Judging by the composition of the current Congress and the contenders for the executive branch, the death notice of elder-rule is premature. In 2018, we were told that the election of candidates under 40 had “reversed” the trend of ever-older legislators; the average age of House members dropped by a nearly a decade. About the previous trend, there can be little doubt. When applied to the whole Capitol, however, this factoid simply underlined the failure to teach people the difference between the mean and the median. The election of AOC offset the individual creakiness of someone like, say, Bernie Sanders, but it hardly affected the median age in the House, just shy of 60, much the less in the Senate, which will remain at 65, even after the deaths of John McCain, Thad Cochran, and soon, the departure of Lamar Alexander. Tennessee’s other Senator, Bob Corker, actually retired in 2018 at the conventional age, but few seem eager to follow his example. An even larger proportion of Senators up for election in 2020 are over 65 than was the case in 2018.
According to the most recent census figures, the 65+ crowd is twice as well represented in the halls of Congress as its share of the overall population warrants. Of course, this situation is not necessarily calamitous. The aforementioned Senator from Vermont has demonstrated that the white-headed can still connect with youth and claim to advance their interests. On balance, our elders should be better qualified by experience for running the country, right? Surely as many of them are wise in years as are simply too old for the job. Even so, one has doubts. The jury is still out–when will it ever come in?–but it’s not hard to think of ways things might have gone differently, and better, since the turn of the millennium (when the median age in Congress was only 55 or so!). 9/11 ushered in continuous warfare abroad, accompanied by an increase in military spending to a level over twice that of the 1990s, when we enjoyed a booming economy. National infrastructure has decayed, along with many urban neighborhoods. The current pandemic has revealed the inadequacy of health care reform, while health-related costs have wreaked havoc in many a middle-class family. Meanwhile, Washington has focused on identity politics and the selection of Supreme Court justices, all with a view to the next election.
So, this Boomer for one is feeling a bit disappointed in his cohort, even sympathetic with some of the targeted critiques launched from the rising generation. We’ve become preoccupied with justifying our particular version of the history we learned in school, whether it relates to the Cold War or colonial slavery. An entire presidential campaign may now unfold without any real debate on policy for the future. Even so, the under-employed youth who are now demanding instant change are far more contemptuous of conventional politics than the populist candidates who run as “outsiders.” Who dares to espouse a fire-breathing idealism that translates not only into stirring slogans but also into briefing books? Where is the confidence that American voters can be persuaded by something besides “gotcha” headlines and leaked videos? When was the last time that government even made keeping itself going a priority?
Answer: “The West Wing.” Yes, once upon a time a Boomer took politics seriously enough to create an engrossing TV series that seldom stepped outside a studio in Burbank. Recall the likes of Sam, Josh, Donna, Charlie, C.J. –exuding competence and dodging the furniture while engaged in rapid-fire repartee. Imagine an inner circle of advisers whose shrewdness is topped only by their sincere patriotism. Lunch was delivered to the office before the advent of cellphones! Of course, it was pure escapism, even then. Who now would accept the idea that an obscure nerd like Jed Bartlet or a minority candidate like Matt Santos can emerge as a front-runner and win the Presidency–well, maybe once, but twice? Instead, this time in reality, Pete Buttigieg and Cory Booker sparkled briefly, then fizzled. The only encouraging thought is that it’s because they’re male and that better choices await when younger women are finally seriously considered. All these fantasies and more–set to the music of “Snuffy” Walden–fuel the reveries of the captive audience, composed (one suspects) largely of Boomers. And it’s not over. Unfortunately, we’re all fifteen years older.