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Biden versus Trump: An Age of Ageism?

Biden versus Trump: An Age of Ageism?
From left: Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump. (Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images) | US President Joe Biden. (Photo: Ting Shen / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The realisation dawning among a growing number of Americans that they will be choosing next year for their president between two men who should be retired, playing with their grandchildren and writing their memoirs is actually part of a much larger issue.

Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in his hand who saith, ‘A whole I planned, youth shows but half;
Trust God: See all, nor be afraid!’ ― Robert Browning

Like so many others, the writer is a certified member of the massive baby boom generation. I was born in 1949, and the baby boom includes all the children born between 1946 and 1964. This group comprises the offspring of all those millions of World War 2 military personnel who returned home, married, and very quickly began families. To a considerable degree, this baby boom occurred around the world, as can be seen among the birth statistics of the combatants in the war. 

The baby boom generation – in all its manifestations – had vastly important impacts on society, the economy, politics and government. No baby boom would have meant no rock ’n roll, no years of youth rebellion beginning in the 1960s and running on into the 1970s, and few of those vast waves of mass consumerism and the demands for such products all around the world.

The leading edge of this generation is now closing in on its 80th birthday. The inevitability of their lives beginning to reach their terminus increasingly occupies the attention of a growing number of that generation. Their concerns are less about the challenges of the distant future and all those mountains to climb, and more about the here and now – including their growing health and medical concerns and conditions and the ability of any pensions and savings to carry them through the final years of their lives with dignity.

Old power

Meanwhile, the nation’s political leadership largely still seems to come from that same baby boom generation – and with some in leadership positions from even earlier. This generation is doggedly reluctant to surrender its political power, despite unrelenting pressure from the calendar and succeeding generations. 

This is not a unique phenomenon, although the sheer breadth and expanse of it because of the size of the baby boom generation can make it seem so. Back in 1960, in that year’s US presidential election, the 43-year-old Massachusetts Senator John F Kennedy had campaigned that it was “time to get America moving again” and that there was a need to inject some “vigour” into the body politic, after the “silent generation’s” seemingly lotus-eating slumber of the 1950s.

Kennedy’s rallying cry was it was time for “a new generation of Americans” – someone like himself, battle tested in World War 2, still young, attractive to voters – to take charge. As an avatar of this new generation, Kennedy could show his energy through athleticism and a kind of gentleman’s outdoor life of sailing and roiling games of family touch football. (That was a more modern echo of the athletic style of an earlier president, Theodore Roosevelt, back at the beginning of the 20th century, although his included rugged camping, hunting and fishing.)

In the end, Kennedy narrowly won his election against Vice President Richard Nixon, another member of the cohort of returning World War 2 veterans. (Kennedy’s service in the navy as a daring torpedo patrol boat captain in the Solomon Islands had been heroic, and it became an important element of his popular appeal despite his having had a distinctly modest legislative career.)

In winning the election, Kennedy had succeeded a much older Dwight Eisenhower, the man who had commanded the entire western allied army in its race across Europe, from D-Day onward. It represented a true generational change. 

A military career of some sort was seemingly needed for success. Every president after Franklin Roosevelt, right up to George HW Bush, had served in the military during World War 1 or 2, or immediately thereafter, as did Jimmy Carter. Carter had been commissioned as an officer in the navy and then, later, a specialised nuclear power engineering officer, following his graduation from the naval academy, just as the war ended. (Earlier on, Harry Truman, who had succeeded Franklin Roosevelt as president upon the latter’s death in 1945, had been an artillery captain in World War 1. And yes, truth is important. Ronald Reagan had fought his battles on the back lots of Hollywood movie studios in films about the war, even though he reportedly began believing the story lines himself, it has been said.)

By the time Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, the string of World War 2 military veterans had run its course, ending with George HW Bush. By contrast, Clinton had avoided the draft for the Vietnam conflict through student deferments. By contrast, unsuccessful presidential candidates who had been Vietnam veterans have included Al Gore, John Kerry and John McCain, a naval pilot and then POW in Hanoi. Perhaps the fact that Vietnam was not a conflict America had been victorious in has had a dampening impact, with Vietnam-era veteran candidates never attracting the deep, popular embrace in quite the same way as the heroes of a winning global conflict.

