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  • Writer's pictureFrank Romans

Gerontocracy in the USA: A Growing Trend or a Passing Phase?

Gerontocracy is a term that means rule by elders or a group of old people. This form of rule has its Western origins in ancient Greece, where Plato famously stated that "it is for the elder man to rule and for the younger to submit." The city-state of Sparta was ruled by a council whose members were at least 60 and served for life. In modern times, gerontocracy has been associated with authoritarian regimes, much like the former Soviet Union and China, where the political class tends to be much older than the general population and resistant to change or reform. However, gerontocracy is not limited to dictatorships. In fact, some of the most powerful and influential democracies in the world, such as the United States, also exhibit signs of gerontocracy.

The 118th Congress, which convened on January 3rd, 2023, is one of the oldest in history, with an overall median age of 59. The median age of senators is 65, the highest on record. Moreover, Congress has been getting older and older since the early 1980s; the Senate by about 12 years, and the House by 9 years. By comparison, the median age in the U.S. is 38.8 years old, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The age gap between the political leaders and the citizens they represent is not only evident in Congress, but also in other branches of government. The current president, Joe Biden, is 81 years old, making him the oldest president in U.S. history. His vice president, Kamala Harris, is 59 years old. The Supreme Court has a majority of justices over 60, and some are over 70. What are the implications of this gerontocratic trend in American politics? Some might argue that it reflects the wisdom and experience of the elder statesmen and women who have devoted their lives to public service and have accumulated valuable knowledge and skills over time. Others might contend that it hinders innovation and diversity in policymaking and governance, as well as alienates younger generations who feel disconnected from their representatives and their agendas. There are also potential risks and challenges associated with having an aging political class. For instance, health issues and cognitive decline might affect their performance and judgment in office. This was recently highlighted by some incidents involving Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and President Biden, who both had lapses or stumbles while speaking in public. Additionally, succession planning and leadership transition might become more difficult and contentious as older politicians cling to power or resist passing the torch to younger successors.

Is gerontocracy in the U.S. a growing trend or a passing phase? It is hard to predict how long this phenomenon will last or how it will evolve in the future. However, some factors might influence its direction and pace. For example, demographic changes such as population aging and immigration might affect the composition and preferences of voters and candidates. Technological changes such as social media and digital platforms might enable new forms of political participation and mobilization for younger generations. Cultural changes such as generational shifts in values and attitudes might also shape the expectations and demands of citizens toward their leaders.

Ultimately, gerontocracy in the U.S. is not a fixed or inevitable outcome, but rather a dynamic and complex process that involves multiple actors and forces. It is up to Americans to decide what kind of political system they want to have and who they want to lead it.

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