July 15, 2024

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Coronavirus Makes American Gerontocracy Even More Dangerous

Last week, Republican senator Rand Paul of Kentucky announced that he had tested positive for coronavirus, despite not showing any symptoms. In the six days between taking his test and getting results, Paul went about business as usual, including using the Senate gym and pool and attending lunch meetings. The senator’s aides, who are regularly in contact with Paul and other senators’ offices, reportedly didn’t know he had been tested until just minutes before the announcement of his status went public.

Paul had good reason to want to get tested, as he’s missing part of one lung and that can be a major medical complication with a respiratory disease. But why he continued to go about his daily life while waiting for the results, when a large percentage of his colleagues are in a higher-risk age group, is a mystery.

At the start of March—after the CDC’s first testing kit failed and testing was limited—there were only 70 known cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak, in the U.S. Now the number is more than 164,000 people, in every state, plus Washington, D.C., and three U.S. territories. More than 3,100 people have died. While all age groups are susceptible to the disease, the outbreak poses a particular threat for seniors. There are reports of people as young as 17 dying from Covid-19, but the majority of deaths are people over 70, and more than 60 percent of cases severe enough to end up in the hospital are people 55 years or older.

At the start of the 116th Congress, the average age for members of the House and Senate were 58 and 63, respectively. The majority of members of Congress (53 percent) are baby boomers, and even members of the so-called Silent Generation, loosely defined as people born between 1928 and 1945, outnumber millennials in the House and Senate. Almost half of all senators are 65 or older, as are 147 representatives. And while Congress got some young blood after the 2018 midterms, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who at 29 was the youngest woman ever elected to the House, leadership positions skew much older. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 80, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is 78. Committees in both chambers are chaired mainly by some of the oldest members, including the head of the Senate finance committee, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, at 86 years old. But this trend isn’t confined to Congress. Sixteen governors are over 65. Vice President Mike Pence is 60. Trump is 73 years old, the oldest-ever president when inaugurated and still younger than both remaining Democratic primary candidates—Vermont senator Bernie Sanders (78), who suffered a heart attack last year on the campaign trail, and former vice president Joe Biden (77), whose entire campaign can’t seem to figure out how to stream video.

It’s probably not surprising that older generations dominate government, considering that older voters tend to dominate elections. According to census data, voters 65 and over have had the highest turnout in elections for more than 20 years, hovering at or around a staggering 70 percent since 1996. And in 2020, the Pew Research Center predicts that nearly a quarter of the eligible voters will be 65 years or older, the biggest percentage since 1970. No state is more dominated by voting seniors than Florida, a crucially important swing state where more than 20 percent of the population is over 65.

As U.S. News & World Report points out, older voters turn out for elections more regularly for a lot of reasons, including the fact that they’re often more rooted in their community, while younger voters tend to be more mobile. They also tend to have more free time and great social expectations that they turn out. And since many of them depend on Social Security and Medicare, social programs not available to people under 60, there’s more immediate incentive for older people to get to the polls.

As a group, older voters also tend to have different priorities than younger ones. For example, younger voters are more aware of racial issues—another Pew Research study found that the only age group where a majority (54 percent) of people agree that “discrimination is the main reason blacks can’t get ahead” is young adults aged 18 to 29. Among people 50 or older, a majority (56 percent) think “black people who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition.” (Views were evenly split for the 30–49 age group.) And only a slim majority (56 percent) of Americans 55 or over are worried “a great deal or a fair amount” about global warming, according to Gallup. Among 18- to 34-year-olds, it’s a whopping 70 percent.

Younger voters also overwhelmingly (57 percent) back moving to a single-payer health-care system like Medicare for All, while the same percentage of seniors oppose it. The age divide is the same when it comes to canceling student debt: Almost two-thirds of young voters support wiping out the $1.5 trillion in student-loan debt that Americans are carrying. Only 40 percent of baby boomers agree.

Of course, boomers grew up in a very different economy, particularly if they were lucky enough to grow up white. The costs for a home and a college degree have increased much faster than the rate of inflation. The buying power for most Americans hasn’t budged in decades. People 34 and younger have a cumulative $577 billion in student-loan debt, compared to $42 billion for people 62 and older.

So these are the values that dominate American politics, both in the voting booth and in the halls of power. The tragic irony is that despite this, the U.S. has been dreadfully slow to act in the face of the coronavirus outbreak, a pandemic that puts older people at a markedly higher risk. The senior members of the House and Senate, of course, have access to much better health care than the majority of people their age, or the rest of the country even. For evidence of that, we only need to look to the fact that Rand Paul managed to get tested in the first place, despite showing no symptoms, while hospitals across the U.S. are facing a crippling shortage of not only tests but basic necessities like face masks. But the potential for Covid-19 to ravage Capitol Hill is a stark reminder—America is now a gerontocracy.

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Originally Appeared on GQ

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