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This week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared to freeze involuntarily during an event in his home state of Kentucky. It was the second time in just over a month that the 81-year-old Republican had publicly struggled to speak out. He had a concussion in March.
The dramatic incidents filmed draw more attention to the advanced age of elected officials in Washington. At 80, President Biden is the oldest president in history. Donald Trump, the main Republican presidential candidate, is 77 years old. And the current 118th Congress is one of the oldest in a century.
“Societies elect their elders because they are wise, and that makes sense as a way to govern,” said Kevin Munger, a political science professor at Penn State University. “But in fact today is an unprecedented situation.”
Americans are generally living and working longer, but the age and health of lawmakers are more noticeable at a time when young voters, in particular, are increasingly interested in electing people who look like them and share their experience of the world.
The median age in the United States was 38.9 in 2022. In contrast, the median age in the House is currently 57.9 and the Senate is 65.3.
“There’s just no way for people in older generations who lived the first part of their life cycle at a very different time to understand where young people are coming from,” Munger said.
However, the aging of legislators is not a new phenomenon. Senator Strom Thurmond, RS.C., served from 1954 to 2003, leaving office just after his 100th birthday. Senator Robert Byrd, DW.Va., the longest-serving senator in U.S. history, died at age 92 on June 28, 1992. He served just over 51 years .
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
But the lawmakers’ recent health problems raise questions about their ability to perform the duties for which they were elected. In the case of Senator Dianne Feinstein, the 90-year-old California Democrat missed 91 votes this year as she recovered from the shingles virus. His absence also blocked the nomination of a number of judicial candidates.
Alan Lichtman, a historian and professor at the American University in Washington, DC, said the age of the elect can be attributed to polarization. He said incumbent lawmakers rarely lose, in part because parties rarely challenge their own members in primaries. As competitive seats diminish, so does the ability to topple a sitting legislator.
“These longtime members are pretty safe,” he said. “In terms of primary elections, it’s very difficult to defeat an incumbent president.”
Incumbents are so secure that by 2022, 98% have been re-elected.
Incumbents have other significant advantages, such as access to large donor bases, connections in Washington and their home state, and staff and experience.
Jennifer Wolak, a professor at Michigan State University, studied whether voters actually consider age when voting. She and her research partner studied why older people are overrepresented in government. They found that people talk about age concerns in politics; they say they want younger representation in surveys. But in elections, older politicians continue to win.
“At the end of the day, if you vote for someone, you might say ‘I would prefer a younger candidate but if I have two former candidates, I will vote for my party’s candidate,'” Wolak said. “People are much more likely to choose based on candidate promises, party and ideology than age.”
This is true for both parties.
Munger said this moment of public attention to age in politics is really creating an opportunity.
“It’s a good thing that people are living longer and healthier and that’s great,” Munger said. “And that could mean that the institutions of government that were developed at a time when most people died before the age of 60 are simply not suited to the current, better reality that we have created.”