Why is the U.S. Presidential race having a senior moment?

Whatever happened to generational change? When Barack Obama triumphed in the 2008 election, his victory was hailed not only as a milestone for Black Americans, but for young Americans as well. He was a fit forty-six, with a young family, who appealed to a new generation of voters – and actually got them out to the polls. He handily beat John McCain, a rival 24 years his senior, who brought years of experience and military heroism to the table, but was seen as yesterday’s man compared to Obama.

Fast forward to 2016 – or should we say rewind? The top contenders for both parties in today’s Iowa caucuses are all well past retirement age. In the Republican camp, Donald Trump dominates the field. Trump, age 69, has loomed large in business and television circles for decades, channeling the 1980’s even more than the 2010’s. In the Democratic camp, Hillary Clinton, age 68 first entered the White House in the 1992, alongside her husband, President Bill Clinton, and later served as Secretary of State in Obama’s administration. Her chief rival, Bernie Sanders, 74, is ironically the “junior” senator from Vermont – despite being the longest-serving independent in US Congressional history, sitting solo as a Congressman for 16 years, and a senator for a decade after that.

Even the potential independents are old: former New York Mayor and businessman Michael Bloomberg is mulling a bid – at the age of 73. We’ll see if he reconsiders taking the plunge, however, in light of a poll that show little support, even among Democrats, for his candidacy.

What accounts for this silver tsunami? Is this phenomenon reflective of the aging population? Are voters looking to elect someone who reminds them of themselves? Of the days they were young? Of a person they would have liked to grow up to be? That answer would be tempting, if not for the fact that the oldest of the group, Sanders, appeals greatly to young voters – the same group that helped propel Obama to victory in 2008. Trump also has legions of youthful fans, who know him from reality television,  and Clinton is reaching out to millennials, despite having lost that cohort to Obama in her previous attempt at the Democratic nomination.

Perhaps the answer lies not in the age of candidates, but the age we live in. In many ways, America in 2016 bears a striking resemblance to America in 1980. That was the year voters tossed fifty-six-year old incumbent Jimmy Carter in favour of sixty-nine year old challenger Ronald Reagan. It was also the year after the Iran hostage crisis, in which the religious regime of Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and seized over American hostages, holding them for 444 days. In 1980, as today, America felt under siege. The economy was in dire straits, and the Soviet Union threatened the US both militarily and ideologically, much as Islamist terrorists do today.

So when Trump tells evangelical voters “We’re going to protect Christianity… If you look at what’s going on throughout the world…Christianity is under siege,” and promises to “Make America Great Again”, he is speaking the same language as Reagan: crush the Evil Empire, and reclaim the shining city on the hill.  When Clinton rails against the sharing economy, she conjures up young people’s fear of uncertainty, and pledges to replace it with stability.   And when Sanders talks about Democratic Socialism, he depicts it as the foundation of America’s golden years, after Franklin Delano Roosevelt implemented Social Security, unemployment insurance and minimum wages to combat the ravages of the Great Depression.

In other words, in 2016 it’s not so much the age of the candidate that matters, but their ability to stand athwart history and yell, STOP! at a time when voters desperately want someone to do so.  Elect me, and I’ll take you back to a better time! All three represent the “strong man” or “strong woman” voters often turn to in time of crisis. And it’s far easier to play that role when you’ve been a witness to history, than when you haven’t.


Photo credit: Alex Hanson

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