It Would Be Nice to Live in Less of a Gerontocracy
Fortune favors the old
There once was a kingdom presided over by a local lord. He cared for all his subjects, from the poor to the ill to the trees to the wildlife. He reigned for nearly two decades, but, as the twentieth year of his rule approached, he tragically passed away.
His wife inherited his post, where she ruled for several years more. She had never intended to rule, though, so she chose a close friend and ally as her successor. But, because history has a strange way of repeating itself, she too passed away while on the throne.
Her chosen successor became lord of the land. She ruled for more than three decades, gathering power as she did.
As she grew old, she realized she would soon need to step down, lest the same fate as the previous two lords befell her. She groomed her daughter to succeed her. But when her time finally came, she thought, I know this land, its people, its needs, its intricacies, far better than all others. Would it not be wrong for me to abandon them? And so, despite her age, she did not step down.
The kingdom, of course, is San Francisco. Its “rulers” are Philip Burton, his wife Sala Burton, and Nancy Pelosi, who have cumulatively been San Francisco’s only 3 representatives in Congress for the last 60 years.
Of course, equating Congressional representatives to feudal lords is unfair. They represent rather than ‘rule'; they must be re-elected every two years.
Still, the dynastic undertones are striking. Burton’s wife replaced him; Pelosi is positioning her daughter as her successor. Together, the Burtons served as San Francisco’s representative for more than 20 years; Pelosi for more than 35. The last two representatives both died in office, while Pelosi is 83 years old and still in power.
Pelosi announced a week ago that she would run for re-election. What problems, what motivating causes, does Nancy Pelosi want to address that she has not had time to in the last 35 years?
Pelosi’s campaign announcement doesn’t really provide any. It’s a concoction of bromides and buzzwords, starting with “Now more than ever”:
I find this rationale comically vague. Why is Pelosi the right person now more than ever? What in God’s name does it mean that our country needs America to show the world that our flag is still there? Are our country and America different entities, one of which needs the other to do something?
I suspect that, because she’s been in power so long, naming any specific issue invites the uncomfortable question: did she contribute to this problem? Housing affordability, for example, is a huge problem in the US generally and San Francisco specifically. If her announcement said she wants to fix it now, though, it would be hard not to wonder what she was doing the last 35 years. She can’t act like she woke up in a cold sweat and realized that, sorry guys, she totally blanked on the cost of housing and just needs another 2 years to fix it.
That said, there is an obvious defense of Pelosi’s run.
In short, she has experience. She has institutional knowledge, relationships, leverage, a deep-seated love of flags/troops/freedom, and a million other things that only 35 years in Congress can provide. As a result, any replacement would not be as effective as navigating Congress as she is. She may not quite have motivating causes, but she’ll be able to handle whatever problems exist or arise better than anyone else.
While I partially agree with this take, it also seems short-sighted. Yes, if you’ve done a job for three decades, any replacement will not immediately perform at your level. But in other jobs, nobody would say “well, any replacement won’t be immediately as good as me, so I’ll keep working until I maybe literally drop dead.” You hire a replacement with potential and give them space to grow.
Moreover, if you’ve done the same job for 35 years, you develop “that’s just the way it is” blindspots. Your ability to see problems anew and envision solutions fades. A new person will see problems you missed and propose solutions you couldn’t imagine. You make space for the new person to try — and yes, fail and learn in the beginning — so that they can one day surpass you.
I should ease up on Nancy Pelosi, who is nowhere near the worse offender in this regard.
While she is 83 years old, she at least stepped down from her role as Speaker and appears to have full control of her mental faculties. Meanwhile, Biden (80 years old) is giving garbled answers, Mitch McConnell (81) is doing the mannequin challenge at random, and Dianne Feinstein (90) is being Weekend-at-Bernie’d around D.C.
