In one of the most dramatic moments in the Senate in years, 80-year-old John McCain rallied from surgery and a diagnosis of brain cancer to cast a 1 am vote that torpedoed Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare — for now. The vote had been put on hold once already, to give him time to recuperate.
For all the drama, we shouldn’t be surprised that a medical emergency interfered with Senate business. The highest levels of American politics bear an uncomfortable resemblance to a gerontocracy. From the Senate to the presidency to — perhaps most strikingly — the Supreme Court, top positions are held more and more by people in their 70s or above.
Disruptive medical tragedies are an unavoidable statistical consequence of this trend, as is the risk that key political actors will develop cognitive impairment. There’s no easy solution to the problem, but it demands a frank conversation.
Reforms such as term appointments for justices could help with the problem, but it’s just as important to try to shift societal norms to take more seriously some elemental realities of human aging.
One paragraph that didn’t make it into the piece for space is also pertinent:
Where policies affecting same-sex marriage, student loans, immigration, climate change, and net neutrality are being debated, we need more young voices at the table. Particularly in safe districts with low partisan turnover, senior politicians accumulate privileges of seniority while they consolidate their personal power. Veteran politicians like Charles Rangel become difficult to dislodge, even when it’s past time for them to pass the baton.
What’s more, young adults who don’t see their issues prioritized, and who see elite politics dominated by their parents’ and grandparents’ generations can easily tune out, ceding the process to others.