Ageism Has No Place in the Presidential Election

Science tells us that age and health are two very different things.

Susan J. Douglas October 23, 2019

At the fourth Democratic primary debate on Oct. 15, 2019, candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was asked about his recent heart attack. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

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.

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).

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.

Susan J. Dou­glas is a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and a senior edi­tor at In These Times. Her forth­com­ing book is In Our Prime: How Old­er Women Are Rein­vent­ing the Road Ahead..
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