Why is there no age limit on politicians?

Published by The i paper (4th September, 2023)

Chuck Grassley was born in 1933 to a rural family living in a farmhouse with no electricity or indoor plumbing. He entered politics in 1959, succeeding a man born in the 19th century in the Iowa legislature. Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, Elvis Presley was shaking up the nation, and the jet era was beginning with the first transcontinental flight. He won national office 15 years later as Richard Nixon was driven from the presidency. Earlier this year, saying he still had “unfinished business”, this Republican veteran was sworn in to his eighth Senate term and so will serve in the upper house until he is 95 years old.

Two-thirds of Iowans were worried about his age and wanted a fresh face to represent them in Washington, but he was returned due to the money-drenched and tribal US political system that favours incumbency. Grassley has performed wobbly press-ups and posted videos on social media of early morning jogs to prove his vitality. But this elderly lawmaker symbolises a question shooting up the nation’s agenda and rattling allies – has the world’s leading democracy become a gerontocracy? And what does this mean for the superpower in a rumbustious world changing so fast from the dawn of artificial intelligence through to the rise of China?

Grassley will mark half a century in Washington next year but he is far from an anomaly in United States politics. He is not even the oldest member of the Senate: Dianne Feinstein, a Californian Democrat, is one year older. Half the US population is under 40 but the median age for the current US Senate is 65, just one year below the pension age, while one in four members of Congress are over 70. One Senator joked that she was turning 64, “or, as we like to call it in the Senate, middle-aged”.

Meanwhile, the US is steeling itself for another tempestuous tussle for the White House between the two oldest presidents in history if, as expected, 80-year-old Joe Biden ends up confronting his 77-year-old predecessor Donald Trump.

This rumbling issue surrounding the age and fragility of older politicians came into sharp focus last week when Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, 81, had to be escorted away after freezing in a press conference. The silence felt painful, the second time such an event had happened in recent weeks, with concerns over his deteriorating health after a bad fall left him concussed. Then, Feinstein looked confused in a committee meeting, having to be prompted to vote by simply saying “aye”. This led to new fears over her cognitive decline after reports of repeating conversations, suffering memory lapses, and relying on staff to do her job.

These two incidents turn the spotlight back onto Biden. Insinuations about his mental sharpness are a regular theme in Republican attacks. But there are valid questions over the frailty of a man who entered the Senate half a century ago when Nixon was president and most of his fellow citizens were not yet born – and who would be 86 at end of a second term.

He makes jokes about his age, has performed decently in office, and has always been rather gaffe-prone, yet he has had worrying stumbles and noticeably gives fewer interviews or press conference than recent predecessors. Little wonder a sizeable – and rising – majority of voters believe he seems too old to be their president. Many Democrats also dread that Biden might have a similar “senior” moment during the latter stages of next year’s campaign, handing their country back into the toxic control of Trump.

“America is not past our prime – it’s just that our politicians are past theirs,” said the Republican Nikki Haley, 51, when she launched her candidacy for president. This was a jibe at both Trump and Biden, but she was making a fair point. Memory and physical agility tend to decline with age and sleep patterns change, although abilities vary widely and political skills and wisdom can increase over time. But when there are age limits on US diplomats, pilots, police officers and soldiers, you can only wonder about the logic of not imposing any restraint on those leading the nation, given the complexities and immensity of modern challenges.

There has been discussion of term limits in Congress, which already exist with the presidency, or tests for cognitive ability. “The family, friends, and staff of Senators Feinstein and McConnell are doing them and our country a tremendous disservice,” wrote Rep Dean Phillips on X, formerly Twitter. “It’s time for term limits for Congress and the Supreme Court, and some basic human decency.”

But since the nation’s founders set minimum age limits for the White House and Congress, perhaps a more logical step might be imposition of some kind of maximum age limit given that such issues were not pertinent when their constitution was drawn up in the 18th century.

In reality, it feels unlikely there might ever be agreement on the best age, let along that such a measure would ever get passed. Yet political representation has been ageing in the US much faster than the rest of society and half the country’s lawmakers come from the baby boomer generation, a group that accounts for about one in five citizens, which helps explain growing disenchantment of younger US generations with both democracy and capitalism.

Bear in mind also a recent lesson from history with the collapse of the Soviet Union, an event some experts blame partly on the inability of a clique of elderly leaders to adapt to modernity as they clung to power, grew detached from citizens, and allowed their system to stagnate. The parallel is imperfect since the dynamic US economy continues to thrive and besides, the octogenarian left-winger Bernie Sanders shows that an older politician can enthuse younger voters.

But there are certainly some uncomfortable echoes when you look at these politicians so reluctant to relinquish their grip on power and wonder about their abilities to handle issues such as rampant technological change. “Being an outstanding president requires great mental acuity and physical stamina,” wrote Donald Trump. For once, he was right.

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