Sarah Kendzior is the co-host of the podcast Gaslit Nation and the author of the coming book Hiding in Plain Sight.
Since the election of Donald Trump, Americans have watched their country transform from a flawed democracy into a burgeoning autocracy. As checks and balances failed, and a series of pseudo-saviours – James Comey, Robert Mueller, Nancy Pelosi – hesitated to confront Mr. Trump’s corrupt administration, the November election has been increasingly touted as the people’s surest bet against dictatorship. (Mass protest has, for now, been defeated by the coronavirus.)
On Super Tuesday, voters decided that the best people to determine the American future were old men who, statistically, will likely not live to see even the near-term outcomes of their efforts. (The average lifespan of men in the U.S. is 76 years old, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.) Either 77-year-old Joe Biden or 78-year-old Bernie Sanders will take on 73-year-old Donald Trump, who is the oldest elected president in U.S. history. Americans do not know if they will live in a democracy or an autocracy, but they will undoubtedly live in a gerontocracy.
A gerontocracy is dangerous in a time of profound existential threats. The Democratic nominee will be battling the climate crisis, rising autocracy worldwide and a global recession exacerbated by a pandemic. They will also be facing off against the Trump regime, whose flagrant corruption and decimation of institutions has put American democracy in unprecedented peril.
The ideal candidate to battle these crises would be in good health and brimming with energy, fortitude and detailed plans. We had that candidate in Elizabeth Warren, but after Tuesday, she has no clear path to the nomination.
That leaves Mr. Sanders, who recently had a heart attack, and Mr. Biden, whose occasional incoherent ramblings have left Americans speculating about senility. Both have released letters from doctors attesting that their health is fine, and one hopes that this is true. And of course it should be noted that old age should not be a disqualifier in its own right, as many public officials have served effectively in their 70s and 80s, and that age should never be a source of mockery or derision.
That said, the cold reality is that there is a decent chance neither candidate, should he win, will be able to serve two terms. There is a fundamental instability in a gerontocracy, which is ironic since voters embrace elderly white men – in particular, Joe Biden – because they see them as safe. They are seen as safe because they are familiar. White men benefit from the self-fulfilling prophecy of “electability” that knocked out all the black, Latino, Asian and female Democratic candidates.
But familiarity is not the same thing as safety. In fact, this insistent belief in the illusion of safety – that Mr. Trump could not win, that the economy would recover for working people, that we lived in a “postracial society” – is often the source of American chaos. It reflects an unwillingness to see America’s flaws, and more tragically, an unwillingness to see America’s possibility.
The candidate who understands this paradox best is, unfortunately, Mr. Trump. He has long grasped that Americans’ refusal to believe that the worst could happen – their faith that if things were really that bad, surely someone would step in – is the way to ensure that it will. He understands that a polished and patriarchal image easily masks a horrific agenda, not only his own but that of corrupt associates such as Bill Barr, whom the U.S. media and political elite gave an unwarranted benefit of the doubt.
Mr. Trump built an autocracy by running out the clock as broken institutions struggled to keep up with his administration’s lawlessness – lawlessness so outlandish that elites refused to believe it was real.
November will bring a reckoning, and either Mr. Biden or Mr. Sanders will need all the support they can get. This means not only forming a broad coalition of younger colleagues, but confronting the structural rot that allowed Mr. Trump to triumph in the first place. Mr. Biden is better at coalition-building and Mr. Sanders is better at identifying root problems. They will both need to embrace each other’s skills to move forward. They will both need to put delusions and ego aside – and acknowledge if their health is marring their abilities.
In Super Tuesday states, overall turnout was high, but youth turnout stayed stagnant or fell. This was bad news for Mr. Sanders, whose campaign was predicated on the belief that he had widespread youth support.
But it is worse news for America overall. One cannot blame young people for being disillusioned about the future in this era of climate catastrophe and ceaseless corruption. To capture their votes, Democrats must make a compelling case about how they will protect that future – even though their presidential nominee will not live to see it.
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