In fact, historically, in a similar pattern to the post-World War 2 period, a century earlier, following the Civil War (1861-65), virtually every president between Ulysses Grant (elected in 1868) and William McKinley, elected at the end of the 19th century, save for Grover Cleveland, had been on active military service during the Civil War in the Union army.

After McKinley, a new generation of politicians, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt, rose to prominence. Only in his youthful forties and with an active, young family, Roosevelt took office when McKinley was assassinated in 1901. Roosevelt had managed to create a brief military career for himself when he led a volunteer force in the Spanish-American War of 1898, the so-called Rough Riders.

Septuagenarian v Octogenarian

Returning to our current moment, many politicians of the baby boom generation – and even a few coming along from a few years before that – seem unwilling to step back from their public offices to make space for a newer generation to take up leadership roles. Many seem to be prepared to surrender to the calendar only when they have been defeated in an election – or die.

Interestingly, among the newer generation of politicians, perhaps similar to the circumstances of Vietnam conflict service, military service in either Iraq or Afghanistan has only infrequently boosted the campaign bona fides of individuals as political candidates in contrast to the ways military service in the post-Civil War or World War 2 eras did. The number of veterans (and their experiences) in national political office thus continues to decline.

Looking forward, it has dawned on a growing number of people that America’s 2024 presidential race – assuming President Biden stays the course as the candidate and remains healthy enough to run, and that Donald Trump is not so entangled in courtroom dramas that the weight of such troubles ultimately propels another to end up as the Republican candidate – will be between two elderly men just three years apart in age. Regardless of who wins in 2024, an old man — with a lifetime of experience but, concurrently, with the growing liabilities of age will lead the nation in seriously complex and even dangerous times.

As Washington Post opinion columnist David Ignatius noted just this week: “Joe Biden launched his candidacy for president in 2019 with the words ‘we are in the battle for the soul of this nation’. He was right. And though it wasn’t obvious at first to many Democrats, he was the best person to wage that fight. He was a genial but also shrewd campaigner for the restoration of what legislators call ‘regular order’.”

But Ignatius added that, more and more, because of age, and because of those ingrained habits of a political lifetime, it is time for Biden to hand over the mantle. 

Ignatius then added: “Biden’s age isn’t just a Fox News trope; it’s been the subject of dinner-table conversations across America this summer … Biden has never been good at saying no. He should have resisted the choice of Harris, who was a colleague of his beloved son Beau when they were both state attorneys general. He should have blocked then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, which has done considerable damage to the island’s security. He should have stopped his son Hunter from joining the board of a Ukrainian gas company and representing companies in China — and he certainly should have resisted Hunter’s attempts to impress clients by getting Dad on the phone.”

Meanwhile, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, addressing the challenge of Donald Trump’s own age-challenged status, wrote: “To our intensifying discussion about whether President Biden has grown mentally fuzzy and too old for a second term, I’d like to add this question: How would we even notice Donald Trump’s lapse into incoherence, when derangement is essentially his brand?

“Pretty much any interview he gives is a babble bonanza, and his recent lovefest with Tucker Carlson was no exception. He went on wacky tangents, including one about the wages of building the Panama Canal: ‘We lost 35,000 people to the mosquito. Malaria. We lost 35,000 people. We lost 35,000 people because of the mosquito. Vicious. They had to build under nets. It was one of the true great wonders of the world’.

“‘One of the nine wonders,’ he added, then corrected himself. ‘No, no, it was one of the seven.’ Seven, nine – he seemed unable to decide, unwilling to commit. ‘You could make nine wonders,’ he ventured. I guess that’s some limit. Once you hit 10, they’re just curiosities. Wonder-ettes…”

Bruni went on to say: “I’m not claiming that Biden (80) and Trump project the same degree of vigour. I have eyes and ears. Trump talks louder and faster than Biden does and moves with a thudding force. He’s like a freight train to Biden’s cable car, or a big, bulbous tuba to Biden’s tremulous piccolo. Listening to Biden, I want a volume knob I can turn up. Listening to Trump, I crave nonsense-cancelling headphones.”

