Upon kicking off her presidential campaign this week, Nikki Haley said politicians 75 years of age or older should be subject to mental competency tests. It was a cheap political shot at President Biden and her rival in the primaries, Donald Trump. But it was more than that. Haley’s statement is blatantly ageist. Of course, of all the -isms (racism, sexism, able-ism, classism, etc.), the targeting of older people remains one of the most socially acceptable – probably leading Haley to believe that her jab at senior politicians was safe. That doesn’t make it any less offensive.
Haley’s comment was not an outlier. During a panel discussion Wednesday on CNN Tonight spurred by Haley’s remarks, pundit Patrick McEnroe complained that there are too many older politicians in Washington. There was no pushback from the rest of the panel, of which McEnroe and anchor Alisyn Camerota were by far the oldest members (at 56). Imagine if a CNN panelist (or presidential candidate) commented that there were too many members of a particular race or ethnic group — or people with disabilities — in politics. The pushback would have been intense and immediate. Not so for ageism. Apparently, it’s still okay.
President Biden is the target of almost daily ridicule and criticism about his age. Many pundits argue that he is simply “too old” to serve a second term. (Note that the Founding Fathers did not impose an upper age limit on eligibility for the Presidency, only a lower one – 35 years of age.) While President Biden may suffer from verbal gaffes, a speech impediment, and some memory lapses, his chronological age should not disqualify him from serving a second term.
Age and hard-earned wisdom should be considered an asset in politics. As writer Jack Goldstone noted in the Financial Review “A leader with decades of experience is likely to have encountered various crises before and to know how to respond effectively.” To this point, the mainstream media were rightly impressed when President Biden skillfully baited Republicans into agreeing not to cut Social Security and Medicare as part of the debt ceiling debate during the State of the Union. Pundits correctly noted that his five decades as a politician and public office holder equipped him with the skills to outsmart the opposition on live tv in front of millions of viewers.
Rather than being judged by his chronological age, the President should be assessed by his performance in office, including his list of legislative accomplishments and handling of both domestic and foreign policy crises. Primary and general election voters should decide for themselves whether he is competent and fit to serve, not ageist candidates and pundits.
Unfortunately, the ageism directed at President Biden is typical. Despite their enormous contributions to our country, seniors are continually devalued as members of society. When someone calls another person “old,” it’s understood as an insult, not a sign of respect.
“In our society, older people too often are considered to be absent and invisible,” says our senior policy expert, Anne Montgomery, a longtime advocate for seniors and people with disabilities. “There are other cultures, though, where you are considered more important as you get older. The elderly have lived longer and accumulated wisdom that is useful to society.”
She’s right. In the U.S. and some other Western societies, “elder” is a bad word instead of a sign of respect. “Ageism is everywhere – in the workplace, in media, in Hollywood, in schools and in health care, and it is something that most everyone will experience at some point in their lives,” writes Michele Dinman of the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging at Washington University in St. Louis.
Ageism is not a benign phenomenon. According to Dinman, older adults experience discrimination in employment, housing, health care, and in their daily lives. In a 2019 survey, 82% of older adults said that they “regularly experienced at least one form of everyday ageism.”
The consequences are real. As Dinman writes, ageism can lead to poor physical health and shorten lives. It also can lead to “increased social isolation and loneliness.” In 2021, the World Health Organization reported that ageism can cost society billions of dollars in lost productivity and opportunity.
So, what about the claim that older politicians shouldn’t hold high public office? There have been plenty of members of Congress who have served admirably – and in lofty leadership positions – well into their late 70s and 80s. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) is 84. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), an outspoken member of the House Social Security Subcommittee, is 86. Former House Speaker and current congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is 82. Legendary Congressman and voting rights crusader John Lewis (D-GA) served nobly until he died at age 80.
On the other side of the Capitol, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) is 88. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) is 89. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is 81. Some of these members of Congress are controversial, but arguably fully mentally competent and more than capable of representing their constituents and leading their colleagues.
When considering elder lawmakers of years past, we remember former House Speaker Tip O’Neill (who retired in his mid 70s), powerhouse Michigan Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) (who stepped down at 87), or former Senator John Glenn (D-OH), who served until he was 77 and flew on the space shuttle that same year!
On the flip side, there have been plenty of members of Congress whose mental acuity is questionable, regardless of age. When we tweeted about Nikki Haley’s ageist comment, one of our followers aptly responded: “Then we need competency tests for ALL of them!”
There are myriad examples of highly accomplished seniors who have been leaders in their respective fields:
Warren Buffett, business magnate, investor, philanthropist (92)
Fran Gehry, legendary architect (93)
LaDonna Harris, Native American leader/activist (91)
Jasper Johns, world-renowned artist (92)
Ralph Lauren, fashion mogul (83)
Norman Lear, tv producer/creator of “All in the Family” (100)
George Takei, actor and activist (85)
Gloria Steinem, feminist writer and activist (88)
To the best of our knowledge, no one has demanded that these leaders step down or take mental competency tests. If they can continue doing what they do well into their 80s and 90s, why shouldn’t the President of the United States, surrounded as he (or she) is with an immense support infrastructure, from White House staff to advisors and cabinet members? In the year 2023, it is time for our society to re-examine its biases toward seniors. If racism, sexism, able-ism and all the other “isms” have no place in a society striving for tolerance, then neither should ageism.
Walter Gottlieb is Director of Communications at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare