In Politics, Is Older Better?

Franklin Foer argues that youthful vigor is no match for hard-won experience.

Joe Biden meeting with Kevin McCarthy, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and Mitch McConnell in November 2022.
Joe Biden meeting with Kevin McCarthy, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and Mitch McConnell in November 2022. (Jim Watson / AFP / Getty)

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Congressman Kevin McCarthy’s failure this week to win the vote to succeed Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House has only driven home the immense sway she held in the position. As our staff writer Franklin Foer writes, her stepping down from the role marks the twilight of the Democrats’ “ruling troika” of elders, which also includes Senator Chuck Schumer and President Joe Biden. Although critics deride this so-called gerontocracy in government, Frank predicts we’ll soon miss it. I called him to find out more.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


Greed for Legacy

Kelli Korducki: Why did Nancy Pelosi’s leadership handoff get you thinking about the merits of age in political office?

Frank Foer: As a politician who I’ve watched over an extended period of time, she’s the person that best knew how to wield power; I haven’t, in my lifetime, known a politician who’s better at getting stuff done than Nancy Pelosi. And I think that she kept getting better at it as she went. A lot of the time, when people seem to be hanging on to a job—and for a good chunk, I also thought that she was hanging on to her job—she just kept becoming effective in new and different ways.

Kelli: Do you think that’s a function of time and experience more than Nancy Pelosi being a really sharp and gifted politician?

Frank: She’s gifted, no doubt. But, you know, we had this brief moment in time that has just ended where there were three senior-citizen politicians [Pelosi, Schumer, and Biden], all of whom had or are having the best moments of their career at their very end. And I think that they did much better than anybody expected or than they had any right to do, given the circumstances that they were in. And I started thinking about patience as a leadership virtue but also, in the corollary to that, how to play a long legislative game. I felt like the lesson of the past two years is that the Democrats could have easily crumbled into despair and ruin, but that trio figured out how to pull off major wins, kind of at the last minute.

Kelli: And then, on the flip side, you have this week’s spectacle with Kevin McCarthy, who’s now lost nine consecutive votes to take over as House speaker.

Frank: McCarthy has been in leadership a long time. He has plenty of experience. But even a leader with the skills of Nancy Pelosi wouldn’t be able to manage a caucus filled with so many vile figures and ill-intentioned mischief makers.

Kelli: You write that aging politicians either become NIMBYs beholden to lobbyists or shrewd in getting stuff done. In your view, what informs the direction they’ll take?

Frank: Politicians can be greedy in different ways. Some are greedy for their careers as they experience it. And those are the people who become power-mad or venal. And then there are politicians who become greedy for their legacies, who I think worry more about how they’ll be perceived when it’s all said and done.

This may be a simplistic bifurcation, but I think that there’s almost a divide in the way that people ponder the meaning of their own lives and what they hope to extract from it. And I think it’s something that probably translates into the world outside of politics.

Kelli: You note in your essay that the last Congress passed a lot of forward-thinking legislation, and that this contradicts the idea that older legislators might not be so interested in risking political capital to secure a future they won’t be around to experience.

Frank: Yeah. And to me, the measure of that is what they did on climate. Our recently departed [from The Atlantic] colleague Robinson Meyer wrote a great piece about how the Inflation Reduction Act is one of the more underrated pieces of recent policy, that it’s this sweeping set of measures that are meant to bring the American economy into the age of sustainability. That’s the thing that I judged this Congress on most; I was worried that if they didn't act on climate now, that nothing would happen for a decade, and the planet would’ve lost this huge opportunity. But by seizing the moment on climate with this bill, they created the chance for the United States to be an incredibly active leader in climate diplomacy, so we now have the moral authority to lead on climate.

Kelli: You close your essay on Pelosi’s Democratic heir apparent, Hakeem Jeffries, who signals “the thrilling possibility of the nation’s first Black speaker.” What do you anticipate for Jeffries and the new generation of leaders?

Frank: I think Congress is a very specific institution. What’s interesting about Pelosi and Schumer is that I don’t think anybody would regard them as especially good public communicators—and that’s really, I think, the fundamental way in which politicians are conventionally judged. It’s like, how do they do on television, or how do they do when delivering big speeches? And they would both get very bad marks on that score. But what they were good at, or what they are good at, is understanding the interests and careers and psychology of all of the members in their caucuses. And I think that that’s a power structure that doesn’t really ever change. There are always new complexities that enter into that sort of people management, because you always have fresh sets of people coming into the Congress.

But, you know, my guess is also that Hakeem Jeffries has been part of Pelosi’s leadership crew for a bit now, and I think that he’s probably studied her as he’s prepared to take on this job, which people knew for a while that he was going to assume. So it’s my hope that he gets good at all the things that she was good at, and that it’ll just take a bit of hard-won experience for him to get there.

Related:


Today’s News
  1. Vladimir Putin ordered Russian forces to observe a 36-hour cease-fire in Ukraine for Orthodox Christmas. A senior Ukrainian official dismissed the move as a “propaganda gesture.”  
  2. Pope Francis presided over the funeral of former Pope Benedict XVI.
  3. The man accused of killing four University of Idaho students was booked on four counts of murder and one count of burglary last night. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for January 12.

Evening Read
Illustration of a person lying on their back while trapped inside a transparent cube
(Jan Buchczik)

How We Learned to Be Lonely

By Arthur C. Brooks

Communities can be amazingly resilient after traumas. Londoners banded together during the German Blitz bombings of World War II, and rebuilt the city afterward. When I visited the Thai island of Phuket six months after the 2004 tsunami killed thousands in the region and displaced even more, I found a miraculous recovery in progress, and in many places, little remaining evidence of the tragedy. It was inspirational.

Going from surviving to thriving is crucial for healing and growth after a disaster, and scholars have shown that it can be a common experience. Often, the worst conditions bring out the best in people as they work together for their own recovery and that of their neighbors.

COVID-19 appears to be resistant to this phenomenon, unfortunately. The most salient social feature of the pandemic was how it forced people into isolation; for those fortunate enough not to lose a loved one, the major trauma it created was loneliness. Instead of coming together, emerging evidence suggests that we are in the midst of a long-term crisis of habitual loneliness, in which relationships were severed and never reestablished. Many people—perhaps including you—are still wandering alone, without the company of friends and loved ones to help rebuild their life.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break
A collage of fuzzy, pixelated images of a television set and of stills from TV shows
(The Atlantic; Getty; HBO Max)

Read. Jacob and Esau,” a poem by Carl Dennis.

“If this was the kind of fairness available / Inside the family, what could he hope for / From the world outside?”

Watch. Work through our list of 13 feel-good TV shows to watch this winter.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

Frank recommends two recent pieces of media about Christopher Lasch, an “intellectual historian/social preacher who was a gigantic figure in the ’70s and ’80s and continues to be revered by both the Trump right and the socialist left.” The first is an essay in Jacobin by the critic Christian Lorentzen, which Frank says does a good job of explaining the origins and endurance of Lasch’s strange fandom. The second, Frank explains, is “a great recent episode of my favorite podcast, Know Your Enemy, about Lasch’s masterpiece The True and Only Heaven. That’s one of my favorite books about American politics. If you want to understand the deeper origins of populism and the deeper problems with liberalism, it’s the place to begin.”

— Kelli

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.