And so the choice for president is, apparently, between two old men who, in the minds of many voters, are past their prime, beyond their sell-by dates. But the challenge is not just one of geriatric presidential candidates. Many of the most senior figures in Congress are at least as old – or older still.

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley will be 90 next week and he is planning to run for reelection when his current term expires. California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s health and acuity have come under increasingly harsh scrutiny, as have, even more alarmingly, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s recent series of troubling silences and blank looks in front of audiences. And California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi has stepped back from being speaker of the House, even though she fully intends to run again next year.

The challenge is beyond Congress and the presidency. Unusually among major democracies, federal judges – including members of the Supreme Court – are appointed for life, regardless of their health or acuity as the years roll by. Most recently, Democrats were dismayed that as admirable an associate justice as she had been, it was disheartening Ruth Bader Ginsburg clung to her seat as she neared death. That allowed the Trump administration to fill her vacant seat after she died with her ideological opposite number. 

But unlike most educational institutions, businesses, government employee positions, the military and other sectors of the economy and society, the country’s judges, presidents and congressmen and senators have no mandatory retirement age. (Nor do they have requirements for cognitive capability tests either, regardless of age, just in case readers were wondering.)

In that regard, the American government and political system seems to be moving towards those old-style geriatric regimes in an earlier Eastern Europe where a party chairman and premier slowly ascended the greasy pole until they reached the top, just before the ravages of age and illness eventually took them away. The new style in Russia and China is now similar, with leaders rejiggering their countries’ constitutions to allow presidents to have what amounts to unlimited terms in office. There are, of course, other examples on this African continent and in Asia where presidents rule for life or pass along their rule to sons and grandsons once they finally die. 

Growing gerontocracy

Even among democratic-style governments, the gerontocratic feature of government is growing, on pace with the ageing of populations more generally. A United Nations University study noted: “Gerontocracy (rule by elders) is a soaring trend in rich countries. In most European countries, low fertility and the ageing of the population are shifting the intergenerational balance in favour of the elderly.

“Because of their increasing numbers, a growing proportion of societal resources are allocated to these elders, at a time when they are benefiting from growing political power. From 1990 to 2005, the age of the average Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) median voter increased three times faster than in the preceding 30 years.

“In some European countries (e.g., Italy and Germany) people aged 50 and older make up more than half of the voting population and this milestone is not long off for most of the EU. Distributive conflict over societal resources will play itself out more and more along generational lines, with elders increasingly gaining the upper hand over a shrinking percentage of younger citizens,” the UN study said. 

This circumstance has obvious consequences for how public policies, especially social welfare benefits, are defined and distributed, as the consequences of trimming government pensions and medical care for the post-65-year-old sector of the population can be politically fatal to elected officials. (In America, an attempt to cut the government social security payment is often called the third rail of politics – echoing the idea that touching it leads to electrocution.)

This stands in contrast to policies specifically designed to focus on young people or students, for example. Demographers caution that 2023 will actually see the largest number of Americans ever turning 65 years of age – and thus retired baby boomers.

Yes, generational succession will slowly occur. Over time, the baby boomer generation will almost entirely retire and then die. Eventually, that will open up gaps in the political landscape for the members of the newer echo generations, the millennials, generation Z and so forth. There are already some examples of this in a few districts and states. 

But as many older incumbents hold on to their positions well past their 60s, it will still remain hard for new political figures – unless they have the special sizzle of someone like Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, regardless of what one may think about her views – to speak about a “new generation of Americans”, eager to take spots on the high places of American life. (One partial exception was then-Speaker of the House Pelosi, who voluntarily stepped down from that role to allow her much younger deputy, Hakim Jefferies, to gain that post.) 

But at least the US does not yet resemble the hereditary monarchy that is the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, even if families like the Lodges, the Kennedys, the Roosevelts and the Bushes were sometimes described as political “royalty” in the past. DM


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