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Politicians now tend to be older than they've been historically. It's causing issues

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Senator Mitch McConnell's freeze on camera in Kentucky this week was a reminder of a reality about American politics. President Biden is the oldest president ever at 80 years old. The leading Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, is 77. And while the average age in Congress dropped slightly this year, it is still one of the oldest in modern history. Recently, Democrats and Republicans have both been forced to confront health issues and other limitations in aging politicians. NPR's Kelsey Snell has this report.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: This week Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared to freeze involuntarily at a public event. Last month the 81-year-old Kentucky Republican suffered an extended incident during a press conference in the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: There's been good bipartisan cooperation and a string of...

SNELL: McConnell's aides downplayed his health concerns after both incidents. But public moments like these draw new attention to the reality that the median age in Congress is decades, often generations, older than the people they represent. That disconnect is also at the heart of viral moments where older lawmakers seem completely out of touch. Some even admit it, like 72-year-old Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is famous for carrying an ancient flip phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: Remember, everybody - not very tech-oriented. Here it is.

SNELL: The age and health of lawmakers is a public issue beyond those viral moments. Democrats were temporarily unable to advance scores of judicial nominations this year because Dianne Feinstein, the 90-year-old California senator, was suffering from health setbacks. Kevin Munger teaches political science at Penn State University. He says ailing health and lagging technological expertise are just part of the problem.

KEVIN MUNGER: There's just no way for people in older generations who experienced the early part of their life cycle in a very different time period to understand where young people are coming from.

SNELL: Americans are generally living and working longer. But Munger says young voters in particular are increasingly interested in electing people who look like them and share their experience of the world. And new members elected in recent years are more diverse. But incumbents are different. Last year 98% of them won reelection.

ALLAN LICHTMAN: These days, because of the polarization, seats are absolutely safe.

SNELL: That's Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University in Washington. He says elections are essentially decided in primaries now, where parties have little or no incentive to challenge their own members. For McConnell, who assumed office in 1985, and other long-serving members, that means...

LICHTMAN: Essentially being able to sit in those seats as long as they wanted.

SNELL: Incumbents have other huge advantages, like access to big donor bases, relationships in Washington and in their home states, plus staff and experience.

JENNIFER WALLACH: When it comes down to it, if you're going to vote on someone, you'll be like, well, I would prefer a younger candidate, but if I have two old candidates, I'm going to vote for my party candidate.

SNELL: That's Jennifer Wallach, a professor at Michigan State University. She and her research partner studied why older people are overrepresented in government. They found that people talk about concerns with age in politics. They say they want younger representation in surveys, but at the polls, older politicians keep winning.

WALLACH: People are much more going to choose on candidate promises and party and ideology than age.

SNELL: That's true for both parties. Kevin Munger says this moment of public attention to age in politics really does create an opportunity.

MUNGER: It might mean that the institutions of government that were developed at a time period when most people died by the age of 60 just are not appropriate for our current - and better - reality that we've created.

SNELL: The reality now is that politicians are holding on to seats as long as they can. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.

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