Opinion | The United States of Gerontocracy
It’s “The Argument.” I’m Jane Coaston.
Everyone is old, including you. Sorry, maybe that’s a little excessive. Not everyone is old. But President Biden is. So is Bernie Sanders, and Nancy Pelosi, and Elizabeth Warren. For Democrats attempting to hold onto Congress, and in two years, the White House, that’s a problem. There is some evidence that younger voters might want to vote for a politician who, I don’t know, maybe didn’t have firsthand memory of the Korean War. In a new N.Y.T. survey, 33 percent of Democrats who want a different candidate for President in 2024, as a lot of younger voters do, pointed to Biden’s age as a motivating factor.
But let’s be real, there’s no age limit on being a bad politician. And I think that younger voters might be reacting less to the date on their birth certificate and more to how they are or aren’t meeting the political moment. So today, age, gerontocracy, and what we’re actually talking about when we say everyone in politics is too damn old. My guests today are Times editorial board member Michelle Cottle —
Of course there’s a gerontocracy issue. There’s a gerontocracy issue throughout our society. It’s not just politics.
— and Opinion columnist David Brooks.
— though I do think we’re at a moment of great generational gaps, which is what you get in moments of transition. And so all that adds up, to me, to sort of a pre-revolutionary period where people, not only young people, but all people want some sort of dramatic change.
Michelle, David, thanks for being here. Let’s jump right into some of this polling. Something that really stuck out to me was that a third of Democrats who wanted a different candidate than Joe Biden said it was because of his age. But another third said it was because of his job performance. Is what we’re actually talking about a problem with stagnancy, not age? In other words, if the gerontocracy was doing everything great, would you or others be as concerned about it?
You know, I think Biden’s a unique case. Take the swath of old people at the top of our government. People don’t have this view of Nancy Pelosi, who’s quite old. People don’t have this view of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.
Biden’s caught in a bind where he’s, A, quite old, B, seems to be not as dominating on the scene as people want a President to be, and C, has not been able to control inflation. When inflation gets uncontrolled, people rightly feel a sense of existential anxiety. Those three things together make people think too old, ineffectual.
But I don’t think it’s a broad gerontocracy thing. If you ask young people who they really like, the ones I speak to most say Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. They’re plenty old.
So what you run into, Jane, is you run into kind of a combination of age with disposition.
Yes, Bernie Sanders is seen as lively despite the fact that he is older than baseball. At the same time, you do have plenty of people who think Nancy Pelosi should have stepped aside, including those within her own conference. There have been several challenges to her over the years.
And it’s not just Pelosi. It’s the fact that you have her second and third in command, who are also in their 80s. You have Dianne Feinstein, whose performance and mental acuity has been a big issue of late.
So what you have is a period of time where younger people think that the establishment is doing a poor job. And there’s a huge number of establishment figures that they think aren’t blazing enough trails, aren’t fighting enough, aren’t being as lively. And so they kind of squish the two together.
When you talk to people who study these things, political scientists and stuff, they’re asking what is age actually a proxy for? Is it your concerns about fading ability? Or is it concerns about a lack of fighting spirit? And that’s actually really hard to parse with a lot of these figures.
Piled on top of the fact that the country’s in a really, really sour mood these days, not just because of inflation, but also because of the tail end of the pandemic and all kinds of other things. It’s like a perfect storm.
What do you think the gerontocracy is missing about younger voters, as to why are they dissatisfied? Because I think that there’s this whole thing of like, ah, they just want their student loans — something. But most people don’t have student loan debt. Like, what are people getting wrong about younger voters?
One thing I’ve learned about young adults is they love it when people like me generalize about them. But —
Yes, I was about to say, I’m like, mm, David Brooks on the youths.
Yeah. I would say one thing, just — I’ve been teaching college for 20 years. And so I know it through that. I know it through my kids and their friends. I just think there’s a level of moral passion combined with a level of disgust, or contempt, or just loss of faith that politics is going to work.
And I would say I certainly find that attitude among young people on right and left in different flavors. That might be another generational gap — the extreme contempt with how this world has been screwed up among the young, combined with older voters’ intense nostalgia. Nostalgia is just rife through our politics.
Make America Great Again is 100 percent nostalgia, like there was some golden era that we left behind. So there’s a lot of backward looking for the 21st century.
It seems like much more of a throwback to the ‘60s with all of the social turmoil — the yippies and the hippies, and the campus discord. I mean, the turmoil on campus in the ‘60s makes today look like nothing.
