Is Gerontocracy Bad for Democracy? Clinton and Trump Say No — but They're Old

Should the youth have to submit to the elderly? Philosophers and physicians aren't so sure.

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The winner of this year’s presidential election will be either the oldest or one of the oldest Commanders in Chief to ever move into the White House. Come inauguration day, Hillary Clinton will be 69 years old, Donald Trump will be 70 years old, and Bernie Sanders — if he still has a shot — will be 75. Ronald Reagan, the reigning champ of presidential oldness, was 16 days shy of 70 when he took the oath of office.

There’s a name for a political system in which elders rule: gerontocracy. And, even today, there are functional forms of this rickety ideology alive and well and living in Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Vatican City. The participants in these systems often point to the roots of democracy to justify the rule of the elderly, but it’s a specious argument based on tradition, a misreading of Plato, and an understanding of the aging process that — philosophically and scientifically speaking — leaves a lot to be desired.

Until modern technology came to the societal fore, people tended to equate old age with wisdom. As someone grows old, they presumably attain more practical knowledge: they become more adept at balancing a national budget, for instance. What’s less clear, and a lot less guaranteed, is whether they also become wiser: whether they better understand when, if ever, it might be morally justifiable to send a nation’s youths into war.

In book three of Plato’s Republic, Socrates is discussing the governance in his allegorical republic — the ruling class: Guardians and Auxiliaries — with Glaucon, Plato’s older brother. The following exchange takes place:

‘Well,’ [Socrates] continued, ‘what comes next? We shall have to decide, I suppose, which of our Guardians are to govern, and which to be governed.’
‘I suppose so.’
‘Well, it is obvious that the elder must govern, and the younger be governed.’
‘That is obvious.’

If we left it there, we could fairly say that Plato and Socrates both believed that gerontocracy was the ideal form of government. Unfortunately for this year’s candidates, we can’t leave it there. Even the ancients understood the issues with being led by the ancient.

Bear in mind that the Republic isn’t really a political text, much less democracy’s urtext. Despite the title, scholars largely scoff at those who take Plato’s political philosophy too literally. The book ultimately functions best as a guide to achieving inner harmony. The state offers us a window into the soul; through the image of justice in the state, we can better understand justice in the soul. And Plato and Socrates would together maintain that old age — be it an old society or an old person — in no way guarantees wisdom, goodness, and fitness to rule.

"School of Athens" by Raphael, c. 1510.

Wikimedia Commons

Plato would vouch for a gerontocracy if that gerontocracy included regulations to guarantee elders’ wisdom. In effect, the Republic outlines exactly those regulations. Potential rulers need to be educated in numerous fields, from geometry to astronomy; they must attain knowledge of the Good. They should have “the following characteristics: a philosophic disposition, high spirits, speed, and strength.” Potential Guardians must also undergo trials to ensure that they are not likely to forget their duties.

“We must look for the Guardians who will stick most firmly to the principle that they must always do what they think best for the community,” Socrates says. “We must watch them closely from their earliest years, and set them tasks in doing which they are most likely to forget or be led astray from this principle; and we must choose only those who don’t forget and are not easily misled.”

Ancient philosophers, like Plato, saw themselves as physicians of the mind. What of modern physicians? Their account would be tragically simple: brains deteriorate. Reagan may have struggled with Alzheimer’s or dementia during his last years in office, and even healthy older minds can struggle to process information or react appropriately. Cognitive capacities can decline; the brain’s frontal lobe, for instance, atrophies with age, which can make the elderly seem more reactionary and — in some cases — more offensive.

It’s unclear whether brain chemistry meaningfully affects the ways in which older people interact with technology, but it is clear that tensions can arise around early technological adoption in gerontocratic states. Cuba, governed by ancient Castros, has always been nervous about technology. Pope Francis, on the other hand, is tweeting up a storm and seems to handle a smartphone with Hillary-esque aplomb. Still, outliers aside, gerontocracy is essentially technocracy’s opposite: it places value on supposedly demonstrated wisdom, not demonstrable results. In electing older people who have said little about the new ways in which the government could use technology to serve its citizens, Americans will privilege the tendency to maintain over the capacity to disrupt.

But, more than that, this election and its many sideshows prove that old age and old government cannot guarantee wisdom, cannot guarantee sound judgment, and cannot guarantee goodness. Plato and Socrates outlined a crucible for the Guardians. Without that crucible, an old man or woman does not a Guardian make. And though looming mortality could lend perspective, it might also engender a degree of carelessness. But that depends on one’s knowledge of the Good — and on how one’s frontal lobe is holding up.

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