Op-Ed: Is Ageism Bringing Bernie Down? by J.E. Dean

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Reports are out that Bernie Sanders’ popularity may be plummeting. Prediction: He won’t recover. His campaign will sputter out in coming weeks. That may help the chances for Democrats winning back the White House, but not if the reason is ageism. Unfortunately, that appears to be at least part of the story.

A majority of Democrats remain supportive of progressive proposals on education, health care and on climate change championed by Sanders. This support was reflected in then-record fundraising right after he announced his candidacy in February. Since then, signs are increasing that many Democrats think the 77-year-old Vermonter is too old to win. Many hope one of the younger candidates will emerge as a better, more relevant champion for the left. A ticket embracing Bernie’s policies but featuring Beto’s face is “magic” to some.

Is Bernie too old? It is legitimate to ask whether any candidate is physically or mentally fit to be President. Running the US can be hard work. Keeping out of war, addressing climate change, and building social justice requires a clear head. Can a 77-year-old (or, projecting forward, an 81-year-old) satisfy these criteria?

This is a valid question, but one open answers of “yes” as well as “no.” Think for a minute about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s performance since returning to head the House. By most accounts, her leadership has been extraordinary. She is 78 years old. And think about RBG, who is 86. And now think about the current 72-year-old President and ask yourself whether it is age or something else prompting his often bizarre tweets.

Sadly, some have apparently reached the conclusion that Bernie is too old to run without troubling themselves to look closer. They are likely to embrace a similar assessment of Joe Biden, who is but one year younger than Bernie. These observers, from both parties, appear to be taking their cue from the press or TV. Jimmy Fallon ridiculed Sanders in an aggressively ageist skit on February 19th. In it, Fallon, made up as Sanders, wrestles with technology considered simple by most 18 year-olds. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen opined both Sanders and Biden are “too old.” He opined that he “wouldn’t be surprised if Biden thought Snapchat was a breakfast cereal.” He went on to write, “I wouldn’t be surprised if Sanders thought Drake was the English pirate who defeated the Spanish Armada. (How’s that for being an influencer?)” Although Cohen is himself in his 70s, are his comments ageist? I thought so.

Like it or not Ageism could become an elephant in the room for Democrats if this continues. A large cohort of voters could be alienated. Seniors don’t enjoy being ridiculed. If Democrat leaders were whispering that the electorate was not yet ready for another President of color or a woman candidate, they would be shown the door. The party has so moved beyond those prejudices, and others, that those issues are not part of the discussion. Age isn’t there yet.

Many of us are as old as Bernie or Biden, or nearly so. We are watching. The wrong move could wake up the elephant.

Can the Democrats find their candidate without stepping on the Ageism landmine?

J.E. Dean is a retired Washington, D.C. attorney and a current resident of Oxford, Maryland

Letters to Editor

  1. Hugh Panero says

    J.E. — as you know all polls are pretty meaningless at this stage of the game. The more important numbers are the total fund raised by the presidential candidates coming out today. As for Bernie, lets remember in 2016 he performed badly in primary states with a more diverse voter base (code: not all white) and some voters today may think that will not change. Also, his policies sound great but added up all together are very expensive to pay for. They are fun to run on but very hard to implement; especially today on top of Trump’s existing trillion dollar budget deficit. To his credit, Bernie did move the party to many of his themes from 2016. Bernie has had to deal with a recent #metoo moment involving s staffer, which likely angering some women (Biden another old guy is dealing with his own metoo problem). The bigger question is — is it his “socialism” label causing possible popularity problems or so-called “ageism”? Some voters polled may not be feeling the Bern out of fear of losing another election to Trump by picking the wrong candidate. The goal is to find a candidate who can win — whether young or old — and can convince a lot of people to get out and vote who have not before. Thanks for writing the editorial and GO old people but go listen to presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg (Mayor Pete), who at 35 is very impressive and raised a surprising $7m this quarter with a name no one can pronounce.

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