So it’s not like this is some brand-new thing where young people don’t trust the man, or the system, or their elderly, out of touch leaders. This is pretty much how it’s supposed to work. It’s just at certain times, there are different ways that it manifests, and different things that it focuses on. So yeah, I mean — what is it, if you aren’t passionate and liberal when you’re 20 and conservative when you’re 40 used to be the thing, you haven’t lived. Now, of course, you have to bump the ages up, right?
But you’re supposed to have a lot of this generational turmoil.
So I’m curious, Michelle, I think David made the point that we don’t think of Senators Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders as being old. Why do you think that is? Are you actually talking about people being out of touch? Are we talking about people being disconnected from real events? What are we actually talking about here?
Well, the attack on Biden tends to be that he is existing in a different era, that he has not moved past the era where people tried to get along in Congress, where there was a Republican party that you could negotiate and be rational with, and exchange ideas with, and try for some bipartisan compromise. That is what, overwhelmingly, Biden gets smacked for, is that he doesn’t understand that things have moved on.
So if you have somebody who more fits the temperament of the times, which is very feisty, very kind of let’s get out there and give as good as we get, then Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren absolutely more suit the moment in that way.
I actually would defend Biden here. I think that in some ways, he does suit the times. He doesn’t suit the times the way young, highly educated, progressive activists suit the times. But you know, we had a period in 2016 during the primaries when the party moved significantly left on things like immigration.
We had the famous Defund the Police. And these were things that were led by young, progressive activists. But these were things that made it very hard for the Democrats to win elections nationally.
And it’s still going to be an issue. It’s not like the young people complaining about Biden being too old are representative of the entire party’s view of what’s wrong with them. That is true.
Yeah, I mean, one of the things we’re seeing is it used to be a lot of people called themselves Independents, but they were sort of lying — that they were either Republicans and Democrats, but they thought it was cooler to say, oh, I’m an Independent. But now, a lot of the Independents — that’s about 40 percent of the country — they really are Independent. They really do fall between the two parties.
And so to me, the idea of electability is paying attention to that group of people.
And there’s a reason Biden got elected. Because he seems to be outside the coastal power centers that a lot of people distrust.
But a lot of the Democratic Party isn’t even progressive.
Or at least not the way that the upper, highly educated, young, white folks that we talk about are. You have a Latino segment that is not nearly as socially progressive, and then a lot of older Black voters who were completely in Biden’s camp, are not as progressive on a lot of these social issues as the activist base.
Yeah, I think that that gets to the question I have about electability, this magic term. One thing I was struck by was that voters in South Carolina, specifically Black voters in South Carolina, essentially were like, we are voting for him because we know white people. We know what white people will want.
And I think that that’s electability. Electability is not what you want. Electability is what you think other people will want. Do you think that electability is what’s gotten us into this mess?
Well, he was electable.
I mean, clearly.
Let’s be clear — he’s not been a disaster.
The man has gotten infrastructure reform passed. He’s gotten Covid reform passed. They got a very modest, but almost impossible to imagine gun bill passed.
There have been a lot of things that he has not done well. And he has not conveyed the kind of strength and decisiveness that a lot of people want when the country is in crisis. But he was electable.
He did beat Trump, which for my money, was still a good thing. And I’m not sure that we can necessarily say that anyone else could have done it with what the nation was looking for at that moment.
So I just want to take that moment to say, let’s not go crazy here and say this has all been a huge mistake. He’s run into a bunch of things that he is not necessarily the man for the moment on.
David, what do you think?
I must say when I interview people, especially when covering primaries — I’ll be in Iowa before the caucuses, and a voter will tell me, I’m voting on electability. And I always say, you live in rural Iowa. And you’re trying to make a guess, right here in the winter, what a bunch of people in Texas and North Carolina and Pennsylvania, what they’re going to think in November. You have no clue.
And you should admit you have no clue. And don’t try to be a strategist. Just vote for the person you think is best.
I think that’s generally the right strategy for any particular voter, and for all of us. We don’t really know what other people think will be electable. And so we can take a guess, but we’re likely to be wrong.
And what I was saying at the top, in a moment of extreme disgust, we should widen our imagination of who’s electable, whether you’re left, right, or center. You know, Trump came out of left field. I think this next time, we could have somebody who comes out from super far left field, somebody who maybe has never held elective office, someone who has experience leading a nonprofit, somebody who has a big nonprofit, somebody who has experience leading a business.
