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.  

About Jay Whig

J. Whig is an attorney practicing in New York and a resident of Connecticut specializing in insolvency and restructuring. Opinions are his own.

Photo: Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images

Want news updates?

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.

12 responses to “Senex Stultus: America’s Gerontocracy Problem

  • Considering the younger generation consists of Donkey-Chompers AOC and her ilk, it’s kind of a Hobson’s choice.

    Then again, if we had had term limits in both houses and the courts, we might not be facing these issues.

    • A leftist is a threat no matter their age. I am quite appalled the author chose to focus on these Senators age instead of their dangerous ideology and corruption.

  • Thank you for stating the obvious. As the politically ambitious typically begin their “careers” by running for a local office, followed by state office, eventually seeking federal office, the pipeline should be highly scrutinized by voters. How did we as a people arrive at this place? Local issues are not federal issues, and someone who serves admirably as a city council member or a county official doesn’t necessarily have the chops to go on to serve in the state legislature or D.C. In fact, I’d argue the opposite is true. Those who make a career out of political office are the least qualified and deserving of it. Is that not why we all voted for Donald Trump? We need more people outside the political arena to seek high office.

    God willing, every single one of us will join the ranks of those in their dotage. However, if Congress will not subject itself to the laws it makes regarding mandatory retirement, among other things, why should we?

  • Let’s not forget also that Blumenthal was once CT attorney-general (as was Joe Lieberman before him).

  • This is quite appalling and Am Greatness should be ashamed for publishing it. It is people in their 20s and 30s who are burning down our cities. People in their 70s and 80s burn down truth and reason in the Senate. The problem is not that any of these people are old or young, the problem is these people are leftists. By making age the enemy, we are ignoring the truth of the danger that leftists of all ages, sexes and races are to our nation.

    Should we vote for a 40 year old leftist to rid ourselves of a 70 year old conservative? Clarence Thomas well into his 70s remains one of the finest minds in the USA. A leftist is of course a threat to this nation whether they be 20 40 or 80.

    One of the worst elements of what passes for thought on the left is their divisiveness. It is supposed to be the left that divides people into groups and decide how each group must behave. For supposed conservatives to make decisions about people based on race or sex or age is to make the right the same as the left.

    I am appalled.

  • Every president since Clinton has been of the baby boom generation. Before Clinton was elected, his predecessor–Bush, Reagan, Carter and For–were all members of the so-called Greatest Generation. No member of the silent generation, sandwiched between the greatest and the boomers, has been president. Unless Biden is elected. God help us all.

  • It’s certainly a call for TERM LIMITS more than age limits. A huge part of the problem is that none of these geezers has been intellectually challenged in 50 years. Their brains are ossified by their near-life appointments to their seats. They never have to debate or stretch or wonder or work. It’s even worse among the CBC in the lower house where lifetime seats are PASSED DOWN to wives and children.

  • If you are voting for someone based on his age, I can’t have much respect for that.

    I’m approaching seventy and my husband and I have often noted how the younger generations are turning to remakes from our generation for good music. For the most part, you can’t even begin to approach the creativity of those of us who grew up in the fifties and sixties. When my generation was making music, were we relying on remakes from the Big Band Generation before us? No, we were making our own music. Not so with the younger people.

    Endless remakes of movies from our generation – heck, you still haven’t moved past jeans, a garment that came of age when we older folks made them the staple of casual dress.

    No oldster is preventing political parties from putting up younger candidates. The fact is they aren’t finding the caliber in the younger generation.

    As to older people needing to move aside for younger people so that they can advance? That speaks more to the quality of the younger people in a given profession than it does to some unfair advantage the older people are taking.

  • Well said, except for the snarky finish. The two things I like least about Trump are his age and his hair, in no particular order, but the hair, in principle, can be fixed.
    I completely support age limits, and age 72 at inauguration as President would be very generous, but unfortunately would DQ both Trump and that other guy.
    Would support 72 as a limit for SCOTUS justices, too, and on “lifetime” tenure, I don’t really know what the founders were thinking – mostly that the justices would retire, I guess, or that is just didn’t matter, which seems short-sighted.

  • Age is not the issue, age is the excuse. With age, comes wisdom (at least for most people). The leaders we have elected are betraying us, choosing to enrich themselves and their friends. So the problem really isn’t the corrupt politicians but the stupidity re-electing the corrupt ones.

    Young people like AOC can be more corrupt as any of the senior members of Congress.

    We must repeal the 17th Amendment, giving control of the Senators back to the State Assemblies. Turning the Senate elector process into a popularity contest was a massive mistake.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *