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Can you be too old to be president?

How gerontocracy rules in the age of decline. 

By Nick Burns

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on 28 October 2020 and was updated on 28 June 2024. On 27 June, Joe Biden and Donald Trump had their first presidential candidate debate in the 2024 race. Over the course of the debate, Biden’s meandering, unfocused responses prompted immediate calls for the Democratic party to choose a new candidate.  

Can you be too old to be president? The Roman philosopher Cicero once commented that he knew of no old man whose faculties had suffered so much that he had forgotten where he had put his money. Senescence is a theme in American politics these days. How could it not be, as the country’s voters prepare to choose between 81-year-old Joe Biden and 78-year-old Donald Trump?

High office in the country does not look much different. The average age in the Senate is above 60. The leading Republican senator Mitch McConnell is 82. Nor is the Democratic Party’s Senate cohort in the flower of youth. The Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, the candidate who more than any other aroused the passions of the US’s youth, is 82. Younger figures in the Democratic Party have long been largely side-lined by elderly, centrist party-bosses wary of their radicalism (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) or else, if palatably moderate, co-opted as sidekicks (Kamala Harris).

None of this has gone unnoticed. For the past several years, from left to right, the connection has been drawn between the US’s ageing ruling class and the last generation of Soviet Union leaders. In the 1980s a decrepit cadre of politburo officials, bodies wasted by alcoholism, embroiled themselves in internecine schemes as one succeeded the other, only to perish having grasped the throne: Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko. Finally, the transition was made to a much younger generation in the figure of Mikhail Gorbachev, whose belated and botched reforms from 1985 cast a crumbling polity into the abyss.

[see also: The making of Kamala Harris]

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“Gerontocracy”, the favourite phrase from the early 1970s to describe the Soviet ruling apparatus, has been revived to describe the US’s superannuated senators and tottering tribunes of the people. The term also suggests national decline. The selfish “baby boom” generation maintains its tenacious but increasingly feeble grip on power, trapped in a world that ended with the Cold War 30 years ago. Russia is the bogeyman, American intervention abroad is a given, Nato is sacred. Reversing national decline – say these critics of American gerontocracy – depends on empowering younger generations, who will rule with a governing philosophy fit for a new world.

One issue with this view is that it assumes that because the Soviet Union was at the last ruled by a generation of geezers, all countries with geezers at the helm must be destined for destruction. It hardly needs to be said that many republics have been led through crucial junctures by elderly figures – while young leaders have often been the ones who brought disaster.

The collapse of the USSR could as easily be blamed on whippersnapper Gorbachev and his ill-fated reforms as much as on the generation that preceded him – this is historian Stephen Kotkin’s opinion in Armageddon Averted (2002). The trend has precursors all the way back to fifth-century Greece, when the young and brash Alcibiades’s overambitious Sicilian Expedition obliterated much of the Athenian fleet and turned the tide of the Peloponnesian War against the city-state.

Old men are capable of boldness, too – sometimes almost too much. It was the elderly Venetian doge Enrico Dandolo who, supposedly nearing 100 years of age in 1204, engineered the Sack of Constantinople – a tragic Crusader betrayal of a great Christian city, but one that benefited Venice’s economic fortunes at the expense of the city on the Bosporus.

But hasn’t the US – and the world – changed since the Cold War in ways these ancient and early-modern examples cannot capture? Certainly not more than 19th-century France. As the country underwent profound social and political change – industrialisation, the rise of a proletariat and a middle class, oscillation from empire to monarchy to republic and back again – the same group of politicians rotated in and out of the spotlight from one end of it to the other. The veteran schemer Adolphe Thiers, who had risen through the political ranks during the Restoration between 1814 and 1830, found himself at the age of 74 back in power in 1871, still with sufficient vigour left to crush the Paris Commune and guarantee a republican form of government for the country.

[see also: What the rise of Reagan tells us about the age of Trump]

Napoleon III – ten years younger – had recklessly lost the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, but the republic Thiers and his older colleagues made, which stood between 1870 and 1940, remains the longest-lived regime in France since the ancien régime. A generation later it was ancient Georges Clémenceau, 77, who led the French to victory in the First World War, the bloodiest conflict in the nation’s history.

When it comes to forestalling national decline and laying plans for the future, the old are just as ready for the task as the young. What is needed is sharp faculties and a complementary relationship with the up-and-coming, brasher younger generation – whether it is a friendly one or not. A serious assessment of the American candidates has to admit that Trump remains sharper than his opponent – his sheer meanness seems to have pickled him – but it is Biden who promises a partnership between young and old.

There is some uncertainty on this point, however. Is a Biden administration to be a restoration of the status quo, or a government of transition between the old guard of centrist moderate Democrats and a younger and putatively more progressive cadre? The younger figures in Biden’s orbit – Harris, Pete Buttigieg – have carefully formed themselves in the image of their mentors. For the baton to be truly passed to the next generation, young American politicians will have to emerge under their own aegis, not under that of Trump, Biden or even Sanders.

But that need not be rushed. The thing about geezers at the helm is that they will not be there forever.

Nick Burns is a New Statesman contributing writer

[see also: The new intellectuals of the American right]

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This article appears in the 28 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Reckoning