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Why America’s elderly elite won’t quit Not even the young have faith in the future

Welcome to the gerontocratic nightmare (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Welcome to the gerontocratic nightmare (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)


September 15, 2023   6 mins

You don’t have to be old to be confused. Years ago, when I was still a walk-over-hot-coals BBC reporter — or so I thought — I finished an interview, made a dash for the exit, and ended up in a walk-in closet. The closet of legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite.

I was in the penthouse suite he was given for life at the top of the CBS building in Manhattan. Feeling foolish, I stumbled around among the musty suits that so many Americans had once found so reassuring, eventually finding the handle in the dark, and stepped back out into the carpeted room I had recently, with such vigour and aplomb, vacated.

I needn’t have worried. The old boy had fallen asleep.

America is status conscious. If you make it to the top, you are generally allowed to stay there. A suite of rooms can be found. A private office. A Chevrolet Suburban to take you home at night. Nothing to do but plenty of “staffers” to help you do it. Respect: a glow that long outlasts the fire.

Look at the world of American political podcasting. Yes, there are some kids at it, but James Carville and Al Hunt? 158 years on this planet between them and both gurus to the Democratic mainstream.

Perhaps it’s understandable that a young nation, comprised of multiple generations of strangers, brought together and kept together through many acts of will, would cling to its past. They must build something that has not previously existed. They need foundations. They need shoulders to climb on. And America is a young nation in two senses: young as a construct but young too at the individual level; the median age is still well under 40. It has felt — at least until recently — as if there were time and space for all.

Perhaps this generation’s inability to chuck out their elders is down to the courtliness of America; even in the age of Trump, there is an elegant formality that just about holds the place together. But it is not cost-free, this veneration of the venerable. The problem is that not all has-beens have gone to that penthouse of irrelevance. Sure, Walter Cronkite retired in a dignified way, handing the baton on to Dan Rather before riding the elevator to the top floor. But for every oldie sequestered in a mahogany faux-situation room, there are dozens still in the actual situation room, and often fast asleep.

Before my encounter with Walter Cronkite, I interviewed Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Senator who was so old he was both a Democrat and a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. He made no sense, at least in our interview. We had to junk the whole thing. Meanwhile, Senator Byrd stayed put, dying in office five years later in 2010. Congress voted to send his salary for the next year to his family as a mark of respect.

It seems that over the years Senator Mitt Romney has come to see this danger. This week, he called for Trump and Biden to “stand aside” and make room “for a new generation of leaders”, as he discussed his own plans for retirement in 2025.

Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, continues to soldier on as the Republican leader in the Senate. At 81, two recent freezes in front of the cameras have drawn attention to his at least temporary incapacity. There is some embarrassment when his staff are forced to usher him away from the media to collect himself. But he soldiers on with nothing but warm wishes from high-powered Democrats.

Ninety-year-old Dianne Feinstein also refuses to go. A career in public life that started in 1970 is ending painfully for the California Democratic Senator, whose absence from the Judiciary Committee of the Senate for medical reasons has compromised the Democrats’ ability to get judges appointed. But still, nobody significant is telling her to leave.

Nancy Pelosi, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, has at least relinquished that role, but intends at the age of 83 to stand for re-election next year. The chief loser here: her own daughter Christine, who is understood to want to take over. Not so fast.

And of course, there is President Biden: still intending to run again in 2024, though very obviously increasingly infirm. His stories at the site of the wildfire disaster in Hawaii, in which he talked about a minor fire at his home years ago, seemed bizarre. He leaves and enters Air Force One on special stairs at the back. His rambling performance at a recent press conference in Vietnam projected the opposite of American power; it projected decay.

All of this has persuaded the Libertarian Party to launch a petition this week to put McConnell and Biden and the rest of them under what it calls a “conservatorship”. A kind of formal state of being looked after. The Libertarians accuse America’s elderly leaders of squatting in office, but their assessment of why this happens seems a tad trite. They say it’s about money.

It is true that American politicians — of both parties — can become very rich while in office. So can the news anchors and company bosses. There are financial reasons for their families to want them to keep their noses to the grindstone — even if the stone (or the nose) is not doing much work. But surely there is something more going on.

Americans agree on little, but poll after poll suggests they want to choose from different, younger candidates. A Gallup survey published this summer suggested that the proportion of Americans who said they had “a great deal or a lot of confidence” in the most important institutions was the lowest recorded, with the presidency experiencing the biggest drop — to 26%. But are they willing to see Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (aged 33 this year) against Vivek Ramaswamy (now 37) in 2028? Or does something in the frontal cortex of the American mind worry that these vigorous individuals might also be highly dangerous? Do they, subliminally at least, fear the prospect of a younger, more volatile generation that could make Donald Trump’s rebellion against American life look pedestrian? Already, Americans are complaining that Biden has been too radical. Imagine what a younger president could do in his place.

