Is it really valid to claim that elders run our country –– and, moreover, that they shouldn’t?
Today’s news is filled with references to all kinds of political systems: autocracy, kleptocracy, plutocracy, theocracy, and the most relevant one of all –– democracy.
Added to this list is a new one: gerontocracy, a government based on rule by old people. I suppose it’s to be expected in these highly polarized times that ageism (which is really the polarization of perceptions about young vs. old) has seeped into people’s assessments of who is leading our government, and who should lead it instead.
Those who believe that our nation is now run primarily by people much older than they are have a limited understanding of the ways in which Western governments have functioned for millennia. Furthermore, today’s composition of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Executive Branch actually defy that longstanding pattern.
But that’s not the only point I’d like to discuss. Even if we’re currently led by a gerontocracy, let’s also consider whether or not that’s such a bad thing after all.
I'll start by tackling the first point: Are we really being ruled by old people?
I guess the answer depends on how old “old” is. Is someone in their 60s an old person? Given that the current average life expectancy at birth in the U.S. is 74 years for men and 80 years for women, I think most people (or at least middle-aged ones) would say that to be 60-something doesn’t exactly fit the bill.
So here’s an eye-opening fact: According to the Library of Congress, “The average age of Members of the House at the beginning of the 117th Congress was 58.4 years; of Senators, 64.3 years.” And as for the average age of Supreme Court Justices, with Ketanji Brown Jackson replacing Stephen Breyer, the average age is 61.4 years. And the average age of the Biden Administration Cabinet is 58 years. Not exactly Methuselah numbers.
But here’s the thing: Throughout Western history, the men (yes, it was always men) in charge of the government were usually as old, if not older, than the average age of life expectancy at birth for their time.
In ancient Greece, for example, where life expectancy was 25 to 30 years old, an Athenian man had to be 20 to be a full-fledged citizen and 30 to be admitted to the council and the court jury pool; in Sparta, which elected its kings, a man had to be at least 60 –– twice the expectancy age.
In ancient Rome, where the life expectancy at birth was 30 to 35 years old, the earliest senators had to be at least 60; the age was later dropped to 30, and then to 25.
Even in our own early government, the average age of the members of the 1775 Continental Congress was 44, while the average life expectancy at birth was between 35 and 40 years of age.
Given these examples, it appears that 21st-century American government has defied the pattern, with its groups' averages a decade or two younger than that of the current life expectancy.
Whether or not it’s a bad thing to have older leaders in government is a whole other matter.
What was the driving principle behind political power historically residing in men who were old for their times? Most likely those cultures held the belief that with age usually comes the necessary acquisition of relevant experience and the kind of wisdom needed to rule. Of course, in the U.S. there have been recent exceptions (John F. Kennedy became president at age 43 and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama at age 47), and old age alone doesn’t guarantee a person having either relevant experience or sufficient wisdom. But it does increase the odds.
At this point, regarding the wisdom issue, it's important to point out that dementia is not an inevitable condition of old age. Currently only about 10% of Americans over age 65 have any form of it. Of course, as with any other occupation, anyone of any age in Congress who has cognitive issues that negatively affect their job should not be serving in that capacity. But there are a far greater number of older members of Congress whose brains work unsurprisingly quite well.
This issue aside, current complaints about American gerontocracy usually involve dissatisfaction with the entrenchment of political power among the top leaders of Congress –– Nancy Pelosi (82), Mitch McConnell (80), Chuck Schumer (71), and Kevin McCarthy (57). This, then, begs the question of how these four people rose to their positions and have continued in them.
As in most institutions, achieving a leadership position in the U.S. Congress is often based on a combination of merit and tenure. Pelosi, McConnell, and Schumer have each served in Congress for more than four decades, and McCarthy has served for two decades. That means that their constituents have reelected them multiple times. Furthermore, the members of each party in the Senate determine their leaders, while the entire membership of the House of Representatives determines who becomes the Speaker. It is rare that a relatively new member of Congress rises to power quickly; members demand that their leaders have a track record of demonstrating savvy political skills.
So is the gerontocracy that's seemingly built into the political system really at the heart of complaints against political entrenchment? Or rather, might a different factor be the cause? After all, it's obvious that certain much-younger members of Congress have also demonstrated their own ideological entrenchment which, if they were given the chance to assume leadership roles, they would certainly promote.
I suggest that what's controlling Congressional action --- or lack thereof --- isn't age; it's power and money, factors that have always played significant roles in American politics but have gotten more corrosive since the 2010 Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. Allowing dark money to enter political campaigns has been the great age equalizer. No longer do political experience or savvy seem to determine electability. What matters now is the unaccountable, unlimited, ongoing financial sponsorship of candidates willing to push the economic, social, and religious agendas of their backers and, once they are in Congress, to obstruct those of their opponents.
Gerontocracy isn't the issue in democratic leadership; it's kleptocracy, plutocracy, theocracy, and if we're even more oblivious about the danger . . . autocracy.