If it were just one politician, it would be easier to brush it off. Biden has had a stutter and a penchant for rambling stories his whole life; maybe that explains his word salad answers. Maybe McConnell’s freezing really was dehydration. Maybe Dianne Feinstein is lulling Republicans into a false sense of confidence before she performs a 72-hour filibuster that concludes by dropping the People’s Elbow on Matt Gaetz.
All together, though, it’s hard not to notice the pattern: our leaders are getting very, very old and staying very, very unwilling to retire.
As McKay Coppins said of Mitt Romney’s recent decision to leave the Senate:
He sensed that many of his colleagues attached an enormous psychic currency to their position—that they would do almost anything to keep it. “Most of us have gone out and tried playing golf for a week, and it was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna kill myself,’ ” he told me. Job preservation, in this context, became almost existential. Retirement was death. The men and women of the Senate might not need their government salary to survive, but they needed the stimulation, the sense of relevance, the power.
Aging politicians tell themselves they need to stick around and, if they don’t, they’ll be replaced with an inferior alternative. While partially true, it also distracts for another motivation: the value they get from being in office. They claim their positions need them, but really, they need their positions.
In 2013, Obama held a lunch with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
At the time, Ginsburg was 80 years old and had survived multiple bouts with cancer. Obama was well aware of the risks the situation posed. If, god forbid, Ginsburg passed away at the wrong time, Democrats might not have control of the Senate, or worse, the Presidency. While Democrats could choose her replacement then, they might not be able to later. So he set up the lunch to “build rapport” in the interest of eventually nudging Ginsburg to step down.
But Ginsburg, like so many political figures, felt she could do the job in a way nobody else could. She still had gas in the tank and was offended by suggestions she could die on the job. As she herself described in Elle:
So anybody who thinks that if I step down, Obama could appoint someone like me, they're misguided. As long as I can do the job full steam…. I think I'll recognize when the time comes that I can't any longer. But now I can. I wasn’t slowed down at all last year in my production of opinions.
The line, I think I'll recognize when the time comes that I can't any longer, I find somewhat haunting.
It captures the human desire to control the key moments of our lives, and the inability to recognize that we can’t. Even someone as smart as Ginsburg thought she could.
Sadly, when Ginsburg said this, it was time to step down. She didn’t recognize it because she couldn’t.
I also wonder if she couldn’t recognize it because, publicly, everyone supported her. As NYT legal editorial writer Dorothy Samuels wrote,
I was struck by how many people I spoke with, including friends, acquaintances and former clerks, felt [Ginsburg] should have resigned at the time and that her staying on was terribly self-centered — a view I share. I was also struck that normally forceful advocates I spoke with would not express their dismay on the record while she was alive.
Even Obama, who almost certainly wanted Ginsburg to step down, never outright said so to her. Ginsburg internalized this silence as agreement, saying “I think [Obama] would agree with me that it’s a question for my own good judgment.”
I see why the choice to retire feels personal, especially when the possibility of mental decline or even death looms over it. It feels gauche to speculate about or even discuss a living figure’s death. It taints the sanctity of life with mundane political practicalities.
Yet Ginsburg’s case is a textbook example of why it’s essential to reckon with these political practicalities. Ginsburg’s passing had enormous consequences. Liberals are now relegated to a severe minority in the Supreme Court; had she stepped down, liberals would be one Justice away from a majority. It’s easy for aging leaders to enjoy the benefits of their office and dismiss any talk of political practicalities. But if they pass away, the rest of us are stuck with the consequences of their choice.
The horrible truth is leaders do pass away in office, and that it’s much more likely as they age. By refusing to engage with the possibility, they leave the planning up to chance.
Worse, it’s often a leader’s biggest supporters who get screwed. Ginsburg’s refusal to plan out her retirement was a godsend for conservatives and a nightmare-come-true for liberals. By refusing to engage with the possibility of death, aging leaders put their strongest supporters in the weakest position.
Back in San Francisco, state senator Scott Weiner has long been waiting for Pelosi to vacate her seat. Naturally, frustrated by her decision to run again, he tore into her:
Speaker Emerita Pelosi is one of the most talented and transformational leaders of our lifetime, and it’s a good thing for San Francisco and the nation that she will continue to serve our community.
