On Aug. 30, a reporter asked 81-year-old Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell if he had thought about running for reelection in 2026.
McConnell did not answer the question.
Instead, the senator’s eyes seemed to widen, he closed his lips tight, and he stared off into the distance. The same thing happened just over a month earlier. The sundowning senator looked like a turtle retreating into a shell, and there was renewed concern about McConnell’s health. If his physician is to be believed, there’s nothing seriously wrong with him at all, of course. He was just light-headed.
Now, this column was originally supposed to run last week, but my life got in the way. I worried McConnell’s latest freezing incident would be old news and the point I wanted to make about it – that the people in our government are too old to serve – would be less impactful. But then 83-year-old Nancy Pelosi announced she was running for reelection.
I really should never worry about having material to write about – the hell that is American politics will always bring something new and appalling for me to discuss.
The U.S. has become a gerontocracy, a government run by old people. The president is 80 years old and will likely be running for reelection against 77-year-old Donald Trump. The median age for members of the House of Representatives is 57.9, and 65.3 for the U.S. Senate. Five of the nine Supreme Court Justices are over the age of 60 – and they all serve for life.
Now some – and I’m guessing they would probably belong to the demographic at hand – might say it isn’t really a huge concern that many of those with the most political power in this country are beyond the average American life expectancy. Who cares if Joe Biden is older than say, Brown v. Board? Does it matter that Dianne Feinstein is old enough to theoretically remember the Nazi invasion of Poland?
[Related: OPINION: The GOP presidential debate watch party]
I think it does matter that those with immense power cannot take questions from the press without looking lost or show up to Congress too frail and disoriented because of their age to walk on their own. It’s ludicrous for Biden or Trump to ask for our votes when both of them could easily check out early before they finish their terms.
I’m not alone in this either – an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that 77% of respondents believe Biden is too old to be an effective president for four more years. He barely has a 40% approval rating as is, and yet the 80-year-old Biden is apparently the best the Democrats can muster.
As a young person – too young to even run for Congress – it’s embarrassing to watch our officials at work. Think back to last March, when TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before a Congress that seemingly had no idea how the app worked, or even how an internet connection functions.
But leaving the oversight of TikTok to those who had grandkids before the iPhone came out is the least of our worries. Much more frightening is leaving the future of our planet to those who won’t be on it much longer.
Back in 2015, Sen. James Inhofe – who only just retired this year, at the age of 88 – threw a snowball on the floor of the Senate to “prove” that global warming was a hoax. If there’s snow on the ground, the planet must not be getting any hotter, right?
President Biden talks a big game about understanding the importance of climate change, but his record on addressing the issue has been mixed at best. He governs like someone who won’t be affected by the worst of it – that is, he governs like an 80-year-old man.
So, whether our officials are showing obvious age-related health deterioration, or are simply out of touch on the issues young people care about, many of them are too old to be in charge of anything. What can be done?
One suggestion I’ve heard is an age cap. Just as there is a floor on how old one must be to even run for office, so there should be a ceiling on how old one can be before they’re no longer eligible. What this ceiling should be can be up for debate. 70? 75? Personally, I’d prefer if there were less 80-year-olds working in the government.
Another possible solution would require officials to pass a mental fitness test once they reach a certain age. Go ahead and watch that clip of McConnell freezing, or read about the trouble Feinstein’s staff goes through every day, and tell me I’m crazy for having concerns that our officials are mentally unfit to serve. If they all had documentation of their mental acuity, I’m sure we’d all feel a lot better.
Unfortunately, these ideas sound a bit like a pointless thought experiment. After all, are the old people in government really going to legislate themselves out of existence? It’s doubtful.
But we mustn’t let this be a brick wall for those of us who’d like to see change. If the Bidens or the McConnells in our government won’t step down on their own, the people must demand it of them. We must take to the streets if necessary – and we’ll throw them all one hell of a retirement party.
Jared Quigg (he/him) is a senior studying journalism and political science. He knows his age and he acts like it.