Our awkward problem of political gerontocracy

I wrote at Vox today about an awkward problem we should discuss without rancor or euphemism:

In one of the most dramatic moments in the Senate in years, 80-year-old John McCain rallied from surgery and a diagnosis of brain cancer to cast a 1 am vote that torpedoed Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare — for now. The vote had been put on hold once already, to give him time to recuperate.

For all the drama, we shouldn’t be surprised that a medical emergency interfered with Senate business. The highest levels of American politics bear an uncomfortable resemblance to a gerontocracy. From the Senate to the presidency to — perhaps most strikingly — the Supreme Court, top positions are held more and more by people in their 70s or above.

Disruptive medical tragedies are an unavoidable statistical consequence of this trend, as is the risk that key political actors will develop cognitive impairment. There’s no easy solution to the problem, but it demands a frank conversation.

Reforms such as term appointments for justices could help with the problem, but it’s just as important to try to shift societal norms to take more seriously some elemental realities of human aging.

One paragraph that didn’t make it into the piece for space is also pertinent:

Where policies affecting same-sex marriage, student loans, immigration, climate change, and net neutrality are being debated, we need more young voices at the table. Particularly in safe districts with low partisan turnover, senior politicians accumulate privileges of seniority while they consolidate their personal power. Veteran politicians like Charles Rangel become difficult to dislodge, even when it’s past time for them to pass the baton.

What’s more, young adults who don’t see their issues prioritized, and who see elite politics dominated by their parents’ and grandparents’ generations can easily tune out, ceding the process to others.

More here.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

2 thoughts on “Our awkward problem of political gerontocracy”

  1. Duke Short did just fine as the shadow senator from Carolina. I'm sure there are staffers having lots of fun in McCain's shadow, and probably Pelosi's. Feinstein seems to still have it. I think Clinton's loss had a lot to do with the perception that she was losing it. China has let its leaders go onandonandon, and it's not clear that the old old ones were less forward looking than the younger. I am made nervous by the prospect of Warren and Sanders and Biden as the Dem choices, and I am not convinced that Trump's apparent vigor was ever more than bluster.
    It's a real problem. Maybe a more vigorous primary system, and a cultural change towards real debates, which would show up vacancy of ideas and ability to respond? Essentially single party districts I think tend to favor geezers. The Don Beyer bill for multiple member districts in the House might help.

  2. Is there a way to adjust the seniority system so that states and individuals don't get such an advantage from endless tenure in office (but without privileging the party leadership in arbitrary and capricious ways)?

    Unless you want things run by staff and lobbyists, there will also be at least some gerontocratic bias, but that's another matter.

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