Oh, uh, nevermind.
Weiner, like every other Democrat stealing glances at Pelosi’s seat, knows he needs to stay in the party’s good graces. Insulting Pelosi’s decision would be political suicide. As described in Politico:
“The last thing anybody wants is to be viewed as making even the littlest insult to her,” said Todd David, a former political director for Wiener. “From a pure practical, political point of view, no one wants to offend Nancy Pelosi.”
Notice the parallel with Ginsburg. Even the people who probably most want her to step down, like Weiner, are publicly saying how great it is that she’s running again. If you’re Ginsburg or Pelosi, do you even realize that many people want you to step down?
Or consider this recent New York Times article documenting the gap between Democratic leaders’ and the general public’s opinions of Biden’s age:
As President Biden shifts his re-election campaign into higher gear, the strength of his candidacy is being tested by a striking divide between Democratic leaders, who are overwhelmingly unified behind his bid, and rank-and-file voters in the party who harbor persistent doubts about whether he is their best option.
Some top Democrats dismiss concerns over Biden’s age as “ageism”, “driven by news coverage”, and overblown because “he’s going to live to be 103”.
And yet, Democrats overwhelmingly (67%) wish the party would nominate someone besides Joe Biden.
I think aging politicians find themselves in an echo chamber. They generally like to stay in power. Aides and allies are reluctant to question that preference, for a mixture of reasons. Maybe they genuinely believe the leader is the best choice, maybe they want to keep the party unified, maybe they want to stay on the leader’s good side. The aging politicians hear this support — or interpret the silence as support — and choose to stay in power, forcing their aides and allies to rally even more around them. They may never realize how many of their own supporters wish they would step down.
To be clear, I don’t think all aging politicians should step down immediately.
As with all things in politics, it depends on the situation. Is there a viable alternative? What is the risk of the candidate becoming incapacitated or passing away? What would be the ramifications of this happening? Depending on the calculus, maybe an aging politician is the best choice.
The problem, I feel, is that those in power are giving way, way too much deference to the aging politicians’ choices. They believe that stepping down is, as Ginsburg put it, a question for the politician’s own good judgement.
I think this is totally backwards.
Politicians don’t have some secret sense of how and when their health will turn. They can’t sense when they will pass away. Even expecting them to recognize when their mind isn’t ready for the job is asking a lot. Cognitive decline can be slow; it’s hard to draw clear lines between “not as sharp as before” and “totally mentally unfit”. Especially given the benefits and sense of purpose politicians get from their positions, asking them to know when they’re ready is asking too much.
Moreover, their decision to stay in office has enormous consequences.
It is entirely possible that they become incapacitated or — god forbid, as I am legally obligated to say — pass away while campaigning or in office. If they do, it leaves a mess for the public and, especially, their supporters. If Biden passes away in July 2024, the Democrats will likely have to run with Kamala Harris, who fares even worse than Biden in polls. Or they could try to handpick someone else; good luck with that. By brushing aside voter complaints with “Biden’s going to live to be 103”, the Democratic party simply fails to plan.
Moreover, even if there are no health issues, at some point an aging leader blocks the growth of new political figures and ideas.
I harp on the Nancy Pelosi because I think there is a very good, viable alternative in Scott Weiner. He’s been ahead of the herd — really leading the herd — on fixing housing affordability in San Francisco, which is probably the city’s biggest problem. I would have been excited to see him represent SF. Instead, thanks to Pelosi’s run, he must wait until at least 2026 to bring any new perspectives to Congress.
So, as someone with no political capital to lose, I say to aging politicians: you have supporters who like you, respect you and also wish you would step down. The benefit of your experience comes with the risk of age and baggage of old thinking. Democracy should let the country adapt, to allow new leaders to face challenges with new ways of thinking. Let something new in.
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