidential politics. If Sanders or Warren had won the Democratic nomination ahead of Joe Biden, they could have also been the oldest president-elect in US history. While the losers of the past two US elections (Mitt Romney and Hilary Clinton) were born months apart in 1947.
But American politics is specifically old, all the way down. The average age in Congress is nearing an all time high. The House Speaker, House Majority Leader, House Majority Whip, and Senate Majority Leader are all over 75.
Why do such elderly people run America?
The most obvious reason America’s leading politicians are so old might be that Americans are getting older in general. Voters over 65 routinely go to the polls more often than young voters do, and political-science research has found that voters typically prefer candidates “who are closest to themselves in age.” This sounds like a universal formula: Older countries produce older politicians.
But since the 1980’s, almost every European country has gotten older, while the typical European leader is getting younger. In the United Kingdom, although people over 55 outvote people under 30 by a worryingly wide margin, the current prime minister, Boris Johnson, is “only” 55. Equally, France’s Emmanuel Macron is only 42, while Germany’s Angela Merkel is 65, but she has been in power for over 15 years. To put the American electorate’s preference for older candidates into perspective, both Biden and Trump are older right now than Britain’s past five Prime Ministers, going back to Tony Blair.
Historically, America has had a specifically American preference for national – not necessarily political – experience. The first 8 US Presidents were born British, 4 out of the first 5 were born in British Virginia, and Americans have had a pre-occupation with candidates that have adult experience of national trauma or celebration ever since.
Ulysses S. Grant served as the 18th President after leading the Union Army in the American Civil War, Truman served in the First World War and was discharged as a captain before embarking on a political career, Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in World War Two; while JFK (America’s second-youngest President) was a decorated war hero. Yet, in post-war America, the contemporary voter statistically has more faith in a candidate that was an adult during the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Vietnam War. As time goes on, the next generation of America’s leaders will be asked where they were on September 11th 2001.
Since 1996, every new President has had less political experience than the previous commander in chief had when he was elected. Bill Clinton was a fresher face than George H. W. Bush, but had more gubernatorial experience than George W. Bush, who in turn was a governor for longer than Barack Obama was a senator. And then came Trump, who had no political experience at all.
But audiences tend to gravitate toward fond familiarity. Most people want to feel mildly surprised and simultaneously comforted by their media, whether film, television, or music. The perfect “familiar surprise” in politics might be a character quite like Trump: a well-known celebrity who also represents a shock to the political system. If the future of American politics is experienced novices, the scale may be subtly tipped toward comforting paternal figures who aren’t steeped in the poison of contemporary politics, either because they’ve been out of the game (like Biden) or because they’ve consistently rejected its rules (like Sanders).
Experience doesn’t always favour wisdom
Gerontocracy is a cousin to plutocracy. Power concentrated in the hands of old people who are also rich will predictably lead to policies that benefit the old and the rich, at the expense of the less privileged. The federal government already guarantees universal health insurance and a universal basic income to seniors, even as Republicans cry socialism when young people request versions of the same policies. It’s unlikely that young people will notch many policy wins in a government whose median age is over 70.
Second, old governance can be bad governance. At the end of the Cold War, the USSR imploded partly because the Soviet politburo was too old and out of touch to keep up with a changing world. Research indicates that cognitive deterioration typically accelerates into one’s 70’s. Without encouraging voters or employers to be ageist, it seems risky to leave the most important issues of life, death, and welfare in the hands of a group of septuagenarians who are in the crosshairs of biologically predictable cognitive decline.
Finally, the most important challenge before the U.S. and the world—climate change—is profoundly intergenerational. Solving it requires a farsighted approach to diplomacy, invention, and technological deployment that a creaky old country will simply never master. This crisis urgently requires the input and ideas of the generations that will be most affected by it. If government of the elderly, by the elderly, and for the elderly will not perish from the Earth, the next generation may suffer for it.