This fear of change afflicts the young, too. Is young America ready to find solutions to America’s problems, instead of complaining about “Rich Men North of Richmond”? If so, they don’t show it. Young Americans are very keen on complaints — in particular about their sadness, their distress, which they blame on social media. But don’t they flock to the latest app? Aren’t they addicted to TikTok? There is an assumed lack of agency, and an actual lack of zest for getting stuff done.

That is certainly what the elderly folk assume. McConnell seems to be staying because he would be replaced by a Democrat appointed by his home state’s governor and that would be a disaster in the small world of Washington politics. Pelosi seems to believe her fundraising and organisational prowess is vital if the Maga threat to the Democrats is to be seen off.

And Biden? He thinks he can rescue democracy. He is clear that the choice before the American people is as stark as that. So all the talk now among nervous Democrats is about how the White House will deal with the age issue. Their initial efforts — to tell reporters that they struggle to keep up with energetic Joe — have been unconvincing.

If they don’t come up with a better idea, it is not inconceivable that Biden, persuaded perhaps by his wife Jill, will call it a day. He has to do it soon, probably within weeks, if the party is to have anything like an orderly competition for his successor. And of course, it would have knock-on consequences for the Trump campaign, perhaps persuading Republicans that they too need a younger candidate.

Biden’s decision to throw in the towel, even at this late stage, could cause as much havoc as his decision not to. Americans of both parties and none say they want him gone according to all the recent polls. But we know what transpires when a parent dies. You must take responsibility. You must govern in their place. Elderly American leaders do not think the nation is up for doing any of this. And they might be dead right.

The old don’t trust the young and the young don’t trust themselves. One or two have spoken out: Nikki Haley and Romney are probably the most prominent. Mostly, though, the old carry on and the young stay quiet because they don’t trust their generation to seize the future and make America better. They sense that they may be heading for the walk-in closet, with no way out. Perhaps Walter Cronkite was really asleep, or perhaps he was pretending, thinking to himself: “Heck, reporters these days. I had better stay still in case the young fella goes haywire.”


Justin Webb presents the Americast podcast and Today on Radio Four. His Panorama documentary “Trump the Sequel”, is available now on  Iplayer

JustinOnWeb

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J Bryant
J Bryant
8 months ago

I don’t buy the author’s argument that young Americans are insecure about stepping up and assuming leadership roles. I believe there are plenty of “young thrusters” in the wings but the bigwigs in America’s two-party system are blocking them.
Power is about power. When you’ve got it you keep it right up to the bitter end. That story is even older than America’s current leaders.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
8 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Unfortunately I think you’re right. Americas system looks as if it’s impossible to do anything without the backing of the party higher ups, so unless one side suffers an electoral catastrophe and decides to basically start again, they’ll both just keep muddling along with the same old faces. The world used to laugh at the Soviets for putting geriatrics in leadership positions, four decades later America looks to be following their lead

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
8 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Yes, but…
Catastrophes, like the recent demise of abortion rights for instance, just serve to rally the faithful. The Old Guard thinks “We can squeeze at least another four years out of this!”
The Democratic Party basically just sat back and watched Roe v Wade get overturned. Then immediately started sending out “emergency” fund raising requests. I think they probably made a fortune!

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
8 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Totally agree. With no campaign spending limits, it takes big money to run for office in the US – big money. This requires connections and organization. And that’s what the old farts control.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I don’t know where you are Jim. Here in the UK, especially in the North, the word for a fart is ‘trump’!!!

AC Harper
AC Harper
8 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Agreed. Those at the top have got there through the support of a determined set of supporters… many of whom will lose their patronage and privileges if another set of determined supporters pushes their pick for the top spot.
So many of the top people are held captive and unable to step down by the very machine that got them to the top.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
8 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Hmm, pretty sure the Republican party was the least interested, in Trump as a candidate. And the Democrats were elated with the easy road to the white house for Clinton.

jonathan carter-meggs
jonathan carter-meggs
8 months ago

When you understand that these oldies do not wield power but are simply mouth pieces for vested interests you can see why the are ALLOWED to stay in position. They are allowed to make buckets of money and retire to book deals and security so long as they do what they are told. The young might have an opinion! Look at JFK.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
8 months ago

Quite.

