Politician On A Clock
Politician On A Clock

Are Aging Politicians and Supreme Court a Rising Gerontocracy?

As a young voter, I do not see myself represented by our politicians — most of whom are older than me by at least four decades.
November 11, 2020
9 mins read

Dear U.S. politicians,

As a young voter, I do not see myself represented by our politicians — most of whom are older than me by at least four decades. As an American, I am disgusted by the partisan politics that have too often surrounded Supreme Court nominations. American politics feels like an endless tug-of-war, where young voices are considered mere background noise rather than valuable input.

The Age Gap

There is a stark difference between voters and their political representatives. The average age in the U.S. House of Representatives is 57.8 years. The average age in the U.S. Senate is 61.8 years. Political leadership is even older. For Republicans, Donald Trump is 74 and Mitch McConnell is 78. For Democrats, Nancy Pelosi is 80, Bernie Sanders is 79, Joe Biden is 77 and Dianne Feinstein is 87.

In contrast, the average age of potential voters is only 48 and the average U.S. retirement age is 62. Certainly, young politicians like those of “The Squad” — Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib — are becoming more prominent. But the fact remains that the U.S. government is in the hands of people who are at least a decade older than the average voter; in fact, they are closer to the average U.S. retirement age than they are to voters. People who we usually expect to stop working and to not have to face economic issues are the ones making decisions for all Americans.

The age gap has come front and center for many social issues. One of the biggest ones is climate change. In 2019, Greta Thunberg ignited a global climate strike with millions of young people leading the charge. She was not afraid of blasting global leaders, shaming them for their inaction. Younger generations from both sides of the aisle are convening on this issue.

While Trump calls climate change a hoax and Republican leaders promote environmental deregulation, young Republicans are decidedly for climate actions. According to Yale, in comparison to other generations, “millennial Republicans are more likely to say global warming is happening, is human-caused, and that most scientists agree it is happening, and they are more likely to worry about global warming.” For young people, climate change is becoming more of a bipartisan issue, in sharp contrast to current Republican politics.

Back in 2019, Democratic Senator Feinstein came under fire for rebuffing young climate activists. The almost nonagenarian used the activists’ ages against them, telling them that she has been doing this for three decades and she knows what she is doing. She repeatedly cited her re-election as proof that her methods are working. In the 2020 presidential race, Biden stated that he supports fracking, while younger Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are against it. Like other older politicians, their views and actions are seemingly set in stone, even while the political climate is changing.

According to a Pew research report, “generations carry with them the imprint of early political experiences.” Another report by The New York Times claims our most formative years happen between the ages of 14 and 24, and they will most likely determine our political preferences for life. Issues that we are facing today versus what we faced in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s are certainly different.

Not only are older generations blinded by their generational zeitgeist, they are also less open to new perspectives, and their need for certainty and control increases. Additionally, older adults tend to yield to stereotypes and prejudices because they lose their ability to inhibit unwanted thoughts. In short, they are not in touch with current issues and are less likely to change their stance. With increasingly tense politics, do we want 70 and 80-year-olds deciding our laws and defining the judicial branch?

America’s emerging gerontocracy can quickly shift to plutocracy — a society that is governed by the wealthy. Older people tend to be richer, which makes sense. After all, they have had more time to work. Although Americans 55 and older make up less than a third of the U.S. population, they own two-thirds of the wealth. Additionally, older politicians have had more time to build up donor networks, and donors are more likely to be wealthier, whiter and older than the general population. In short, older generations are estranged from current issues not only by age but also by wealth.

To fix the age gap, there are several solutions: make it easier for young adults to vote and set an age limit for politicians. Having automatic voter registration, increasing polling places near high schools and colleges, making it easier to vote via absentee ballots and declaring election day a federal holiday would increase young voter turnout. If there is a minimum age limit to hold office, why can there not be a maximum age limit? If 20-year-olds are considered too immature for office, 80-year-olds should be considered too old.

The Supreme Court

The second issue that has come to frame U.S. politics in recent years is Supreme Court nominations and, to a larger extent, judicial appointments. Despite recent attacks on Republican hypocrisy, Democrats fired the first shot. In 2013, while Democrats still had control of the Senate, they changed the number of required confirmation votes for federal judicial nominees from 60 (a supermajority) to 51. When Republicans took the Senate alongside Trump’s victory, McConnell returned the favor by lowering the threshold for the Supreme Court, enabling the controversial nominations, and subsequent confirmations, of Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

Even disregarding the hypocrisy of McConnell’s election-year confirmation, the Supreme Court has become disgustingly political. The back and forth retaliations have allowed for partisan politics to enter the court, spoiling the trust in the Supreme Court. With the Senate only having 100 seats, this rule change made it easier for one party to decide confirmations. Why is a lifetime appointment to the highest federal court in the U.S. decided by one party?

The system needs to be fixed to bring balance into the judicial branch and to depoliticize the Supreme Court. The threshold for nomination should go back to what it was before, when members of both parties had to agree on a nominee. This will prevent future partisan appointments.

With Trump having appointed three relatively young conservative justices, the conservative majority on the court will affect Americans for generations to come. To fix the Supreme Court itself, there should be some bipartisan restructuring. One idea is to add a term limit to justices. This will allow the court to be changed more frequently, preventing one party from holding onto the court for too long.

Another idea is to add more justices. This idea has already become controversial with conservatives insisting that liberals are trying to pack the Supreme Court. However, if done correctly, the Supreme Court will become more bipartisan, and no rough tug-of-war will happen again. Professor Jonathan Turley has called for a 19-person court. In his 2012 opinion article, Turley argues that the current 9-person court gives too much power to the swing vote and makes it easier for decisions to be more political.

Justices will have more opportunities to rotate in and out of lower courts if the court is expanded. This would be good, especially since “one of the greatest complaints from lawyers and judges is that the justices are out of touch with the reality of legal practice.” Assistant Professor Jacob Russell had a similar argument, except he argued for 27 justices. He also added that the current court only grants hearings for 80 out of 8,000 cases —an acceptance rate of 1%. Both articles stated that only two justices should be added per presidential term to avoid any partisan court-packing. Most recently, Pete Buttigieg has argued for a 15-justice plan. In this plan, there would be five conservative justices, five liberal justices and five justices that must be approved by the 10 other justices and can only serve one year. However the Supreme Court is reformed, it is clear that the current system no longer works, and reform efforts need to be bipartisan.

The age gap and the Supreme Court has caused a pit fight in politics with American voices being sidelined. Politicians’ decisions will have us either embrace or battle the consequences that will come long after their time.

Dear U.S. politicians, please fix this mess.

Aimi Wen, Duke University

Writer Profile

Aimi Wen

Duke University
Mechanical Engineering

Aimi is a mechanical engineering major at Duke University. She loves reading, hiking and baking.

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