Elders: Solutions We Love
- Representation for the Ages
Representation for the Ages
Adhering to the tenets of a liberal democracy matters more than age.
President Joe Biden tripped on some sandbags. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell froze twice during press conferences, presumably from an unknown medical episode or condition. The late Sen. Dianne Feinstein gave a speech when she was supposed to vote “aye” or “nay” on the Senate floor. All three elected officials are or were older than 80, which is not unusual anymore.
The United States Senate is the second oldest and the U.S. House of Representatives is the third oldest in U.S. history, in terms of the average age of its members. Congressional representatives are now more likely to serve longer than they did 70 years ago.
The phrase “OK, Boomer” may as well have been created for today’s aging politicians, several of whom have misidentified the popular social media platform TikTok as the breath mint “Tic Tac,” and many voters appear skittish about voting for Biden, solely due to his age.
Are their fears justified? Should there be age limits for elected officials, or cognitive tests past a certain age, as some have suggested? Aside from the fact that many younger people could trip on sandbags and that adverse health events can happen at any age, age limits are as discriminatory as they are arbitrary.
Take Sen. Bernie Sanders, who hasn’t stumbled or frozen in public, and who is older than Biden. During his 2016 and 2020 presidential bids, when he was the oldest candidate at 75 and 79, respectively, he was wildly popular with young people (and a very diverse set of young people at that).
Age doesn’t necessarily determine an individual’s capabilities to lead. There are older candidates who possess the qualities necessary to be effective leaders and younger candidates who don’t. Instead, what is important is candidates’ responsiveness to the tenets of our liberal democracy and to social movements that arise when those tenets are unmet or underachieved.
Age limits overlook the reality that people age differently—with some older candidates possessing mental acuity compared to some younger candidates—and could exclude qualified people from running for office. Further, age limits infringe on voters’ ability to choose their candidates based on merit and qualifications. Finally, it would take a constitutional amendment to institute age limits on elected officials, and the chance of that is slim.
Life span and health in the U.S. have dramatically increased over the past century. There are twice as many centenarians in the U.S. as there were even 20 years ago. It should be noted that, due to systemic policy failures, Black, Latinx, American Indian, Alaska Natives, and lower-income Americans benefit the least from these advances, and policy remediation is critical.
The issue is representation—not aging—and that can be remedied by policies such as lowering the voting age to 16 or making it easier for young people to vote with same-day voter registration.
Some have suggested term limits as another remedy. While this idea seems initially attractive—especially since it addresses the unresponsiveness of career politicians, corruption that could come with long terms in office, and discouragement of civic participation as incumbency—it might deter new candidates. However, opponents may argue that deep knowledge of the issues and of congressional processes means that continuity is vital.
What if we paid attention instead to how closely a politician cleaves to the mandate of a democratically elected representative of the voters in a liberal democracy?
Baby boomers such as Sanders and Reps. Barbara Lee, Rosa DeLauro, and Gwen Moore are among those over the age of 70 whose voting records demonstrate strong receptiveness to the needs of working families and progressive social movements.
Even Biden proved to be responsive to social movements and the needs of poor and low-income voters and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic when he achieved greater economic equality through the American Rescue Plan Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, and proposed even more with his stymied Build Back Better plan.
Liberal democracies rest on egalitarian principles of fair distribution of wealth, income, and power as embodied by civil rights, civil liberties, inclusiveness, and equality before the law. These are achieved through free and fair elections, free speech and press, and constitutional courts, sustained by a separation of powers and checks and balances on those powers.
When these tenets are at risk, social movements arise to demand their realization. Right-wing populists may form movements to undermine them in favor of a minority rule that subverts liberal democratic values and favors authoritarian rule.
A liberal democracy, such as the U.S. ostensibly is, demands that our elected representatives remain responsive to principles and to social movements when those principles are unmet or at risk. Age limits are irrelevant to these objectives. After all, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, both of whom are relatively young, embrace Christian Nationalism, in opposition to the principles of a liberal democracy. Growing numbers of elected officials, particularly Republican ones, appear to be adopting the idea of minority rule over democracy.
So let’s put ageism in the trash bin of illiberal discrimination where it belongs. Instead, let’s judge fitness for elected office by a candidate’s demonstrated ability to respond to the needs of the majority of people, expressed through the principles of liberal democracy and democratic social movements.