Could bring in sort of the Michael Bloomberg of New York — that doesn’t strike me as a completely implausible scenario on the national stage. It won’t be Michael Bloomberg, but somebody of that nature —
But one who doesn’t completely suck as a politician?
Well, he did win a couple times.
Not on the national stage, he didn’t.
Couldn’t even get through one debate.
Well, that’s true.
But yeah, your point is taken.
Well, he’s very rich.
Yeah. Well, this person would have to be rich.
And I just think people are willing to take a flyer on a risky candidate. To me, if there’s ever been a moment in the last decade and a half where there’s an opening for a Ross Perot type, this is that moment — some business, crazy rich guy or woman or whatever, gets out there and says, this is all screwed up. You need somebody who’s been involved in none of this crap. And I would think that person would do well. I think they’d do especially well if they were socially a bit to the right, and economically a bit to the left, and just did outsider —
But they have to capture one of the parties. I mean, structurally speaking, you still can’t do it as Ross Perot. You can’t do it as an outsider.
Yeah, I mean, I’ve been actually thinking a lot about the 1992 election because of Ross Perot, and doing half an hour ads, and jumping out of the race and into the race because of the most baffling controversy I’ve ever looked up. But something else about 1992 is that you have a 46-year-old Bill Clinton beating incumbent George H.W. Bush. And you have this idea that new guys are in charge.
They’re young, and fresh. They’re going for jogs. They’re on “The Arsenio Hall Show.” So what happened? And if you look at our politics now, all of the people are basically the same.
Well, these things go in cycles to some degree. Look, you had Bill Clinton, who was very young and fresh, followed by George W. Bush, who was young and was supposed to be a new kind of Republican, followed by Barack Obama, who was super young, wildly kind of underqualified, so to speak, and also a new kind of candidate.
And so then you have this backlash where old, white America is scared that it’s losing its way and its position atop the hierarchy. And so you have this revanchist movement. And you wind up with Trump, who is old, and wants to take everything back to, I don’t know, what, the 1800s? It’s so hard to say what he’s looking for.
That revanchism is interesting because we do have moments when generations turn. So in 1960, John F. Kennedy told an explicitly generational story. And OK, we’re saying goodbye to the Dwight Eisenhower era.
And then I remember in January 2008, I went to a rally at American University for Barack Obama. And Ted Kennedy came on stage to endorse Obama, carrying the weight of his brothers. Now, he explicitly said, it’s time for a new generation. Barack Obama, that’s the new generation.
So it seemed like we would have boomer and below, forever before. But for some reason, that didn’t happen. And all the boomers below are still at the mid-level of politics.
And we reverted back to people who were born around 1938 or 1942, somewhere around there. And we’ve been stuck with that generation for an enormously long time, as we were stuck with the World War II generation for an enormously long time. So it seems likely to me that having stuck with those boomers, it’s likely we’ll now skip a whole generation, and somebody really young will come along who really does represent something different.
It’s also interesting to me, either of you — why has the gerontocracy been able to stay in power? Like, what’s it about these people? They’ve been able to persevere and just stick around.
I think that age is perception-based. It’s like any article about millennials talks about, oh, they need to stop eating avocado toast. Like, millennials are now in their mid-30s to early 40s. They have houses, they have kids.
Baby boomers aren’t 40 anymore. They’re in their early 70s. So I think that the perception of older people is that they are perceived by some people as being more trustworthy or more centrist that, you know, they’re less likely to be radical. Does that stand up to either of you? Because I definitely know that how people talk about younger voters is this idea that younger voters, writ large, are thoroughly leftist, which is not entirely true. Our perceptions of age and what age actually means are very different things.
Well, you are also looking at an electorate that’s getting much older. And if you are a 75-year-old voter, you don’t look at Donald Trump necessarily and go, oh, that dude is way too old. You know, there is a lot of identification. And one of the reasons that this is likely to last a while is, God love ‘em, the baby boomers never want to let go.
So even after this generation goes, you’re going to have baby boomers who just — you’re going to have to carry them out kicking and screaming from a lot of these positions of power. Because they’ve been in charge for so long that they’re ready to go as soon as this generation slips and slides out of the way. So I don’t think it’s the baby boomers that are going to get passed over going forward.
I have a theory I was wanting to put to you. I’ve noticed in my time covering conservatism and the right, the most hot property in conservative world are young people who speak old. And what liberals generally want are old people who speak young.
Like, Bernie Sanders comes across —
Yeah, like, if you are a conservative, and you’re 19, but you talk about how you want cuts to Medicare or something, you will become the most popular person alive. And Bernie Sanders is an old person who speaks young. And I think that that really gets to my thought about how age is just — it’s so perception-based.
