A COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN: AMERICA’S AGEING PRESIDENCY

 

 

“Age will flatten a man,” said the aging Sheriff Bell in the Coen brothers’ McCarthy-inspired and Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men. Maeve McTaggart explores why it hasn’t suppressed the chances of the 2020 Presidential candidates, but instead inflated them.

 

Donald J. Trump assumed the presidential seat in the Oval Office ahead of his sixty-eight year-old competitor Hillary Clinton in late 2016. At seventy years of age, he was the oldest to ever do so. Whoever wins in 2020 will break the President’s record and become the oldest president in history – leaving Donald Trump the youngest man in the race. Now seventy-three, Trump is amongst his elders. Those likely to win the Democratic nomination, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, are seventy-seven and seventy-eight respectively, the selection of candidates differ only in ideology. Old, white and male – is this pattern of Presidential candidates going stale? 

 

The American affinity for older candidates is relatively unmatched, so much so it doesn’t seem random that voters just happen to choose candidates and a government nearly a generation older than the median voter age of fifty-seven. Neither does it seem logical to say with age comes greater experience; President Trump is the least experienced candidate in history and in fact, since 1996 the experience of sitting Presidents has been declining. Barack Obama served as senator for just three years before launching his campaign and George W. Bush was a governor for a mere five. Irrespective of what wisdom may come with age, it seems unlikely the American electorate are too attentive to what seats their Presidents have held before that of the Resolute Desk. 

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Attached to Trump, Biden and Bernie is novelty – the outsider, the “brother” of Obama, the socialist – and the electorate have always loved a show… just not too much of a show. Studies have shown that while people may gravitate towards the unusual out of curiosity, it is never truly “out with the old.” Known as the mere-exposure effect, people show a clear preference for what is familiar – even when it’s a surprise. Think of your Discover Weekly playlist on Spotify, a weekly cache of personalised songs which take the effort out of hunting down new music that is never all really new to you. There’s a reason. 

 

Engagement for the Discover Weekly playlist on Spotify fell, drastically, when the original algorithm gifted users with unadulterated ‘new-ness’ every week, because the familiarity was gone. “It turns out having a bit of familiarity bred trust,” Matt Ogle of Spotify explained to The Atlantic. “If we make a new playlist for you and there’s not a single thing for you to hook onto or recognise… it’s completely intimidating and people don’t engage.” If the American electorate are offered a candidate like Beto O’Rourke, without the “mere exposure” which the American public had to Trump in his celebrity, to Biden in his Vice Presidency, to Bernie in his persistence to be heard despite rejection, then they don’t trust him – not old enough to be recognisable to the electorate. Was a Trump win really that much of a surprise? Or a result bred out of more TV exposure to the Republican candidate than Clinton ever had?

 

The youngest and the oldest candidates have one thing in common – they can afford to lose. For the young, like Beto and Buttigieg, the name recognition they derive from a presidential bid can only benefit them and with careers only beginning to pick up speed, there is no major suspension of wasted time. For the older, like Trump and Biden, they are known, the strings tightened on the bulk of their careers and the financial means available to make a last ditch attempt for the White House in their retirement. 

 

The Twenty-Fifth Amendment is there for a reason, to provide means for an alternative in the event of the President’s incapacitation, whispers of which followed Trump’s early Presidency and still hang over Biden’s verbal gaffes and Bernie’s recent heart attack. But why not just consider the younger, novel candidate outside retirement? For familiarity can blind you too.