If there’s one constant in the history of American politics, it’s old white men in power — a pattern that has stunted the growth of progressive policies. It’s time for this majority demographic to change.
Two years ago, voters elected the oldest president in U.S. history, a then 78-year-old Joe Biden. According to recent data from Pew Research, the average age of House Representatives is about 58 years, while the average age in the Senate is 65 years. Additionally, the Guardian reported in 2021 that 62% of all elected officials are white men. Pew Research also found that millennials and Gen Z are on track to becoming the most educated, diverse generations in American history, yet America continues to elect politicians from an older, whiter, and more conservative generation.
This is not to say that all older politicians are bad — age does not inherently make them less progressive or more bigoted. Older elected officials have simply dominated politics for too long, and the absence of representation for young people in political sectors can leave room for the dismissal of issues that predominantly concern them.
Older politicians are making decisions that will predominantly affect young people’s lives. While environmental activism is hardly a new concept, findings by Pew Research suggest that millennials and Gen Zers express more interest in environmental issues than baby boomers and Gen Xers. Pew Research found that two-thirds of Gen Z adults and millennials oppose policies that would increase offshore oil and gas drilling, compared to 46% of older adults in subsequent generations.
Gen Z has gone further than supporting causes — they’ve become the face of climate activism. Greta Thunberg, 20, has gained international attention for staging walkouts and demonstrations against environmental damage since she was 15 years old.
Student debt is another youth-centric issue that has been regarded as unimportant by older elected officials. Though Biden has recently proposed a student loan forgiveness plan that is currently being reviewed by the Supreme Court, the idea of student debt relief has faced a considerable amount of opposition. On Feb. 3, 126 Republican House Representatives filed a brief with the Supreme Court urging them to block Biden’s initiative.
In the last 20 years, tuition and fees at national private universities have increased by 131%, and tuition for out-of-state students at national public schools has risen by 141%. For most older politicians and voters, the costs of college are a thing of the past. But current college students and recent graduates are plagued by the costs of college and paying off student debt — they owe a collective total of $1.75 trillion in loans nationally.
Aspiring Gen Z politicians are products of issues left unaddressed by older generations, such as gun control. Maxwell Frost, the first Gen Z congressman, was elected to Florida’s 10th district in January. Frost was in high school when the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting killed 20 children and eight adults. He has said that this incident influenced him to run on a platform of gun control and call on Congress to allocate at least $37 million in funds for gun violence research.
Older politicians, like Mitch McConnell and Joe Manchin, are unconcerned with issues of the future and instead favor topics that promote American traditionalist values, such as gun rights and coal mining. McConnell, 80, who has served as a senator since 1985, has consistently voted to block bills that promote gun control. Most recently in 2021, McConnell refused to bring H.R.8 to a vote, a bill that would require background checks on all gun sales. Likewise, Senator Joe Manchin, 75, a Democrat who was elected in 2010, has consistently supported private coal mining businesses, which have been wrecking the environment.
The Second Amendment and the coal mining industry have both been present in the U.S. since its inception and therefore have become part of idealized American tradition. However, our traditions are inherently flawed. Older, conservative politicians and voters have a tendency to view the past through rose-colored glasses — take former president Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” for example. Often, right-leaning politicians run on a platform of emphasizing American pride and upholding the values of the past, but for marginalized groups, America has never truly been “great.” Younger, progressive generations, on the other hand, are more willing to acknowledge the modern flaws of our country that are rooted in the past and take steps to address and improve them.
With all this considered, why do we continue to elect such old politicians? A 2022 poll from CNN found that 73% of Americans feel there should be a maximum age limit on our elected officials. Former South Carolina Governor — and a 2024 Republican presidential candidate — Nikki Haley even suggested a mandatory “competency test” for politicians older than 75.
Unsurprisingly, voters are more inclined to trust seasoned, experienced candidates. In the House of Representatives, incumbent candidates have historically won 85-100% of reelections, according to research conducted at Texas State University. Re-electing someone with years of experience under their belt certainly has its advantages, such as a shown policy track record and knowledge of their position.
Given America’s two-party system and the high cost of campaigning, it is almost inevitable that there will be instances in which voters have no choice but to pick between two old white men to support in elections. Federal Election Commission records indicated that in the 2019-2020 election cycle, the two presidential candidates raised and spent a collective total of $4.1 billion on campaigning. This is simply an unattainable number for the average, unknown person, giving older career politicians a leg up in political races.
When this is the case, voters should support politicians who will help amplify the voices of more diverse, younger politicians. Senator Bernie Sanders, 81, for instance, has endorsed a number of younger politicians — namely, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 33-year-old House Representative who ran on a grassroots campaign and supports initiatives regarding the environment and healthcare. Endorsements could potentially help younger, less experienced candidates gain more notoriety and traction in election cycles.
America’s political figures do not accurately represent the country’s growing diversity or the budding progressive ideas of younger generations. Older politicians are ultimately playing far too large of a role in creating a future that they won’t be a part of. To remedy this, voters should refrain from re-electing the old and familiar and instead help foster opportunities for young politicians who are working towards addressing the issues of the future.