Older Politicians Aren’t Necessarily Wiser Politicians

Alzheimer's disease brain comparison. Public domain.
Alzheimer’s disease brain comparison. Public domain.

“It’s passed,” US president Joe Biden said of his student loan forgiveness plan at a recent forum. “I got it passed by a vote or two.” But he didn’t “get it passed,” nor were there any votes. He issued an executive order.

“Where’s Jackie?” Biden asked at a conference in September, scanning the crowd for US Representative Jackie Walorski (R-IN). “I thought she was going to be here.” The month before, he’d pronounced himself “shocked and saddened” by Walorski’s death in an automobile accident.

I am not a doctor. I do not play a doctor on TV, or on the Internet.  You’re probably not a doctor, either. But our lack of credentials to issue medical diagnoses doesn’t prevent us from noticing, and making plausible inferences from, visible signs of (likely age-related) mental decline.

Joe Biden just ain’t right in the head. He’s not remembering and understanding things that people with normal mental function remember and understand. He’s living, at least some of the time, in an alternate reality.

Nor is he the first. Ronald Reagan is now acknowledged to have been in the early stages of Alzheimer’s during the last years of his presidency. Donald Trump seems incapable of opening his mouth without saying something bizarrely disconnected from reality, though whether that’s down to age, mental illness, dishonesty, or some combination of the three in any given case is open to question.

It’s not just the presidency, either. Over the last few years, we’ve watched several older members of Congress descend during floor speech and debate into the kind of rambling incoherence that would result in normal people being gently led back to their rooms at the nursing homes where they’re living out their final days.

Is it time to set upper age limits on tenure in political office?

Just to be clear, I don’t believe that age and infirmity explain why government “doesn’t work.” It doesn’t work because it CAN’T work, at least if we define working in terms of maximizing peace and prosperity while reducing or eliminating aggression.

But there are different kinds of not working, and some of them are more dangerous than others. If politicians living in perpetual brain fog aren’t inherently more dangerous than their younger counterparts, their handlers and puppet-masters probably are, if for no other reason than that those handlers are, due to their near invisibility, even less accountable to the public.

The US Constitution mandates that US Representatives be at least 25 years of age, US Senators at least 30, and US presidents at least 35.

At the time the Constitution was ratified, the life expectancy for white males (the only people permitted to exercise political power) was about 35. We didn’t have a big problem with senile politicians back then because most people didn’t live long enough to develop dementia.

If we’re going to continue trusting people with political power — I say again, we shouldn’t! — it’s time for a constitutional amendment setting an upper limit to match those lower limits. How does 70 years old sound?

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.