There was no name for it until 1969. Then the psychiatrist Dr. Robert Butler coined the term “ageism”: the “systematic stereotyping and discrimination against people because they are old.” The mandatory retirement age for millions of Americans — about half of the workforce — was 65. And the accepted wisdom among gerontologists about aging was governed by “disengagement theory” —that older people naturally withdraw from society as their “knowledge and skills deteriorate.” The founder of the Gray Panthers and anti-ageism activist Maggie Kuhn scathingly attacked this as a directive to stay “out of the way” and go play “bingo and shuffleboard.” Kuhn helped get mandatory retirement provisions struck down as discriminatory in 1986.
Since then, although we have seen more people — mostly white men — over 65 in public life, ageism remains one of the last culturally acceptable biases. In a Pew Research Center survey last May, most Democrats say they prefer a president “in their 40s through their 60s, with nearly half (47%) saying the best age for a president is ‘in their 50s.’” Only 4 percent of respondents said that the 70s is “the best age range for a president.”
And with three candidates in their seventies vying for the 2020 Democratic nomination (and with a 73-year-old delusional President completely unfit for office), the question of “how old is too old” has coursed through political commentary, much of it ageist. In the June Democratic debate, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) urged Joe Biden to “pass the torch,” to a new generation and in the September debate, Julian Castro implied Biden might suffer from dementia, charging “Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?,” eliciting loud, shocked “ohhhhs” from the audience, suggesting Castro had gone too far. And Sanders’ heart attack and Biden’s gaffes have kept the issue of age on the front burner. So how do we reconcile concerns about the effects of aging on people’s health with concerns about ageism?
Given that many Americans are living longer and are functioning quite well in their 70s and 80s (Maxine Waters, 81; Nancy Pelosi, 79; Mavis Staples, 80; Carl Bernstein, 75), we are entering uncharted territory in the debates about age and presidential leadership. There is often a big difference between many people’s chronological age and their subjective age (how old they feel themselves to be and their capabilities). So the fact that someone is, say, 70, may have little to do with their cognition, their health, and their ability to handle the presidency. And Trump is not a nightmare because he’s 73; he’s a nightmare because he’s always been a nightmare. Elizabeth Warren, with her energetic, tireless campaigning, and detailed policy proposals, is the absolute antithesis of someone whose “knowledge and skills” have deteriorated.
So we can’t dismiss candidates based on an arbitrary number — say, 70; we need to judge candidates on their performance. Nita Lowey, (D-NY) for example, who will be retiring from Congress next year at age 83, showed plenty of energy and skill in leading the effort to block funding for Trump’s ridiculous border wall. We need older people in politics to protect against the ongoing Republican assaults on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, so they remain robust for future generations. Indeed, Lowey introduced legislation in 2015 to expand Social Security benefits for low-income widows and unpaid caregivers. Jackie Speier (D-CA), 69, a passionate crusader against sexual harassment and violence against women, shows zero signs of slowing down. Some who have been in Congress for years, and through various administrations, know its rules, have learned through success and failure what tactics and strategies succeed in enacting legislation, and pass along crucial institutional memory.
So if a candidate cannot articulate his or her positions clearly and forcefully, appears forgetful, is not able to respond articulately and persuasively to questions, and seems to lose cognitive focus, voters will and should be concerned. And that can describe someone of any age. Health problems too, while increasing with age, can afflict candidates of all ages. So what we need the most right now is less a focus on age, and a more on a movement to build a strong, multi-generational alliance of progressives in politics to take our country back from the terrifying cliff that Trumpism has perched us on.
This is part of a debate about whether age matters in a presidential candidate. Read the counterpoint, “Why We Need Young People To Run the Country — And Why I’m Voting for Bernie Anyway,” by Dayton Martindale, here.
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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.