Like most sensible people, I watched the sight of US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell freezing at a podium recently with a grimaced expression.
McConnell (81) was delivering a speech inside the Capitol when he suddenly ceased speaking and glazed over in a gormless expression. There are few more unsavoury sights than watching people in genuine discomfort, which McConnell clearly was (whatever he himself may claim), and it revived questions over whether many of our politicians have become too old.
The question of fitness to serve soon disappears when it becomes a question of scoring party points
US politics has been plagued by questions of age in recent years. Few have been more pertinent than those hanging over President Joe Biden, who looks set to become the first ever octogenarian to seek election to the White House. Elsewhere in his own party, there are significant question marks over Senator Dianne Feinstein’s fitness to serve. Feinstein, the oldest serving member of the Senate at 90, recently missed months of votes after being homebound due to a shingles diagnosis. Members of her own Democratic grouping have asked her to stand down amid concerns over her memory and health.
The illustrative examples selected have already aimed to avoid one criticism I frequently have when it comes to the age debate, which is that of narrow party perspectives. Just as many senior Democrats squirm when it comes to Feinstein’s health, it is often Republican figures like Marjorie Taylor Greene who sound the gun the loudest on President Biden’s age. The question of fitness to serve soon disappears when it becomes a question of scoring party points. After all, age can be an easy stick to beat your opponent with, as it is somewhat inexhaustible and always to hand.
After all this fair-handedness, though, comes the question of how to deal with the issue of age.
Just because a politician is past a certain point in life, should they be excused from duty?
In the United Kingdom, sitting Supreme Court justices used to be booted out of Westminster at the mere age of 70 (it was recently raised to 75). If applied to the US Senate, that would remove Senators Feinstein and McConnell, as well as majority leader Chuck Schumer and a staggering 31 of their colleagues. That is more than a third of the body in one fell swoop. And this is without looking to the Presidency or indeed its strongest challenger at the forthcoming election, Donald Trump.
Age is not just a number when it comes to one’s ability to fulfil key duties
It is no wonder that many American politicians seek to make age a polarised party issue when, if there were a universal and systematic change to current rules, it would rule many of them out of office. But when age and mental aptitude is clearly so relevant to the performance of our politicians, why should we shy away from talking about it?
The attributes of freshness and experience (which usually become metaphors of a sort for age) are frequently bandied about in praiseworthy tones. In fact, in the UK, it is questions of inexperience which have recently reared their head. 25-year-old Keir Mather was newly elected to the House of Commons via a by-election, while 30-year-old Charlotte Owen has just been sworn in to her life peerage in the House of Lords. Barring the obvious difference (one elected, one appointed), some have suggested that an apparent lack or limit of life experience makes the pair unsuitable for service in such senior roles. They are all fair questions to be asked.
Just as we look to our politicians’ personalities, oration, and style as markers of their suitability, age should frankly be no different. And as Feinstein, McConnell and even Biden have often demonstrated, it is not just a number when it comes to one’s ability to fulfil key duties. Banishing the taboo and partisan politics which seems to surround issues of age would help us all in making our legislatures more effective.