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.