Andrzej Wasniewski
Andrzej Wasniewski
8 months ago

Because the moment the American geriatric state is no more, the bottomless corruption of the United States political class will be impossible to cover up.
Nobody would even know how. People like Biden, Pelosi, Clintons are Grand Wizards of corruption and cover up.
By the way that’s why Pelosi is running again. Just to make sure.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
8 months ago

I loved this gem; “And Biden? He thinks he can rescue democracy. He is clear that the choice before the American people is as stark as that.”

If Biden and the Dems truly believed this, they wouldn’t have spent $10 mill bankrolling the most extreme candidates in the Republican primaries.

Last edited 8 months ago by Jim Veenbaas
T Bone
T Bone
8 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

These people mean something completely different than we do when they refer to “Democracy.”

Andrew Vanbarner
Andrew Vanbarner
8 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

Exactly.
By “democracy” the left means ignoring or voting away most constitutional rights – particularly free speech, due process, self defense – and replacing our Republic with a “multiracial social democracy,” meaning socialism, with special favors for some groups, and special punishments for others.
In reality of course the left knows this is much moreso about their own power, rather than “helping the poor and disadvantaged.”

Michael W
Michael W
8 months ago

It’s just like the rockstars of their generation, they don’t know when to quit. Fear of their own mortality keeps them hanging on, as long as they have the money and authority they can believe they are as youthful they were at 30. But like with rock there has been a lack of promise of the youth coming through so far.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Michael W

Wasn’t (Ballina) Biden a disaster at 30?

Howard S.
Howard S.
8 months ago
Reply to  Michael W

I’m waiting for the Rolling Stones to announce their final world tour, dubbed “the Enlarged Prostate World Tour”.

Dick Illyes
Dick Illyes
8 months ago

The world is moving into the Crisis Stage of the Fourth Turning. The public debt is totally unsustainable, weapons manufacturers and the Swamp have created a NATO living on the fiction of Russian expansionism while actually causing a coalition of opponents to weaponize and coorperate.
What will happen when the debt bomb goes off? Is a variation of MMT actually going to work? The immiseration of the lower income working class is terrible. I operate a tree nursery and see people who could always find something now broke, out of work, and hungry, soon to be homeless. It has expanded dramatically in the last two years, possibly due to open borders. They all love Trump and are hated and feared by the Woke. The middle class is maxing out their credit cards. What happens when they run out of credit line?
IMHO the elderly are still there because nobody really knows what to do.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
8 months ago

“Donald Trump’s rebellion against American life”

You can take the man out of the BBC, but you can’t take the BBC out of the man, can you?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

NEVER!

Howard S.
Howard S.
8 months ago

As so often happens, life has to imitate art. The 2003 German film, “Good-by Lenin”, I believe shows us clearly the way to handle these octogenarians and nonagenarians who refuse to leave the stage after even their own hired sycophants have stopped applauding. Have the Hollywood experts create a faux Oval Office or a faux Senate Office Building, identical to the real ones. One morning when the extreme elderly politician wakes up from their 14 hour nighttime rest, guide them gently into the other Oval Office, or Senate building. Everything is identical to the original: decorations, plants, electric pencil sharpener, call button. Actors hired to pretend to be Secret Service agents, etc. Have the TV tuned to an alternate CNN, in on the ruse, where only happy news will be shown. Once in a while, hire out of work actors, fly them in from the West Coast, and have them pretend to be journalists, interviewing the elderly politician. Meanwhile, the real world can go on with a fresh new real world cast of future elderly and incontinent politicians running for office and running things. Watch the movie, “Good-be Lenin”, available on YouTube. It’s all in there.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
8 months ago

This phenomenon isn’t exactly new. Strom Thurmond was ninety-nine when he finally retired in 2001. There is a strong incumbent bias in American politics and always has been. Furthermore, the baby boom generation was large, and still wields considerable political power. Of course they’re hanging onto it as long as possible. Old men with power keep alive the dreams of their youth long after their time has past, at the expense of pragmatic thinking. Age is also among the many lines across which Americans are divided. Millennials by and large can’t stand ‘boomers’. Gen Xers like myself tend to be apathetic toward politics but trust the older generation more. The US needs massive political reform at this point. We need congressional term limits, national industrial policy for a multipolar geopolitical environment, and federal election regulations that remove power from party bosses and big money donors. None of this is possible with the current stalemate and its focus on non-issues that are outside government control (like racism) or that concern a small slice of the population (like trans rights). Moreover, none of the current moneyed elite, young or old, have any interest in these changes. I think real change will require some kind of shock to the system. That could come in the form of an internal shock, such as a severe recession, a civil uprising/secession crisis, or an effective Caesar-like outsider candidate who unites populists of the right and left. Then again, it could also be an external shock, like war with China, Russia, or both, a new and worse pandemic, or possibly even a natural disaster of sufficient size and scope. Also, AOC is about the least likely person to ever be President. She says almost as many stupid incomprehensible things as Biden without the convenient excuse of senility. If she’s even halfway intelligent and/or gets good political advice, she won’t venture far outside her woke affluent urban constituency and Republicans will still be pointing out how stupid she is thirty years hence. She’s basically Nancy Pelosi but younger and a much worse public speaker.

