Here we go again with “too old to be president”

It didn’t take long after Bernie Sanders announced his presidential candidacy for the anti-geezer knives to come out. Stephen Colbert had a field day, mocking Sanders as an “old white guy” and  calling him “Gray Guevara.” “Will age be an issue in the 2020 race?” asked New Yorkmagazine’s Intelligencer column on the same day, February 19th.  The headline of Mike Allen’s Axios newsletter read “Bernie Sanders and the age problem.”

The “age problem” is ageism.

In the absence of evidence that the older person is not competent or a younger contender more so, calls for new blood are always ageist. After the midterm elections, ageism paired with sexism powered calls for Nancy Pelosi to yield her position as Speaker of the House. It’s hard to imagine an inexperienced legislator handling the build-the-wall shutdown with equal skill and equanimity. Only in an ageist world is experience a liability.

The issue is the candidate’s ideology, not their age

Older voters are widely blamed for bringing us Trump and Brexit, yet class, race and gender all predict voting behavior far more accurately than age does. Older people are widely stereotyped as more conservative, yet no one discredits that myth as effectively as Sanders does. Much hand-wringing centers around the notion that an older candidate will depress activism and turnout among millennials. Yet in 2016 more youngers voted for Sanders than for Trump and Clinton combined – by a large margin.

The issue is the candidate’s health, not their age.

Actuarial tables tell us that the average 80-year-old faces a 36% risk of dying within six years and a 16% risk of being diagnosed with some form of dementia by age 84. That tells us very little about what lies ahead for any given individual. Eighty-year-old senators are healthier than the average octogenarian; many exhibit astonishing intellectual powers and physical stamina. Nor is Bernie Sanders the average 78-year-old. Clearly he should undergo a physical exam by nonpartisan authorities and make the relevant results public, as should all presidential candidates. Clearly Sanders’ running mate should also be in good physical condition. But generalizations about the capacities of older people are no more defensible than racial or gender stereotypes. Period.

The issue is the culture the candidate inhabits,  not their age

Sanders would turn 80 during his first term in office, and in an ageist world, being an octogenarian is a liability. When he announced his candidacy, the senator placed age alongside gender, race, and sexual orientation as a criterion for diversity, calling for “a nondiscriminatory society that evaluates people based on their abilities, on what they stand for.” Isn’t that the world we all wish to inhabit?  It means making ageism as unacceptable as every other form of prejudice, and collaborating across generations and across oppressions to bring that more equitable world about.

10 thoughts on “Here we go again with “too old to be president”

  1. Some of us remember that Trump’s doctor’s bland assurance that Trump was healthy came with zilch evidence.

    I think the ever-growing anti-Trump field is better for having a multitude of voices, among which, of course, Bernie’s is one of the most respected. He will do wonderful work as he runs, bringing out the Trump base who –had Sanders been nominated and elected– would have been much happier at having what they truly need: a jobs program, additions to Social Security and other safety nets, free public-college tuition, etc.

    1. I will soon be 71 and yes age is a factor in my voting decision. I was a big Bernie supporter and contributor in ‘16 but not this time and the same goes for Biden. It is hard enough gauging the merits of presidential candidates but with these two we’d also need to seriously look at the merits of their VP. Yes, they are healthy but so what. At our ages a stroke or heart attack that can occur without warning. If an old timer is employed by somebody else and he/she reaches their 70’s then it’s time to step aside and let a younger person move up. The idea that any of us is indispensable is the height of arrogance and that goes for Pelosi as well. However, the fact that these people shouldn’t run doesn’t mean they are without value. Their advice and guidance as elder statesmen should always be sought, considered, and esteemed but as for holding such a demanding office, their time has passed.

      1. I am also an older adult, 68yrs. my question for Sanders and Biden are will enough people support them to oust Trump? we are indeed a divided country however I think age is the big divider.
        There is a large group of older adults every Baby Boomers, who vote and Gen X and Millenials where many do not vote. Many younger people don’t seem to get how important it is to vote.
        I always question don’t they realize it’s their future? I would love to see younger progressive candidates run for office. Thus far there is a widely diverse spectrum of Democratic candidates who have tossed their hats into the ring. it’s too early to tell who will come out as the leader. Whoever wins we have to put full support behind the candidate. I know Idefinteiy l don’t want to see 4 more years ofTrump who is destroying this country.

        1. I hear you,Alston, but why frame it in old vs young terms? As I wrote in this op-ed for the Guardian,”The Trump administration’s anti-immigrant, anti-refugee and anti-minority agenda is already exploiting deep divisions of class, race, ethnicity and country of origin. Do we really want to add age to the roster?”

  2. What has not been adequately addressed is the issue of seniority, which is linked,
    but only contingently, with age. The best example is term limits (whatever you
    may think about these things). The impetus for term limits arises from distrust
    of accumulated power that comes along with time in office. Voters sometimes
    feel it’s “time for someone new” or else, as with the limit on two terms for President,
    they worry about power from someone in office too long (e.g., “President for
    life”). This distrust of “seniority,” whether legitimate and reasonable or not,
    is NOT based on ageism but on something else. However, it may result, contingently,
    in keeping elders out of office. Eppenstein’s comments point to some issues that,
    alas, get confused with ageism, which an all-too-real threat. In my own case, I’m now
    74, but in my late sixties, I realized I needed a successor as co-author for my textbook
    in gerontology. Being aware of data on life expectancy, I have as co-author a woman
    who’s 20 years younger than me– very good odds that she will survive me and carry
    on a legacy. Let’s call it succession planning, mentoring, or whatever you like. But
    it’s not ageism (I hope!)

  3. Us to husbands are together in love at first sight since 1976, 43 years. tThank you for your important work. As we rapidly approach 72 this year we are increasingly aware how ageism egatively colors everything everyday, much like heterosexism also. You provide with much rational ammunition in these inhumane Wars of Prejudice waged against against us born non-heterosexual and lucky to have survived & thrived into our old age, unlike so many however born.

  4. An excellent commentary in the Washington Post on the “age problem” in politics, especially on why “old white men” is a misleading phrase. “For one thing, most older people are neither male nor white. And for another, whiteness and maleness have a long history of privilege in a way that old age, on its own, does not. Furthermore, the coming generation of elderly people will be considerably less privileged than their forebears.”

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