Yeah, Ben Shapiro — I like your theory. Ben Shapiro is a young person who speaks old.
Tucker, I don’t know if he counts as young anymore. But he speaks ancient. And meanwhile, there’s always been this odd, occasional phenomenon on the left where young, progressive voters go for an extremely crotchety old guy. So Bernie Sanders is kind of crotchety.
Nader was kind of crotchety, right, by the time he caused all his trouble in 2000?
They have an integrity to them because they don’t give a damn what other people think. They’re going to believe what they believe. And they’re going to believe what they’ve always believed. And I do think people — I don’t know why it’s a generational thing, but people do give some credibility to somebody who has not moved, and who doesn’t give a damn.
But David — maybe this is a little personal, but is it fair to say that you’ve gotten more progressive as you have gotten older? Where do you think that comes from?
I’m aging backwards as well. So I’m younger than I ever was. I’ve certainly gotten more progressive than I used to be, partly because the issues changed.
You know, in the ‘80s, when I really came of age, or the sort of end of Reagan —
I thought Reagan and Thatcher did useful things to add dynamism to the American economy. And I still think that. So I’m conservative if you want to throw me back in 1984.
But now, what are our problems? Our problems are income inequality, climate change, breakdown of the social fabric, racial injustices. We’re more aware of it now or whatever. It’s a much higher priority for people, including for me.
And so those are issues on which the left has tended to be more correct. Now, that doesn’t mean I’m signing up for everything Bernie Sanders offers. But we went through this period where it seems to me, on a lot of the big issues, progressives happened to be right.
Now, in the last year or so, some of that string has run out. So progressives were generally wrong about inflation, generally wrong about whether crime would rise. And so the issue landscape has turned and got more complicated. But I became more progressive, I guess, if you want to say that, because the times changed.
Is there someone in your life from a different generation who you love debating politics with? What’s your age difference? What are the issues you agree on? And what are the things you just can’t see eye to eye about? I will not wear low-rise jeans again, Gen Z. I won’t do it.
Tell me in a voicemail by calling 347-915-4324, or send me a voice memo or email at [email protected].
So we’ve talked about electability and gerontocracy. And I’m curious as to what are possible solutions. The gerontocracy solution that comes to mind, first and foremost, are age limits.
There was a poll earlier this year that more than half of Americans support, a maximum age limit for elected officials. I do not support this. For one thing, there is no age floor or ceiling on being an idiot. Do you think that an age limit is a good idea, Michelle?
I just don’t think it’s tenable. It’s a little bit like what you run into with term limits. Everybody likes term limits, and everybody hates Congress. But they really kind of like their congressmen.
And let’s not forget that California sent Dianne Feinstein back after she was way past her prime. So practically speaking, people can say whatever they want. But when it comes time to get fired up about term limits, or age limits, or any of that, you run into these practicality problems that it doesn’t actually drive people to the polls.
You know, Strom Thurmond got elected when he was really non-functioning.
I wouldn’t be for age limits for elected offices. I’d be a lot more sympathetic to age limits for the Supreme Court, or a term of office for Supreme Court.
Term of office limits for the Supreme Court seems completely reasonable. They are not elected by the people. They do not come up for re-election like Congress does. That would be completely different and totally appropriate.
Going to Congress, do you think term limits would be a realistic idea? I mean, John Dingell was a member of the House from 1955 to 2015, which — he was a very nice person, and he was fun on the internet. But that is a really, really, really, really long time to be in Congress. And we’ve talked about Dianne Feinstein.
There are a host of other people in politics where it’s not even an age thing. It’s just like, at a certain point, does your raison d’etre become getting reelected rather than doing anything once you’re elected? You said that, and I agree, that age limits are a nonstarter. But are term limits a more realistic idea?
I mean, they’re more practical in that you can have an argument that doesn’t sound quite so ageist or arbitrary. But as far as how you impose those, I mean, you still have to either convince Congress to impose limits on itself, which it’s generally proven not all that good at doing.
You also have to put it to voters, who again, just don’t tend to get inspired or follow through on things like this when it’s their congressperson. I mean, there’s a reason that incumbency is so hard to beat. People become comfortable with the devil they know.
Yeah, I’ve always been really against term limits, maybe for the John Dingell reason. He was there a long time. He was quite a good legislator. And he was an effective chairman for a long, long time because he had some experience. He knew what he was doing.