Last edited 8 months ago by Steve Jolly
Barbara Manson
Barbara Manson
8 months ago

RFKjr. ?

Simon S
Simon S
8 months ago
Reply to  Barbara Manson

Yes isn’t it strange (or not) that an article such as this entirely omits to mention the single candidate that most terrifies the DNC and energizes all age groups in both parties?

Matt M
Matt M
8 months ago

Is there any sign that Trump is deteriorating due to his age? I think there might be – I watched his last two interviews, some of his rally in South Dakota and a few of his statements on YouTube and he does seem a bit off the pace. Of course, he could just be out of practice. Time will tell.

Rick Frazier
Rick Frazier
8 months ago

The American founders really blew it when they failed to enact term limits for members of Congress.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
8 months ago

It seems unpopular (with Americans) to compare the US to Rome but there you have it, a regime run by elderly Roman senators who control the means of wealth and war.

net mag
net mag
8 months ago

Webb makes some sweeping statements on ‘America” based on the number (too many, I concur) of geezers in the American federal political structure. Key word here is ‘federal’. There are 50 state legislatures in which all manner of critical government policy is developed and applied. For sake of contrast with the UK:
UK GDP., approx 3 trillion. (USD)
Florida approx 1.4 trillion, Gov. Ron DeSantis, 45
California, approx 3.6 trillion, Gov Ron Newsome, 55
Texas, approx 2.36 trillion, Gov. Greg Abbot 65
Michigan, approx 0.5 trillion, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer,, 52
New York, approx 1.5 trillion, Gov. Kathy Hochul, 65.
And, come to think of it, of the 10 confirmed Republican candidates, six are 60 or under, and two are under 70.
Kamala Harris, present VP and Biden’s presumed 2024 running mate, is 58.
Furthermore, the average age of the House of Representatives has dropped to 58, although average age the senate has edged up slight to 65.
That American federal politics managed to come a pair like Trump and Biden as the most probable presidential candidates is a wonder for the ages, but the young being afraid to put themselves forward likely doesn’t have much to do with it.

