But there were likely additional reasons why the piece failed to catch on: It raises multiple questions we find too uncomfortable to confront. How to talk about age-related illness is one. Why we have put ourselves in a position where so many of our leading politicians are aged is another.
The United States is a famously youth-obsessed society. Age discrimination is prevalent everywhere — except in electoral politics. The ruling elite of the United States is, as Timothy Noah pointed out last year in Politico, a gerontocracy. Joe Biden is the oldest man ever elected president, and he’ll replace Donald Trump, who was the previous oldest. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is 80, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is 78. In fact, there are now seven senators in their 80s. At 70 years old, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is a young whippersnapper by comparison.
On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with this lineup. We are living longer than ever, so certainly our politics will reflect this. Yes, age makes it more difficult to multitask, but all of these people appear capable of doing what they were put in office to accomplish. (In the case of Trump and McConnell, it is more accurate to say their deficiencies have little to do with age and much more to do with character.)
We tell people in the United States — often falsely, mind you — they can remain employed as long as they choose. So perhaps it’s no surprise that voters make it happen for others when they can. And voters are disproportionately higher in age — young people, famously, do not vote with the same regularity as their elders. Thus, it’s little wonder that promises to protect Social Security and Medicare receive more political attention than, say, child care. This also offers an explanation for why the number of children living in poverty is almost double the number of elderly people: parents of young children are not represented in politics to the same degree.
But it also offers an explanation as to why politics can feel more than a bit trapped in the past. We become set in our ways — and our political attitudes. Surveys show that our musical tastes stop evolving once we hit our early 30s. And many of us — politicians and voters alike — also thrill to political rhythms from our youths, however long ago that may be. Arguments over the evils of socialism sound like a greatest-hits playlist from another era to the under-40 crowd, who have no adult memory (or, often, any living memory at all) of a place called the U.S.S.R.
Millennials are both more diverse and more politically progressive than baby boomers and the Silent Generation. They are more likely to say they support Medicare-for-all, not simply for seniors, and to advocate a Green New Deal. (Feinstein famously dismissed a group of kids and teens who approached her to discuss the urgency of the climate problem by saying, “Well, you didn’t vote for me.”) It is no accident that the on-again, off-again dispute between Pelosi and “the Squad” feels like a generational fight. In many ways, it is exactly that — the Squad members are, as a group, almost two decades younger than the typical member of the House.
But, as a nation, we’ve become pros at punting on difficult matters and failing to invest in the future. I suspect that one reason there are so many senior politicians in Washington is that pulling a lever for them is a way of avoiding difficult decisions about our nation’s evolving needs, demographics and future direction. Older politicians benefit from more than simple brand awareness: We vote for them unthinkingly — something we don’t do for their younger, would-be replacements. Just ask Feinstein herself, who in her last reelection campaign, handily beat back progressive challenger Kevin de León after receiving an endorsement from almost all the leading Democratic elites in California.
When you combine all this with the fact that no one really wants to talk about age-related declines, or be the person to tell someone else that they suffering from them, you can begin to understand why almost no one wants to talk about Dianne Feinstein. But talk about her we must. A healthy society doesn’t let matters like this age in place.