How old is too old to be President of the United States? With a forty year gap in the ages of Democratic candidates, ageism could play a factor in who becomes the nominee.
The minimum age to be president, as determined by the Constitution, is 35. Pete Buttigieg, at age 37, is forty years younger than Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). While policies are what voters scrutinize the most, age is growing in importance. Buttigieg would be the first millennial president, bringing generational change to the White House. Sanders would be 79 years old at his inauguration, beating the previous record set by Donald Trump by nine years.
A recent Quinnipiac University Poll shows Biden, Sanders, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) at the top of the Democratic group. All of them would be in their seventies by inauguration day in 2021. Age is becoming a hurdle for older candidates who need to prove that their age is an asset. Many voters are wondering if these candidates would be physically and mentally capable of being president.
Why Age Matters
According to the World Health Organization, ageism is a unique form of discrimination due to it being socially acceptable. It is unchallenged and the problems it causes are not being addressed. Ageism is not just external discrimination, but also can be internalized through the constant stereotyping of an age being either too old or too young to perform specific tasks.
In 1994, Ronald Reagan announced he had Alzheimer’s disease. While serving as president from 1981 until 1989, there were questions about his mental capabilities. Although his doctors have said he showed no indications of Alzheimer’s while in office, many people now wonder if candidates in their 70s are capable of being president.
Age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s are long-term, serious health issues. Early symptoms often go undetected or are thought to be signs of exhaustion, not a serious and long-term health crisis. Age is important to voters because the role of President of the United States demands consistent, high-level critical thinking. It begs the question: should there be an age limit?
A 2017 CNN article showed that members of Congress, regardless of party, are getting older. The average age of Democrats that year was 61 years old, while the average age for Republicans was 57. Rep. Don Young (R-AK) is currently, at age 85, the oldest member of Congress.
Voters often feel that older leaders, including Joe Biden, are out of touch with a rapidly changing society. An opinion piece in The New York Times argued Biden should not run because of his lack of understanding of changing social norms.
Biden brought awareness to campus sexual assault years before the Me Too Movement. Now, he is facing accusations that his past actions made several women uncomfortable. Voters should recognize that his age has shaped his views and responses. Biden grew up in a different era where actions that today are viewed as inappropriate were acceptable. Should this different understanding of what is acceptable, created by his older age, disqualify him?
A USA Today opinion piece by Bonnie Goldstein says yes. Goldstein argues that the time of the Baby Boomers and older generations has passed. Their ideas are not fresh and the candidates themselves are not “woke” enough.
The argument for an age limit is inherently ageist. It does not focus on a candidate’s values, policies or experience. Instead, it focuses on potential issues that come with old age such as decreased cognitive function or hesitancy in changing long-standing policies.
Age and the 2020 Race
Joe Biden is leading polls in the race to be the Democratic nominee. He has the most impressive resume of anyone, including Trump, who could be on the ballot in 2020. Thirty-six years in the United States Senate and eight years as Vice President have given him an understanding of American politics younger politicians such as Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) have yet to learn.
A 2019 study by Harvard researchers showed that prejudice based on age is stagnant. Negative perceptions about the elderly continue to persist in America, while racial and sexual biases are declining.
While age is a hurdle for Sanders and Biden, it is important for voters to recognize that stereotypes and statistics do not look at individuals. Many of Sanders’s policy ideas, such as free tuition of public universities, are “woke” and draw in younger voters. The appeal of Sanders towards younger voters demonstrates that the idea older candidates do not understand older Generation Z and younger Millennial voters is not entirely accurate.
Who the Democrat on the ballot is on Nov. 3, 2020 will come down to who voters think can best lead the country. It will also depend on who they think can beat Trump. The age of candidates will impact how confident voters are in their ability to lead. As long as ageism persists in American culture, people will argue that age should automatically disqualify even the most worthy of candidates.