Is ageism hurting the Democratic Party’s chances of ousting Trump in 2020?

Is ageism hurting the Democratic Party’s chances of ousting Trump in 2020?
Election '20

A criticism of former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders that one sometimes hears from liberal and progressive pundits is that they are too old to run in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. Biden (who hasn’t actually entered the race) is 76, while Sanders is 77. Biden’s critics often describe him as “out of touch,” arguing that the modern Democratic Party needs fresher, younger faces going into 2020—not veteran figures who made their mark in the 1980s and 1990s. But on the Republican side, one never hears that President Donald Trump, now 72, is “too old”; most of the GOP is aggressively rallying around the president. And in light of how well Sanders and Biden have been performing in recent Democratic polls and all the money Sanders has been raising, one has to ask: could ageism hurt the Democratic Party’s chances of ousting Trump in 2020?


In poll after poll, Sanders and Biden have been the frontrunners in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. A CNN poll on the Iowa Caucuses in March found that 27% of Democrats preferred Biden, while 25% preferred Sanders. And the fact that Sanders is 77 hasn’t prevented the Vermont senator from raising a ton of money: Sanders’ campaign, according to the New York Times, raised a whopping $18 million in only six weeks.

This week on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” co-host Joe Scarborough (an anti-Trump conservative) and reporter Kasie Hunt both described Sanders’ campaign as underreported. Scarborough asserted that Sanders’ campaign is the most underreported story of 2019 in light of all the money he has raised, and Hunt agreed—saying that the mainstream media are making a “huge mistake” by underestimating his campaign. Although Scarborough is a right-wing conservative and former GOP congressman who often butts heads with his liberal co-host Mika Brzezinski, he wants to hear what those with opposing views have to say—and as Scarborough sees it, Sanders’ fundraising shows that he is hardly a fringe or marginal figure in U.S. politics at this point.

Certainly, a lot could change between now and 2020, but at the moment, Sanders remains the frontrunner in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary—although Biden, according to polls, would become the frontrunner if he officially entered the race.

One of the problems with ageism and dismissing Biden, Sanders or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as “too old” is the fact that in the U.S., older voters are the most likely to show up on Election Day. The Democratic Party, in terms of registration, is a larger party than the GOP. According to the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, the Democratic Party had 12 million more registered voters than the GOP during the Summer of 2018. The Center’s analysis found U.S. voters to be 40% Democratic, 29% Republican, 28% independent and about 3% registered with third parties. So if Democrats have such a registration advantage, why do so many Republicans hold office?

There are a variety of reasons for that, from GOP voter suppression efforts to gerrymandering in congressional districts to the fact that Republicans are so effective when it comes to messaging. But a key factor is the fact that the Republican base—older, mostly white, generally conservative—is more likely to vote. Hardcore Republicans vote consistently, even in off-year elections and low-profile races. The Democratic base, which tends to be younger, doesn’t vote as often. Given that older voters are the ones most likely to show up at the polls, the last thing the Democratic Party needs is an ageist message that alienates older voters.

In the United States, political activists practically have to beg younger people to vote. Pop star Taylor Swift implored fellow Millennials to vote in 2018, which is no different from the MTV’s “get out the vote” campaigns aimed at Generation X in the early 1990s or Democrat George McGovern trying to turn out the Baby Boomer youth vote in 1972’s presidential election (President Richard Nixon, of course, was reelected by a landslide).

Pelosi, now 79, is a perfect example of why ageism doesn’t serve the Democratic Party well. After Democrats achieved a majority in the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms with a net gain of 40 seats, there were many assertions that the House needed a younger speaker than Pelosi. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is 29, received her share of angry criticism for helping to make Pelosi House speaker again—some activists felt that AOC had betrayed them by supporting Pelosi. But Pelosi has been a highly effective leader in 2019, standing up to Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and overseeing a big tent of Democratic House newcomers who range from unapologetic progressives such as Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Rashida Tlaib to more centrist figures like Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia.

Pelosi, arguably, is the most powerful woman in Washington, DC in 2019, and the fact that she’s 79 doesn’t mitigate that. She’s the one Democrat who President Trump, in his own twisted way, is somewhat respectful of because he realizes how much power she has over him.

Saying that ageism is bad for Democrats is not to say that rising stars in the party shouldn’t be promoted or encouraged. The fact that there is a 48-year age difference between Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez shows how effective Sanders’ movement has been; she has become the most prominent Millennial voice within his movement. And the more the right-wing media, from Fox News to AM talk radio, obsessively expresses its hatred of her, the more obvious it becomes how effective she has been during her three months in Congress. Democrats need smart, focused, aggressive fighters whether it’s AOC at 29 or Pelosi at 79.

Ageism is also problematic for Democrats in that some of its strongest issues—universal health care, protecting Medicare and Social Security—are vitally important for older Americans. Democrats need to show older voters that they are the ones looking out for them.

“Sanders, Biden and Pelosi are too old” is not a good message for Democrats going into the 2020 presidential election—especially if they are serious about ousting President Donald Trump.

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