How the US 'gerontocracy' parallels the Soviet Union’s aging leadership: journalist
When Ronald Reagan, at 69, enjoyed a landslide victory over President Jimmy Carter in 1980, he was the oldest person in U.S. history to win a presidential election. And during his presidency, Reagan and members of his administration would joke about how the leaders of the Soviet Union were even older than he was. Reagan once commented, humorously, on how Soviet leaders “kept dying” on him.
Reagan was the United States’ next-to-last Cold War-era president. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and by the time Bill Clinton was sworn in as president in January 1993, Boris Yeltsin was leading a post-Soviet government called the Russian Federation.
In an article published by Business Insider on September 26, journalist John Haltiwanger stresses that in 2022, the U.S. has something in common with the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s: a “gerontocracy” and a lot of aging leadership.
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“Reagan was right: Soviet leaders had consistently died on the job,” Haltiwanger explains. “Leonid Brezhnev, who led the USSR for 18 years, died at 75 in 1982. He was followed by Yuri Andropov, who died in 1984 at 69. Andropov's successor, Konstantin Chernenko, died in 1985 at 73.”
The journalist continues, “Fast-forward to 2022. The United States' leadership has more parallels with the latter days of the USSR than those leaders might care to admit. President Joe Biden will soon turn 80. His predecessor, Donald Trump, entered office at 70, and six years later, is considered a frontrunner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 82. The average age in the Senate is 63, and the average age in the House is 58. Meanwhile, the median age in the U.S. is 38. When it comes to age, Congress is not especially representative of the general population.”
Haltiwanger notes that when the Soviet Union’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, came to power in 1985, he was relatively young by the standards of Soviet Communist Party leadership; Gorbachev, who recently died at 91, was 54 at the time.
“In the 1970s and 1980s, the USSR was largely controlled by old men who were increasingly detached from the public and whose calcified rule left Gorbachev with a mountain of problems that he ultimately failed to overcome,” Haltiwanger recalls. “Gorbachev desperately tried to reform the Soviet system via perestroika and glasnost, vying to pump life into the stagnant economy by introducing elements of free-market capitalism while opening the door to increased freedom of expression and freedom of the press. But the changes could not repair the damage. As Gorbachev put it in his resignation address in December 1991, ‘the old system collapsed before the new one had time to begin working, and the crisis in the society became even more acute.’”
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Interviewed by Business Insider, Yelena Biberman of The Atlantic Council's South Asia Center, pointed out that “mental and physical acuity varies greatly between individuals at old age.” Nonetheless, Biberman said she finds it "very concerning" that the U.S. has "an entire cohort of very old politicians at the highest levels of the federal government."
"There is an aging — and already quite old — cadre of American politicians at the federal level who seem to hold on to office like grim death," Biberman told Business Insider.
According to historian Vladislav Zubok — who grew up in the Soviet Union but is now with the London School of Economics — no single factor led to the Soviet Union’s collapse; it was a variety of things. Nonetheless, Zubok told Business Insider, “It looked like the generation of Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, and all of them — they clung to power. They were afraid to let it go…. When people began to realize, for instance, that Brezhnev couldn't quite speak properly, he quickly became a comical person.”
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