Right now, the average American is about 20 years younger than their average representative in Congress. In fact, both congressional parties are currently at their oldest ever, with a median age of 57.8 in the House and 61.8 in the Senate, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.
Old age in D.C. isn’t inherently harmful, but there are real consequences to an aging Congress. Almost half of senators running for reelection in 2018 will be over 65 years old. One has to wonder whether or not these “representatives” can truly be representative of the public from one full generation behind.
This disconnect between Washington and the interests of the American public became almost embarrassingly clear during the Cambridge Analytica hearing in the Senate, where Mark Zuckerberg was able to sidestep many issues because of the senators’ inability to ask logical and relevant follow-up questions. More than anything, the hearing revealed just how out-of-touch senators are with everyday technology. Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican of 84 years, asked Zuckerberg how Facebook sustains a free business model, to which Zuckerberg replied, “Senator, we run ads.” Later on, 62-year-old Senator Lindsey Graham rather naively asked, “Is Twitter the same as what you do?” And in one of the most notable exchanges, Senator John Kennedy opened with the statement, “Your user agreement sucks,” only to be told by Zuckerberg that all of his suggestions for privacy improvements were already in Facebook’s user agreement. With more personal experience on social media, these questions could have deftly been answered. Unfortunately, the senators’ inexperience in this particular field caused Zuckerberg to spend a significant amount of time answering softball questions irrelevant to the hearing’s purpose.
Though these examples make for amusing soundbites, there is a darker reason as to why Congress is getting older. Parties tend to back their older candidates more heavily because they are typically shoo-ins for reelection. In 2016, the incumbency reelection rate was 98 percent — only eight seats contesting the general election changed hands. This is because incumbents, regardless of age, traditionally hold the advantages: they’re familiar to voters, they have credential records to publicize, and they have connections with influential people as well as with money. In other words, choosing to endorse and help reelect sitting members of Congress is the cheaper and more guaranteeable path for parties to win seats in elections. And because those sitting members get older every election cycle, so does Congress.
What this means is that both parties are stuck in a cycle. We begin to associate age with experience and, therefore, with competency. This leads us to elect the same establishment faces election year after election year. As an experiment, I wrote down the first five names I thought of relating to the term “Democratic Party” and calculated their mean age. President Barack Obama, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, and Senators Bernie Sanders, Chuck Schumer, and Elizabeth Warren. (Note: Sanders is an Independent, but he ran as a Democrat in 2016.) Their average age? 69. By contrast, the median American is 38 — a striking 31-year difference.
Again, age itself is not really the issue here. The people behind the five names I wrote down are, in my eyes, all incredibly competent and have earned the name recognition. Rather, I’m unnerved by how winning seats takes large precedence over the effectiveness of our legislature. And I take issue with how linked age and power have become in D.C. A government cannot truly advocate for the interests of its people unless it is representative of its people. The same, of course, applies to the fact that women and minorities each hold less than 20 percent of the 115th Congress.
Regardless of political party, we should be working to elect leaders who are averse to special interests and who run uninfluenced by corporate lobbyists as much as possible. The longer an elected official stays in D.C., the more likely they are to develop relationships with these special interest groups, and the more likely they are to become accustomed to political corruption. There’s no guarantee that a new wave of representatives in Congress would fix this huge issue, but change brings energy, and that energy drives more change.
The solution here is not necessarily to prioritize fresh blood in Congress over all else, but rather to give new faces a platform where they can more effectively run against incumbents. We have to change our political culture so that running against a sitting representative is not seen as an impossible task.
On an individual level, this can be most effectively accomplished if we encourage voters to look past familiar faces and give other candidates a chance. For example, Democratic Representative Beto O’Rourke is running for Senate in Texas in 2018, where no Democrat has won since 1988. He’s up against Senator Ted Cruz, arguably one of the most recognizable names in the country, in a race that still seems nearly impossible. And yet, something seems to be shifting in Texas. Beto’s strategy — visiting local diners and hosting town halls in all 254 of Texas’ counties — prioritizes people over party and challenges the longstanding tradition of inevitable incumbent reelection. Though his campaign faces incredibly steep odds, the current shifting of partisan lines in Texas speaks to the power of Beto’s challenging the status quo. Likewise, we must convince ourselves that Congress doesn’t have to feel so stuck.
The purpose of our senators and representatives is to represent us. It is up to these people to fight for initiatives that they think serve in our best interests. In a time where it often feels as though Washington is struggling to catch up with the rest of the country, maybe it’s about time they pass on the torch.
Junah Jang is a two-year Lower from Redmond, WA. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.