You’ll Miss Gerontocracy When It’s Gone

Are the oldsters who refuse to retire hoarding power or just better at wielding it?

Juxtaposed black-and-white photos of Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, and Chuck Schumer
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic; Getty

For the past two years, Washington has been under the unified control of the Democratic Party. It has also been under the control of a narrow demographic: longtime recipients of Social Security. The ruling troika of Nancy Pelosi (age 82), Chuck Schumer (72), and Joe Biden (80) has participated in politics for about a combined 140 years. The last time one of them had a job that wasn’t based on Pennsylvania Avenue was 1987.

Critics have sneeringly referred to this state of affairs as a gerontocracy. The gerontocrats are supposedly unable to relinquish power, to admit that their cohort’s time is done. By hoarding leadership, the ruling oldsters have kept successor generations on the bench, depriving them of their turn to run the country.

But today the triopoly is officially over. Pelosi is handing the gavel to an as-yet-unnamed Republican speaker and stepping aside as House Democratic leader in favor of the 52-year-old Hakeem Jeffries. And my guess is that the country is going to miss the gerontocracy when it’s gone.

Wielding power in a sprawling institution like Congress is difficult, to say the least. National leaders must manage the ambitions of their members while balancing competing ideologies and divergent interests. Even simply gathering the votes to become a leader can be a challenge, as Kevin McCarthy is now graphically demonstrating in his quest to become speaker. Younger people can, of course, competently perform these gigs, but their complexity is suited to those with the deepest reservoirs of experience.

Not so long ago, I would have described myself as sympathetic to the anti-gerontocracy critique. But the successes of the past Congress have convinced me otherwise. Biden, Schumer, and Pelosi presided over one of the most prolific legislative sessions in recent history. With the narrowest of margins, they have accomplished far more than anyone could have reasonably expected—and far more than their recent Democratic predecessors.

One criticism of gerontocracy is that senior citizens are incapable of thinking toward the future, because they won’t be around for it. (Indeed, older voters can be terrible NIMBYs and cultural reactionaries. I won’t apologize for them.) But the 117th Congress has passed a series of bills containing significant investments—in clean energy, in semiconductor manufacturing, and in infrastructure—that the older leaders might not even live to fully enjoy. They spent heavily to decarbonize the economy and to maintain national competitiveness for generations. And they temporarily expanded the child tax credit, a massive intergenerational transfer of wealth.

All of this suggests that at the end of their career, these leaders weren’t thinking about clinging to power so much as attempting to write the first lines of their obituary. Rather than worrying about defeats, which they had learned to endure over decades in the business, they plunged forward. They set aside anxieties about the stigma of cutting deals that might be denounced as half measures, because they knew from their own failures how rarely grand victories emerge.

As much as any politician since Lyndon B. Johnson, Pelosi controlled her caucus: Never once did she suffer any meaningful internal revolt or have to fend off a coup. In bringing along her flock, she knew when to punish and when to coax. Members of Congress have told me that she threatened to kick them off international trips and that they quickly got in line as a result. She’s also adept at flattery, as I can attest. Once, in an interview, she bantered with me about Jewish athletes, apparently aware of a relatively obscure anthology of essays I had co-edited on the subject. She wasn’t born with these skills; her psychological acumen and self-confidence are the products of a long career.

Pelosi also felt perfectly at ease berating and pressuring presidents, probably because she’d seen so many come and go. She gleefully taunted Donald Trump—a rather old politician lacking the benefits of age—in the Oval Office, in the presence of reporters, after having won a majority in 2018. When Trump suggested that he could easily pass a bill funding his border wall, she responded, “Okay, then do it.” (He couldn’t.)  She scolded him, “Please don’t characterize the strength I bring to this meeting.” Which, of course, was itself a show of strength that left him looking weak.

Dealmaking, the essence of legislating, is also far easier with past patterns to guide it. Without personal experience, leaders may second-guess themselves in the course of compromising, worrying too much that their opponent is trying to fleece them or mistaking the usual give-and-take for something unseemly. It’s hard to know when an adversary is bluffing and whether it’s prudent to call a bluff. These aren’t instincts that are quickly honed, because there is only so much dealmaking in any given session of Congress.

A theory about the outgoing troika: Pelosi, Schumer, and Biden are proudly ethnic politicians—Italian, Jewish, and Irish—products of northeastern cities, when those cities still had their postwar luster. They reached professional maturity during the years when their political party began to struggle in the face of Republican attacks on the ethos of big-government liberalism, and they prided themselves on their pragmatism, their ability to count noses and preserve disparate coalitions. That shared worldview, I think, helps account for their productivity, for the ability to legislate in sync. Granted, the anti-gerontocracy set could make the argument that this shared worldview does not fully reflect the modern United States, a much more diverse country than the one these three grew up in.

To put my argument a bit more carefully, neither age nor youth is inherently virtuous. Congressional history is rife with examples of “old bulls,” as they were called, who clung to their perches at the expense of the common good. With their longevity, they became venal, beholden to lobbyists, more afraid that they might be deprived of their status than eager to get things done. Or consider the Supreme Court, where aging, unaccountable justices can exercise power while their spry clerks do the donkey work. That’s the sort of gerontocracy worth making a fuss about—and worth abolishing through term limits.

But the fetishization of youthful vigor—the yearning for the charismatic fresh face—is an ingrained cultural impulse that tends to disregard many of the qualities that make for an effective politician. The good news for the Democrats is that this is probably the ideal moment for generational turnover and opens the thrilling possibility of the nation’s first Black speaker. Because of their midterm defeat in the House, they don’t have much power to wield in Congress. That means fresh leadership will have time to learn on the job, without blowing significant opportunities. And the thing about young leaders is that someday they might become old. Long live Hakeem Jeffries.