Audree Lebdjiri
Audree Lebdjiri
8 months ago

It’s true we have a lot of aging leaders that need to be given the hook and should be commanded to leave the stage.
That action should be taken not because of their age, but be based upon the fact that they have been in power longer than necessary. They no longer represent the true diversity and interests of the vast majority in this country.
These leaders came into their respective offices during the rich fat years of postwar America, which was a pretty optimistic time of American “exceptionalism.” The problem is that that America never existed and even if it did, it is no longer true.
Here in the States 10,000 people a day turn 65, and yet these elder politicians still assume we had the same job for 30 years, stayed married to the same person of the opposite sex until one died, have two children, have a house, and car in a garage. That is not true for the vast majority of Americans who are 65 years old, many of whom have had to work for these types of people, and have the lack of money available for retirement to prove it.
This “let them eat cake mentality” of these politicians is the real problem.
What is not being discussed is the real reason why so many Baby Boomers voted for Trump: most of them voted for him because he spoke to a generation of Americans who longed for those things in their own lives, but were robbed of those opportunities because of the vast transfer of wealth out of this country in the 1970s and the 1980s made it unbearable on one income.
It’s impossible to pay back US$100,000 in student debt when all you can get is a job that pays US$48,000 a year with limited benefits. Never mind a pension. How, then can you save for a down payment to purchase a home. And this situation is not just a media canard; it is really true for most of us Americans.
The untold story of this country is that it is not only Millennials have this problem with debt and downward mobility, but GenX’rs and late Boomers also have had to incur significant debt to fund a life that is simply unattainable for most Americans who make less than a quarter of a million US dollars a year. It is that amount per year that has been determined by conservative economists that a household needs to make per year to be considered to be part of the middle class.
The sad fact is that most Americans, even those households with two incomes make far less.
For the vast majority of Baby Boomers and members of the Silent Generation, however, upward mobility was a given fact of life for the average American, not the exception. Yet, these are the generations from which these elderly politicians and cultural leaders come, and yes they have to go.
What is not discussed in this article is how much of that debt is incurred by families where the main wage earners pay has not kept up with inflation since the mid 1970s.This stagnation can easily be attributed to the policies that these so-called leaders implemented while they were (and still are) in office.
It’s not an election that has been stolen, really, but it is a loss of a time and place in America where having a steady job, a stable family life, children, and a mortgage that would be paid off by retirement is no longer a reality for the majority of Americans, and it hasn’t been so for some time.
And the real issue is these elder elite, is not their age specifically, but their political corruption that enabled this thieving of America, generally.
So, in truth, it doesn’t matter if Trump can actually deliver on his MAGA promises, or whether he should go to jail or not. He speaks to a generation of Americans who were alive when this was the reality, the “lived experience” of the vast majority of Americans, the “flyover” country, who have all been ignored by these power elites.
What is not being discussed in this article is how the remainder of Boomers voted for Joe Biden and why he was appointed – eh I mean chosen – as President – a continuation of a vision of America as the leader in human rights, and progressive social policy that brought with them necessary and important reforms in the improving the environment, putting a man on the moon, making the armed forces voluntary, and promoting the civil rights for all Americans.
All good things, right? I don’t need to state the obvious how many of these progressive policies were born out of time of Kennedy-era youthful idealism and zeal for reform. Sadly, these well intentioned policies often lead to bloated governmental bureaucracies that have long outlived their usefulness, not to mention provide decades of law-fare for the legal services industry which ballooned in the 1970-90s. No surprise there, considering nearly most of the members of the US Congress were lawyers at some point in their careers.
Both of these elder-leaders represent two faces of an America that has already faded into history, but was possible not only because we had the money and time to afford it, but also because we had intact and cohesive families and communities to sustain it.
Today these men (feminist movement or not most of them are men) no longer represent the vision of subsequent generations that have borne the brunt of the pillaging of the country’s wealth and potential.
Younger politicians don’t have the traction not because they lack qualifications or ability, but because they only represent their own selective and respective demographics. Those respective constituencies (younger people, single unmarried Americans, immigrants, and minorities, etc.) generally speaking do not have the means, much less the leisure time to engage in the political process to make any sort of difference. And, as Lawrence Lessig pointed out in his brilliant analysis in his book Republic Lost, it is only the fringes of society that have the time and/or the money to participate in or protest against the current political order.
From my perch, it’s hard to tell sometimes whether this been deliberately engineered by the power elites or whether this political and cultural reality emerged organically and collectively.
As I age, I recognize that I still have the drive and ambition (and capacity) to work, to contribute to society and make a difference. As I advance in years I find that I’m not interested in power in the same way I did when I was younger. But sadly, though retirement looms, I doubt if I’d have the time and means to be able to participate, much less have the political and economic agency to effectuate any sort of social, cultural, change. As someone who makes less than a quarter million US dollars a year, I doubt if I ever did.
When I was younger I thought it was possible, but now I feel the American Dream is not a dream deferred, but has been for decades now a dream denied for millions of Americans. It has been, for me, a hard pill to swallow.
That’s not to say there aren’t any opportunities for the entrepreneurial and creative classes, etc.,
Here, what I am referring to is the fact that the vast majority of Americans can’t afford the the American dream, period. This is not just because of declining economic standards of living, but because at the root of it is the steeper decline in the quality of public and private life in a society that is becoming increasingly uncivil, willfully ignorant, poorly educated, randomly violent, and morally corrupt.
Yes, I agree: their time is up, and they should yield the floor.
PS Oh, and more thing, this comment was 100% written by a human being.

Last edited 8 months ago by Audree Lebdjiri
UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
8 months ago

AOC could be on the ticket in 2024. She’ll be 35 next October.

James S.
James S.
8 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Ugh

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
8 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Wow. What a thought.

J S
J S
8 months ago

Please ell me where to find “courtly formality” here in dystopic America! That’s what I miss about France!

Last edited 8 months ago by J S
Nardo Flopsey
Nardo Flopsey
8 months ago

I. Drink. Your. Milkshake!

michael harris
michael harris
8 months ago
Reply to  Nardo Flopsey

Is that from ‘There Will Be Blood’? The finale,the killing of Eli the preacher?

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
8 months ago

I think you have to distinguish between federal government and real government. Federal government should be full of those who will sleep through everything, because they shouldn’t have any power.
If all biden could do was roll around and visit people, the world would be a better place.