It’s about competence, not age. And voters have a right to know more.

Last week a gratuitous swipe ramped up the ongoing discussion about Biden’s age to a fevered pitch. When the Department of Justice declined to prosecute the President for his handling of classified documents, the special counsel went on to call Biden a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” who had “diminished faculties in advancing age.” Ouch! Biden didn’t like it. Neither did the progressive commentariat, which cried foul. 

Let’s get a couple of things straight:  

  • It’s not ageist to call Trump and Biden old. They’re old!
  • It is ageist to call someone “too old” for a job. Plenty of younger people aren’t up to a given task. Plenty of olders are. Age-based assumptions are as harmful and ignorant as racial or gender stereotypes.
  • It’s ableist to shame people for memory lapses, as special counsel Robert Hur did.
  • The conversation shouldn’t center age. It should center capacity.

If a candidate loses an election because they’re perceived as “too old,” don’t blame age.  Blame ageism. Blame ableism too. Blame a culture that stigmatizes and discriminates against people who are no longer young and people with disabilities.

Age and ability are different. That distinction is fundamental. The current discourse conflates the two, making it far harder to get to the heart of the matter: is the person mentally and physically up to the job? That’s why questions about candidates’ competence are completely legitimate. That’s why geriatrician Louise Aronson (and countless other experts on aging) recommend focusing on cognitive and physical health instead of age when evaluating leadership ability.

Voters are entitled to be informed about the health of the people who represent them.

Testing is not the answer. Even doctors have a hard time assessing cognition. No test is neutral.  Biden is a terrible campaigner and a skilled legislator. Trump is the reverse. How to evaluate those skills and deficits? How to compare the results? Team Biden vehemently maintains that the President’s strengths as a diplomat more than compensate for his shortcomings as a debater. Let us see those strengths in action. More interviews. More events. A world leader needs to be able to communicate. Voters can forgive a stutter. Silence, not so much.

Brushing these concerns under the rug, or dismissing them as ageist or as partisan, does no one any favors. It makes it harder to challenge ageism and ableism on legitimate grounds. It’s not good for democracy. And enough with the headlines about age! They’re a distraction from things that actually matter: stopping a genocide, mitigating climate change, and preventing World War III.

2 thoughts on “It’s about competence, not age. And voters have a right to know more.

  1. This presidential campaign, like all political life since 2016, continues to reveal and to promote the ugliness of American’s soul with with racism, homophobia, misogyny, and ageism replacing political platforms. What is even more discouraging is the ageism demonstrated by people who should know better, i.e., those who are themselves past age 60. There are so many disheartening examples,not just people spouting off on Nextdoor, etc. Look at John Stewart’s first show on 2/12/24. The 61-year-old comedian spouted ageist tripe about Biden. I hope he remembers this shameful performance in 20 years. It looks like ageism is not just prejudice against your future self, but against your current self as well..

    It IS about competence, not about age, and I am grateful for this wonderful blog post! It expresses in a more coherent way what I have been saying in an emotional disjointed way. 🙂

    On a more hopeful note, there is a wonderful recent article about Gloria Steinem, soon to be age 90. The article emphasizes her current work and her accomplishments, not her age. Too bad John Stewart and other pundits, refuse to do the same. Link:

    1. Thanks for your comment, Roxanne. Somewhat counterintuitively, older people are often the most ageist of all. A dead giveway is referring to our older peers as “them” instead of “us.”

      I don’t agree that Stewart was posting “ageist tripe” tho. (Although I didn’t appreciate his bringing the Daily Show camera close to show his own wrinkles. Why should appearance matter?) Calling Trump and Biden old is not ageist. They’re old! We get into hot water when we attribute a value to the word—and most people do indeed see it as a pejorative— but Stewart focused on capacity. And he raised the same issue that I raise above: it’s the candidate’s responsibility to demonstrate competence, and voters have a right to know.

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