Senescence

The German physicist Max Planck said that science advances one funeral at a time. I concluded, years ago, that the concept is at least as relevant in other areas of our culture as in science.

As I think lately about the related (and very convincing) suggestion that people and institutions have generally fixed toolkits, of actions and language and conceptual frameworks, the gerontocracy atop American liberalism seems like an underappreciated contributor to the present failing state.

If humans’ fixed toolkits only really change much in response to a sense of existential threat, there is probably some elasticity in what triggers that. It seems very plausible that an elderly culture of elderly people is more difficult to shake up.

A lot of US political leadership has just aged in place for 30 years. It’s easy to poke fun at this, but I wonder if this has been even more damaging than suspected.

It’s important to note that this is not always the way of things. The largely static cast of Democratic elites over the past 30 years is, itself, evidence of that. House Democrats have had leadership born c. 1940 the entire time; initially that meant Dick Gephardt just turning 50, but when he stepped aside his successor was Nancy Pelosi, actually born a year earlier and now an octogenarian. But it’s by no means just Pelosi. The party turned to the Clintons as its standard-bearers when they were around my current age, and turned to them nearly a quarter-century later. The most recent nominee and the party’s current de facto leader, Joe Biden, arrived in Washington even earlier and younger as a US Senator, and he too has just aged in place. Let’s not even mention DiFi since no one else wants to, either.

Biden as well as his chief competitors in the 2020 presidential primary were of similar age. While I backed the relatively youngest of them, Elizabeth Warren—who had also soaked in Washington groupthink far less time than the others—I won’t claim this as a point of pride. I will say that it’s kind of dismaying that even the younger relatively radical cohort not only flocked to the elderly Bernie Sanders but also—despite flourishing his slogan that “it’s not about me it’s about us”—regards him as an irreplaceable Key Man and wants to run him for president again in 2024. Ultimately I see a hate the game not the player situation here, however. (Or in the case of Republicans, where the same phenomena has manifested if not to quite such an extent, hate the game and the player since Republicans have much worse faults than being old and out of touch.)

I certainly don’t think there has been any plan for Baby Boomers to pass over their children’s generation, and age in place until even their grandchildren are getting gray hairs and wrinkles. I dare say that any plan for avoiding that has been distinctly absent, which is itself damning.

I also think the result has been destructive, in ways barely even discussed. I do think that this gerontocracy has aged out of touch with, at this point, multiple generations’ life experiences and problems. Republicans are, nonetheless, at least succeeding in a project to capture authority and use it to impose their agenda. Democrats, who have by default become America’s critical agency for defending liberal democracy, are failing at that which makes their loss of any sense of urgency or ability to adapt much more disastrous.

But even beyond this gerontocracy’s present inadequacy, and the longterm consequences of having such a senescent liberalism in this hour of peril, I think there may be more damage. If politics advances, at best, one retirement or election defeat at a time, America’s liberal governing class put a lot of learning on hold for more than three decades. I don’t think that’s damage which will suddenly get made up for when (presumably) the majority of seniormost Democrats finally topple over in the years ahead. It has occurred to me that quite a lot of the younger Democrats seem, in important ways, just about as trapped in obsolete la la land conceptual frameworks. Perhaps that’s partly attributable to one age cohort largely operating a closed shop for 30+ years, and freezing the process by which new thinking becomes part of mainstream models, and meanwhile younger generations are stuck in junior roles where the amount they can learn from having greater power is limited.

Maybe just one of my novel theories, but maybe not. It may take a lot longer, to modernize America liberalism’s conceptual infrastructure, than it takes for the disappearance of the Baby Boomers who deprived it of updates for so long.

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