Monday, May 21, 2012

Old New Senators

You know how I'm always complaining about how old Members of Congress have become? Well, I learned something new about it: it turns out that newly elected Senators now are a lot older than newly elected Senators used to be. I wrote it up for a Salon piece over the weekend, so check that out for the data, and for a terrific picture of 1972 Joe Biden that they found to put with it.

(Quick caveat: it's a Salon column, not a proper study. I looked at four large Senate classes from the past, and the most recent three Senate classes, and there's a gap of as much as a decade. Looks real to me, and that it will continue this cycle, but it is possible that it's just a fluke, although I don't think so).

Two things. I've complained about old Congresses quite a bit, but I haven't really talked about consequences -- I'm very reluctant to try to be very speculative about things like this. I'm not going to tell you that Congress would be more popular if the average Senator was 50 instead of 60, or that their age has anything to do with the feeling people have that Congress is out of touch...I don't think there's any way of knowing those things, and at any rate we don't know it. But I will note one thing...I was reading Marc Ambinder's list of ten things he learned while reporting in Washington, and two of them are about Washington being out of the current US mainstream on sex and drugs. If that's true -- and I don't know that it is, but it may be -- then I can't imagine that it really helps that so many Senators and Members of the House were born before 1950.

The second thing is about causes. I really have no idea why incoming Senators have become much older. The commenters over at Salon were sure it was about money -- that you have to be rich to be a Senator, and you're more likely to be rich when you're older -- but that doesn't seem right to me. I will note that Joe Biden was elected to the Senate at age 29 in the heyday of weak parties and strong, independent candidates, the kind that Alan Ehrenhalt wrote about in The United States of Ambition. Does something about the way candidates are selected in the current era of strong, networked parties yield older Senators?

Or is there some other good reason for the increasing age of incoming Senators? Anyone have any ideas?

16 comments:

  1. Because the electorate is getting older?

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    1. My thought too. Does there remain a significant evolution if you relate the average senator age to the average age of the electorate or the broader population?

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  2. I'm reading that Marc Ambinder article. What on earth does this mean?

    "5. The Dems just barely have an actual political party organization, thanks to the president's re-election campaign. And labor is no longer its financial base, not even (if you'll pardon) its labor base; gays, Jews, and tech form the party's three-legged financial platform now. But Republicans have no party. It's a PINO—a Party in Name Only, and the name 'Republican' is especially unpopular. But what's there cannot exist without catering to the interests of Christian conservatives."

    What could it mean that "Republicans have no party"? Do they lack ideological cohesion? Organization? Fundraising? What?

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    1. Anon..what Ambinder article? Sounds interesting, have a link?

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    2. Matt, Jonathan links to it in his post.

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    3. Well, first of all -- Oops, I forgot to link to it. Fixed.

      Second...I have no idea. I think, as a guess, he's referring to the idea that the GOP formal organization doesn't actually run things...in which case I'll refer him to my dissertation (formal party organizations are only one component of our current "expanded" parties).

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    4. That was my guess as well, and as a longtime reader, I agree.

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    5. Ah, thanks for fixing the link.

      Yeah, that whole point on the parties is hard to fathom. It's vague, and I can't tell, but it really just reads completely wrong.

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    6. While we're parsing Ambinder, this is the sentence I didn't understand (also part of his point 5): "Identities (the Republican Party, the Democratic Party) are much more factions vying for supremacy within rather than interests with overlapping goals vying for control of what's outside."

      Vying for supremacy within what? Identities are factions, not interests with overlapping goals?

      Any help with this one?

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  3. Regarding consequences of the older Senators, I think you touched on one very important point: These are old Cold Warriors who still (perhaps subconsciously) believe in a massive military build-up to deter nuclear wars against other Global Super Powers. For younger folks who didn't grow up with the constant threat of being five minutes away from nuclear annihilation, this view of our military (and military spending) seems woefully out of touch.

    Similarly, on the economic front, these geezers still see stagflation hiding behind every bush in town. The overriding fear of inflation greater than two percent holds back our economic progress in both the political and monetary spheres. To someone who wasn't forever traumatized with runaway inflation, treating the two percent mark as a ceiling instead of an average goal seems silly.

    The Cold War and stagflation were big events, sure. But the old guard is always fighting the last battle.

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  4. My guess is that, as informal party networks age, they become more hierarchical, paradoxical though that sounds. Would a 29-year-old Joe Biden be able to garner enough party support to run for senate in 2012, or are there just too many other older folks floating around with chits to burn in getting that nod?

    Another example that comes to mind is HRC's star turn with Marian Wright Edelman while a Yale Law Student. Ivy law students do still clerk for Supremes (who I suppose need the labor), but would a high-visibility, high-impact opportunity like Hillary's with MWE be available to a random Yale student from a nothing family today? I don't have data, but my hunch is, like for the aspirational 29-year-old would-be senator, there would be too many others in that queue in 2012.

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  5. I think you are on to something on your second point. Stronger parties probably tend to lead to a coming up through the system, paying your dues mentality. If you want to be a Senator, and you want party support, then work your way up through state spots and then a governorship or House seat. Most (but certainly not all) "young guns" are encouraged to go this route, and when an older, more experienced pol runs against them in the Senate primary, the establishment is subtley going to encourage the one who has paid his or her dues.

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  6. A second possible explanation is the growing influence of the senior lobby in an era of increasing budgetary tightness. I suspect that many/most 29 year-olds, across the ideological spectrum, perceive SS/Medicare as "nice things we do for the elderly" as opposed to "programs that keep millions of seniors from starving in the street".

    As such, the senior lobby might be strongly motivated to err on the side of caution and keep a hypothetical 29-year-old, with his/her uncertain sympathies, out of the senate.

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  7. Part of this may be the disdain held for politicians. Younger people, busy establishing their careers, may be less likely to view politics as a viable career path. And if they do, to opt for the more behind-the-scenes roles, not the candidate role.

    Most people who elected to Senate seats (or House seats, too) seem to already have held office at the local/state level; as well; so working your way up through the system takes time.

    An additional thought is that running for office, particularly running when you're younger, seems more common (this is my perception; I don't know if it's true) if you've already had family members in office. With smaller families today then there were even 50 years ago, there are fewer in the younger generation likely to opt to follow the political path.

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  8. I wonder what would have happened if the Supreme Court's decision in US Term Limits had gone the other way.

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  9. In Caro's LBJ master of the senate page 80 "In the 19th century, the average age of senators had been 45, by 1900 it had passed 50. By 1940 it was 60 and 13 senators were in there 70s or 80s, increasing references to Capitol Hill's "senility system."

    Perhaps it is just cyclical

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