Tyranny of the 70-Somethings

The Democratic Party’s gerontocracy is holding back the political causes it claims to want to advance.

Bernie Sanders
Carlos Barria / Reuters

Why have national Democrats and not national Republicans fallen under the tyranny of the 70-somethings? It seems so contrary to common expectation. Democrats are, as they often remind us, the party of progress and the future. The question seems to rival those enduring, unanswerable mysteries such as “What happens when you die?” and “Why did Mick Taylor quit the Rolling Stones?”

People in their mid-to-late 70s are thick on the ground nowadays, while in an earlier era, of course, you’d have been more likely to find them under it. This is especially true in the urban centers of the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, according to a recent survey of census data by the Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. In particular, the Washington, D.C., area is a leader in “senior labor force participation,” by which the researchers mean the region is loaded with people who have passed the age of retirement yet somehow neglected to retire.

Look no further than the Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill. For whatever reason—perhaps they’re more easily bored by government work, or perhaps they’re more eager to cash in on government work—Republicans have less of a 70-something problem. House Republicans are relatively youthful, in chronology if not in disposition: They are led by a trio ages 54, 53, and 52. Indeed, the only 70-something among the GOP leadership on the Hill is the 77-year-old Mitch McConnell (I’m omitting the constitutional office of president pro tempore of the Senate, now occupied by the Republican Chuck Grassley, who is 85 but doesn’t look a day over 86.)

Going down the ranks, the public-affairs software firm Quorum reckoned that the average age of the Democratic House leadership is 72, fully 24 years more than the average of the Republican House leadership. Infamously, the three leading Democrats in the House are 79, 78, and 79, for a staggering combined age of 236, making the Democratic leadership team older, in aggregate, than the Constitution itself.

The party’s congressional gerontocracy has now inevitably bled into the field of presidential candidates. The front-runner, Joe Biden, is 76. Second place, according to most polls, belongs to Bernie Sanders, who’s a year older than Biden. They hope to replace the oldest man ever to be elected president. He’s younger than both of them. If either Biden or Sanders gets to the White House and then wins a second term, we will be governed by a man in his early 80s, nearly two decades older than Franklin D. Roosevelt was when, having won his fourth term, he pegged out from overwork. Needless to say, Sanders and Biden are each much spryer than FDR. Imagine Dick Van Dyke from Mary Poppins Returns clicking his heels in the Oval Office.

To be sure, anyone who criticizes our gerontocracy must insert a “to be sure” paragraph right about now, praising the gumption and resilience of our oldsters, marveling at their energy and their bottomless reservoirs of wisdom. Stipulated! Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, Biden, and Sanders—and especially the McDonald’s-loving 72-year-old incumbent—are walking testaments to the advances made by geriatric medicine since the 1950s, when they were teenagers. The idea that with length of days comes wisdom is a commonplace of our patrimony, from Aristotle and Job to Shakespeare and Austen. And all the flattering things we are required to say about old age and the people caught up in it do serve as a much-needed counterbalance to our culture’s childish obsession with youth.

But this traditional picture of old age as the repository of wisdom comes with certain complications. Gerontocracy is rule by people who insist on turning the peak of their career into a plateau. Aristotle and the others acknowledged that it carries hidden and insidious effects, and reveals unflattering qualities in the gerontocrats themselves. We can see this most obviously in the effect it has had on the Democratic Party generationally. There is a huge gap between where the energy and creativity of the party lie, with a group of dynamic activists and House members in their 30s and even their 20s (thank you, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), and the ruling class of 70-somethings layered far above like a crumbling porte cochere.

In the farm system that trains and seasons the leaders of tomorrow—assuming tomorrow ever comes—that gap signifies a lost generation. One day, presumably, power within the party will pass, and when it does, if present trends continue, it will leapfrog from seniors born around the time of V-J Day to people who can barely remember 9/11. More likely than not, members of Generation X will never get their turn—an entire cohort condemned to the fate of Prince Charles. After the indignities that Boomers inflicted on Generation X, from disco to postmodern literary theory, this scarcely seems fair.

The situation pushes some Gen Xers to take extreme measures. The far-fetched presidential campaigns of backbenchers such as Tim Ryan and Seth Moulton are best understood as cries for help, as ambitious young politicians try to free themselves from the professional bottleneck created by unbudgeable leadership.

Some 70-somethings are easier to forgive than others. Pelosi and her team are simply aging in place, clinging to a version of the jobs they’ve held for a decade or more; inertia could be as much to blame for their refusal to move along as an unslakable thirst for power and attention. There’s less to forgive in the actions of Biden and Sanders. Three years ago, both were given the chance to leave the field gracefully. But they. Will. Not. Go. Away.

Sanders, holding political positions virtually identical to those of his rivals, offered a less plausible case for his candidacy than Biden did. Biden’s case, which you could strain to make if you were willing to risk a herniated disk, was ideological: He filled a slot that no one else would fill. He was carrying the pragmatic liberalism of an earlier time into a scrum of leftish contenders who believe that pragmatism is for chumps.

That case was dashed last week with Biden’s head-snapping reversal of his 40-year support of the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortion. Far from serving as an alternative to the radicalism of one segment of his party, Biden showed that he is willing to be its slave—if that’s what it takes to win approval for his dream of apotheosis. Such groveling is unlovely enough in people in the robust prime of life; it is doubly so in old people, who, by virtue of their age and experience, are supposed to know their own mind.

The only cure for the desire to be president, a wise politician once said, is embalming fluid. Let’s stipulate to that, too. We all need purpose and meaning in life. The trick for old folks is to adjust their search for purpose and meaning as they follow nature’s course and give way to their juniors. The avenues to self-fulfillment that were open to them as younger men and women are now the rightful territory of a newer generation, and dignity requires them to find other paths of service and satisfaction.

I can easily imagine a host of dignified futures for our 70-something presidential candidates, far from New Hampshire and Iowa. Sanders could work as a tour guide in Nicaragua or a docent on fundraising cruises for The New York Review of Books. Biden, for his part, could take on the once-popular, now-neglected role of “elder statesman,” happy to serve when called to a blue-ribbon panel or as a special envoy to trouble spots here and there, to offer advice when his advice is sought, and otherwise to lead a life of recreation, reading, and contemplation. No one will think less of either of them.

Instead, they have chosen the way of vanity and self-indulgence, to the detriment of the political cause they say they want to advance. Sanders and Biden have made themselves the equivalent of the old dude cruising the pool at Club Med in his sagging Speedo, capped teeth gleaming, knobby shoulders and fallen pecs bronzed and shiny with tanning oil, gold chains twinkling through the chest hair. I’m not saying one of them won’t succeed in his quest—though I have my doubts about both—but in a saner world, it would be obvious that the quest itself is unseemly. They do no credit to their peers with their refusal to acknowledge their natural and inevitable station in life. And they do no favors to the younger people—from Pete Buttigieg, age 37; to Kamala Harris, age 54; and even to Elizabeth Warren, age 69—who are eager, as they are entitled to be, to take their shot.