I found where they’ve been tried, in California and other places, first, once you put a term limit on somebody and they say they know they only have two terms, on day one of their new office, they’re positioning themselves, well, what can I run for next? So they’re not really involved.
Second, you get the rotation of members through a legislature so quick, they don’t know anything. They need their staff. So all it does is it empowers the staff to really run. And the elected officials are just there to be on TV for a couple of years, and then they go. And so I’ve valued a lot of the legislatures.
I mean, Nancy Pelosi is the most effective legislator of our generation. And she learned her skill over time. Before that, I would say Ted Kennedy was among the most effective.
You learn this stuff gradually, over decades. And so I’m old enough to value experience. Next, there’ll be term limits for newspaper columnists, God for willing.
I was just thinking — and this is going to sound kind of dark — but is the solution to a general domination of political power just to let time do its thing? Because at a certain point, if you’re 60 now, you will be 70 someday. And if you’re 80 now, you will be 90 someday.
Like, is this cyclical? Is the best solution just to let time do its thing?
Perhaps. I mean, the one thing we are looking at now is everybody lives older. So —
— you know, you have this longer wait for time and chance to happen to us all, so to speak. And the younger generations get restive. And they want stuff to happen, and they want their turn. And they understandably are frustrated.
I mean, the question then becomes, well, what are your alternatives? And that’s where it gets really sticky.
I’m thinking of Prince Charles.
He’s been waiting around for a little while.
I do think in five years, I’d be a little surprised if either Trump or Biden were in office, frankly. So I do think we’ve pushed the age limits of our current leadership class to about as high as you can get, and that there will be a turnover just in the natural course of chronology.
So in the same polling we were talking about at the start of the episode, 64 percent of Democratic voters said they’d prefer a new standard bearer in the 2024 Presidential campaign. And David, you just said that you don’t think that Trump or Biden will be in power in the next few years.
Is Biden’s electability the best we’ve got? Is there a person you think, on the Democratic side, who could address the deficits and desires and the electorate that we’ve talked about better?
Yeah, well, first, to echo something Michelle said, I think Biden’s being way underpriced right now.
Right, no, I agree on that point. I also think that there’s something to be said about being President at a time where everyone’s mad all the time is very bad.
You always get blamed.
Doesn’t matter if it is your fault or not.
I mean, the person I thought who didn’t run who should have run last time, and probably should run in the future, is Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans, who’s now in the Biden administration doing infrastructure. But he struck me as the kind of candidate who can speak to all sectors of society. He’s handled himself with grace and courage at tough political moments. He’s just as good a hands on politician as it’s possible to imagine. I don’t know how old Mitch is. But I’m imagining he’s under 60, unless he’s in really good shape. He would be a new generation and a new profile for that generation.
Michelle, are you all in on Biden’s electability? Or is there someone else you’re thinking of that could solve our gerontocracy problems, such as they exist?
I know that’s a weirdly baiting question, but —
We’re at least two years out here, so I don’t like to predict these things.
If Biden wants to run, it would be a disaster for the party to primary him. So it’s a question of if he decides he’s not going to run for whatever reason — and then what you’ll see is what you usually see in these situations. I don’t think Kamala Harris will have the lane to herself the way sometimes, you imagine it will happen.
You will have — every blue governor will step up to run. Bernie Sanders will probably run again. You’d likely to see either Pete Buttigieg or Elizabeth — you’ll have a pile-on.
But I think we’re too far out to know what will be happening. I mean, again, the nation’s in a really sour mood. The Democrats are going to be in for a really ugly midterm. But then beyond that, I refuse to try and get real specific. Because it’s politics, and God only knows what could happen.
I should say that I looked up how old Mitch Landrieu is. And it turns out he’s over 60. So —
— everyone we think is older than who they really are.
Oh, well, he’s out, then. No, he doesn’t count.
Michelle, David, thank you so much. This has been great and very helpful, even though you are both, to me —
Really old, yeah. This episode sponsored by Geritol.
Michelle Cottle is a member of The Times editorial board. David Brooks is a columnist for Times Opinion. I want to recommend an article published this month in Esquire called “The Case for Age Limits in American Politics” by Jack Holmes. You can find a link to it and Michelle and David’s work in our show notes.
“The Argument” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Phoebe Lett and Vishakha Darbha. Edited by Alison Bruzek and Anabel Bacon, with original music by Isaac Jones and Pat McCusker. Mixing by Pat McCusker. Fact checking by Kate Sinclair, Michelle Harris and Mary Marge Locker. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta, with editorial support from Kristina Samulewski.