Senex Stultus: America’s Gerontocracy Problem

Watching the Senate Judiciary Committee blather and speechify its way through the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court, one can’t help but be startled. This once-august body has let its name go to its head.

“Senate” comes from the Roman senate. SPQR, the monogram of Rome, stood for the Senate and People of Rome. The senate got its name because the body comprised the heads of the patrician families. They were long in the tooth, and thus “senate” came from “senex” meaning—well, old.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has 22 senators, 14 of whom are older than the typical retirement age of 65. Seven members of the committee are 70 or older. Three are older than 80 and two of these three have reached the overripe age of 87.

The average age of the members of the judiciary committee is 65. The median age is 68. The average age of Democrats on the committee is 69, and their median age is 70. Republicans are a little younger. Their average age is 61 (still working age!), and the median age is 68.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is 87. Her questioning of Barrett bordered on incoherent, intertwined with a once-effective reflexive smirk. At 87, one can ask in earnest: What stake does Senator Feinstein believe she has in the outcome of these proceedings?

Senator Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) is 80. Leahy had a go at Barrett and was barely audible. He asked a question about Shelby County v. Holder (2013) and voting rights. The gap between Barrett’s and Leahy’s understanding not just of the case but of the basic context of the senator’s own questions was astounding. To the extent he could get the questions out, the senator’s premises were jumbled, his rhetoric confused.

Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is 76. He inquired into the voting rights of felons as against their right to own a gun, probing Barrett’s dissent in Kanter v. Barr (2019). But he completely garbled the law. Section 2 of the 14th Amendment explicitly endorses the disenfranchisement of a voter for participation in a “crime.” The Second Amendment contains no such qualification.

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) is 74. He began his questioning by wagging a boney—and somehow sun-soaked—finger, demanding that Barrett commit to recuse herself from a case that does not yet exist, and likely never will. Again, Blumenthal, who is a lawyer, either purposely distorted or no longer understands the rules and purposes of recusal. Unless there is a fact-specific reason for recusal giving the appearance of impropriety—something that cannot be known until there is a case in controversy furnishing the facts—a judge cannot recuse herself. It is a judge’s duty to hear the case. Indeed, recusal in advance of a case has the appearance of impropriety. 

Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) is 73. She opened by asking whether Barrett had ever been accused of sexual harassment or settled a sexual harassment claim made against her. The answer was no. That baseless question was the true Geritol moment of the hearings. 

Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), 65 and right on the median age for the committee, used his 30 minutes to espouse a conspiracy theory about dark money that, frankly, seemed more like a mental breakdown than an insight of even a partisan kind. 

I don’t mean to pick on the old, but our republic is suffering many dysfunctions. Among these, it has devolved into a gerontocracy, a fancy word for rule by the old.

President John F. Kennedy, whom many note would be considered staunchly conservative today, in his inaugural address characterized his presidency saying, “A torch has been passed to a new generation . . . ” This process of passing power to the next generation is essential. Not only does the younger generation need to gain experience and confidence, but the older generation loses touch with the common good.

The aged are too far away from the responsibilities of raising families, and too detached from the tidings of a future they will not experience. Their thoughts tend to center around beliefs about the past that have been eclipsed by the unfolding of new events.

Even with normal aging, setting aside disease or disorder, cognitive changes, including the decline of processing speed, working memory, and executive function, all begin in a person’s fifties. By a person’s mid-70s, those changes are noticeable. 

Based on the performance by the most senior Democrats, it is fair to say Barrett’s confirmation hearing is a demonstration of this as an incontrovertible fact. What business do such people have in making such important decisions for you?

Let’s give the Senate Judiciary Committee a break for a moment to observe that this problem exists throughout our national government.

Joe Biden is 78. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is 80. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is 80. The late Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), at 82 and angry with President  Trump, blocked the repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2018 after running on its repeal. He died that same year, never to witness the effects of his fit of pique.

Dr. Anthony Fauci is 79. He has been playing king of the hill at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for 36 years, stifling the careers of younger doctors. The current confirmation hearing itself is happening because Ruth Bader Ginsberg, afflicted with terminal pancreatic cancer, refused to give up her seat to good sense, and died at an inopportune moment. 

Fixing this problem will not be easy. But a start has to be made somewhere.

I know what I am going to do—vote for the younger candidate.  

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About Jay Whig

Jay Whig is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness. Whig practices law in New York and a resides in Connecticut, specializing in insolvency and restructuring. Opinions are his own.

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