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Addressing Age-Related Concerns in American Politics

A lot has been made in the news over the fact that many of America’s leaders are old. President Joe Biden is 80 years old, and would be 86 by the time he finishes two terms in office (assuming he gets elected to a second term, and completes the term). Former President Donald Trump, who may end up facing Biden again in 2024, is only three years younger than Biden. United States Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose recent incidents of freezing up have put said age-related concerns at the forefront, is 81.


And, in light of said age-related concerns, many have argued that there is such a thing as “too old to govern,” and that people as old as the three mentioned here shouldn’t be allowed to govern.


Regardless of what one thinks of Biden’s, Trump’s, and McConnell’s politics, one thing is undeniable: the notion of being too old to be effective is the same notion that resulted in the formation of Gray Panthers in 1970.


Our founder, Maggie Kuhn, was forced to retire at the age of 65 due to mandatory retirement—a mandatory retirement that came from the notion that there is such a notion as being too old to be effective. She would wind up proving such notions wrong, as she started the Gray Panthers after that mandatory retirement and became a major advocate for the rights of older persons, for peace, and for a variety of other social justice causes.


The counterargument to what I say here might be “well…Maggie was over a decade younger than the three politicians I mentioned.” But, for whatever it’s worth, the life expectancy was much shorter in Maggie’s time than it is today (average life expectancy from birth was just over 70 in 1970 and was approaching 79 in 2020)(1). Additionally, while the numbers raised by such a counterargument is numerically true, just because the age is different doesn’t change the notion that she was forced into retirement because of the belief that her age is too old to do good. Nor does it change the notion that a lot of the debates surrounding older persons in politics today come from a notion that there is such a thing as someone who is “too old to do good.”


There is also the counterargument that as someone gets older, the chances of major health issues (and death) increase. While that is factually true, not all health issues are the same. The health issues that Franklin Delano Roosevelt dealt with were major, yet did not keep him from leading the United States through World War II. But on the other hand, Woodrow Wilson’s stroke late in his second term deeply compromised his ability to govern. Just because someone has certain health issues doesn’t mean that they are unable to govern. It really depends on the health issue.


And because of that, the better question than “Is _____ too old to govern?” is “Do the health issues of _____ keep them from governing effectively?” The latter of the two questions, for the record, is an extremely valid question to ask about Senate Minority Leader McConnell given his recent episodes of freezing. Neither question seems fair to ask of anyone who is older but shows no apparent signs of major health issues.


Perhaps the best question though is this: is their plan for how to govern best for people of all generations, from the youngest among us to the oldest? And that is a question that doesn’t have anything to do with a politician’s age.

 

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