At age 33, Jon Ossoff is the first Millennial ever to be elected to the Senate, and is the youngest person to be elected to the Senate since President Joe Biden when he joined in 1973. Democrats and the media should take a cue from his victory and rethink their approach to age and candidate viability. Hard.
The politicians in Congress are increasingly old. In 1981, the average age of a representative was 49 and the average age of a senator was 53. But these averages have steadily increased with almost each new Congress. Today, the average age of a representative is 57 and the average age of a senator is 63. 48 senators are over the age of 65; 147 representatives are over 65. Baby Boomers make up nearly 70% of the most recent Congress in spite of comprising only 21% of Americans. The trend exists much more for Democrats than it does for Republicans: the average age of Democratic House leadership is 72 years old, whereas the average age of Republican House leadership is 48 years old.
The problem extends to the media. According to Nielsen data from 2017, the median age of a CNN viewer is 60 and the median age of a Fox or MSNBC viewer is 65. Cable news producers are highly attuned to this type of thing. One can surmise that if you’re a cable news producer, you are going to want your cable stars to say things that appeal to 60-somethings and refrain from saying things that offend the sensibilities of 60-somethings. While I don’t exactly know what this amounts to besides Prevagen commercials, this might mean that even the left-leaning outlets are less liberal than America actually is. 27% of millennials identify as very liberal, whereas only 17% of Boomers identify as very liberal. 31% of Boomers identify as very conservative while that percentage is 17 for Millennials.
Cable news not only reflects the world but directs it. Many politicians watch cable news coverage to gauge their own political steps. Moderates, especially, try to put themselves in stride with the sensibilities of the mainstream media. That in effect means putting themselves in stride with the sensibilities of the elderly. All of a sudden, we have a political economy that’s being directed by senior citizens. Stuck in an endless loop.
They say that age is just a number. But in politics, might it mean more? When it comes to how we choose our politicians and how we choose the news we consume, should age matter?
The way the young are held back in the Democratic Party is abundantly clear. There’s no shortage of politically engaged, educated, qualified Millennials who want to run for Congress as Democrats. But few seats are opening up, and the Democrats don’t appear to be doing anything about it. If you want a barometer that the Party is operating primarily from a place of nostalgia and is evading its commitment to the next generation of leaders, just look at the Democratic National Convention last year. During the first two nights of the convention, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, John Kerry, Colin Powell, Cindy McCain, John Kasich, and Caroline Kennedy were prominently featured: people from the party’s past, not its future (and in the case of Cindy McCain, John Kasich, and Colin Powell, not even people from the party’s past). The average speaker age was 62. The showrunners only later tweaked the schedule so the second night opened with a montage of 17 “rising star” Democrats. Before that, they were only planning to feature two Democrats under the age of 40 during the whole convention—Pete Buttigieg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the latter of whom appeared for a sinfully short amount of time. She had a 60-second speaking slot—less than Kasich, a George W. Bush cabinet official, and the party’s unsuccessful 2004 nominee John Kerry.
Putting aside the Democrats’ choice to feature so many politicians from antiquity during the convention and muzzle its upstarts, it could be argued that any current politician’s age is a superficial thing to focus on and that they should be judged by their policies alone. Elderly status, no matter—it’s all about what you do. I want to agree with this, but when big decisions are made by one segment of the population, any one segment, problems tend to occur. We saw this with seniors when Mark Zuckerberg had a Senate hearing about data mining in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and many of the senators questioning him didn’t understand how Facebook worked. They squandered hours asking questions that were obvious to Facebook users, and failed to get answers to deeper questions about how Facebook collects data and how something like Cambridge Analytica was able to happen.
We can agree that it’s important that Congress reflects the racial, religious, and gender makeup of America. Isn’t it important too that it better reflect America’s age distribution?
In the event of a showdown between older and younger candidates, the mainstream media has historically sided with older candidates in the name of them having experience. “If this were an open seat in a different political environment with a different president, de León would be a strong contender,” the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote about 87-year-old Dianne Feinstein’s more progressive and young challenger, Kevin de León. “But Feinstein’s experience and influence are too important to pass up,” they said. There go two things that old fogies have over young people: experience. Influence. But what if newspapers like the Los Angeles Times overvalue these things and undervalue fresh perspectives, in no small part due to the fact that the audience they’re speaking to is, again, older?
The Editorial Board also said de León would be a stronger contender “if this were an open seat”: are Democrats not allowed to challenge incumbents at all? What happens when incumbents become over time out of step with the party, as many complain Feinstein has become, and fail to step down, as most of them are failing to do? The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board effectively says that newcomers aren’t welcome so long as the seat is taken by an incumbent Democrat.
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are proof that older politicians can conjure an impassioned base of devoted young people. But as their leadership status exemplifies, even the progressive wing of the party isn’t exempt from this troubling trend of old people running the show.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a counter-example of that, but she didn’t get any help from the Democratic Party at all in her campaign because she was running against the extremely powerful and well-connected incumbent Democrat Joe Crawley. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is astounding. But she might be something of a unicorn. Without support from the Democratic Party, it’s unclear how many more of her there can be. Fewer than if they had the support of the Democrats, that’s for sure. Since very few incumbents are stepping down, many of these seats like hers will be hard-fought and we can expect the mainstream media and the Democratic establishment to continue to resist change.
There could be an end in sight though. People, especially young people, are getting their news from more diverse sources on the internet, and some of these sources are less biased towards the status quo. Twitter exists, giving anyone a voice who has good ideas and a solid command of the platform. Upset campaigns happen—and the internet makes them easier to happen. And who we consider the young now only comprise a bigger part of the electorate as time goes on. But we shouldn’t wait for the results to come naturally: we need representation now. The mainstream media is failing the young, and the Democratic Party is failing to make way. Democrats should take a cue from the victory of Jon Ossoff and invest more in its young potential leaders. Otherwise, we will fall short of having a truly representative democracy.