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Mitch McConnell and Ageism
Don't use his ill-health to forward stereotypes about the elderly or the disabled.
President Carter signs legislation against mandatory retirement, 1978.
Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had another incident in which he froze at a press conference and had to be led away. No one is exactly sure what is wrong with him, but it’s obvious he has health problems he hasn’t fully disclosed to the public.
The response to the evidence of McConnell’s ill-health or disability by progressives and Democrats was…well, it wasn’t exactly consistent with a movement that strives to oppose prejudice and discrimination on the basis of ill-health and disability.
I don’t want to single anyone in particular out, so I’m not going to provide a list of links, but there was a lot of irresponsible speculation about what exactly McConnell’s illness entailed, as if that is something you can, or should, diagnose from a video clip. Many people suggested McConnell was the victim of elder abuse, and was being forced to continue in office by his family and loved ones. This despite the fact that, again, we don’t actually know what his illness entails, and have no evidence that his family—who presumably does know—is being irresponsible.
Other commenters suggested McConnell’s illness was linked to a systematic problem with elderly people being in office, bringing up the names of Feinstein, Biden, and (on the right) Fetterman, as if all elderly people, and/or all people with disabilities, are the same, and any indication that any one of them can’t do their job is evidence that all of them can’t.
Again, we don’t know what’s wrong with McConnell. He may be facing a dangerous illness and mental decline which affects his job performance, like Dianne Feinstein. Or he may just need accommodations, like John Fetterman who, post-stroke, has problems with auditory processing but is perfectly capable of performing his Senate duties , or like Joe Biden, who has slightly more trouble with his stutter as he ages.
McConnell should tell us which it is; as a public servant, he has a responsibility to his constituents to inform them about his ability to do his job. But we shouldn’t just assume that someone who shows evidence of a disability, and/or someone who shows evidence of aging, is incompetent.
McConnell Isn’t Going to Be Hurt by Ageism and Ableism, But Many Others Are
I should I guess make clear here that I am in no way defending Mitch McConnell as a politician or a human being. McConnell is a racist, bigoted piece of shit who has dedicated his career to enriching the wealthy and to torturing women who need reproductive health care. He’s a blight on our polity. His replacement will almost certainly be no better, but that’s no excuse and little comfort.
More, McConnell has spent decades fighting to prevent most people from getting healthcare. Given that, I see little reason to express some sort of perfunctory sympathy now that he’s facing unspecified health problems armed with the best health care the federal government can provide.
In short, fuck him.
The thing is, though, that using the public health events of politicians as an excuse for massive pile-ons doesn’t primarily hurt said politicians. Again, McConnell has excellent health care, and he can’t really be moved from his senate seat until he decides to move.
But other disabled and elderly people don’t have that luxury. Ageism is a persistent and dangerous problem in US culture. Some 80% of older workers say they’ve seen or experienced age discrimination in the office; older workers are especially likely to be fired in recessions or mass layoffs. Doctors and medical professionals often provide older people with a lower level of care. The pandemic especially surfaced ugly ideas about older adults, as many politicians—especially from McConnell’s party—openly declared that the deaths of the elderly weren’t important or didn’t matter.
Similarly, despite the American with Disabilities Act, people with disabilities continue to be viewed as less capable workers; employers hire them last and fire them first. Doctors also refuse to treat people with disabilities, or provide them with substandard care. And as with the elderly, during the pandemic politicians and officials (including Democratic ones) have repeatedly suggested that the deaths of the disabled are acceptable or not a cause of concern.
When an elderly person has a public health problem, people tend to default to prejudice and stigma around age and disability. They assume that McConnell must be unfit for office, though we don’t know that he is. More, they leap from McConnell’s condition to sweeping generalizations about the unfitness of all elderly people or all people with disabilities—which is why you’ll see people saying, unironically, that McConnell’s illness is bad news for Joe Biden.
But it isn’t really bad news for Joe Biden. It’s bad news for elderly and disabled people with less power than McConnell and Biden who have to deal with intensified stigma around age and disability.
Is It a Problem That Politicians Are Old?
As I mentioned, McConnell’s video has also been linked to an on-going discussion about the age of politicians. Congress is older than it has ever been. Between 1919 and 1999, the media senator was never older than 60; today the media senator is 65.
The increasing age is mostly the result of longer life-spans. Voters have also been keeping representatives in office longer, probably as a result of increasing partisanship, which has led to fewer competitive districts and states.
Partisans on every side of the aisle have taken to denouncing the Congressional “gerontocracy,” arguing that older representatives don’t have a personal stake in long term issues like climate change. I don’t find these arguments very persuasive. Do people really believe that elderly people don’t care about the future health and well-being of their children and grandchildren? It also seems worth pointing out that the two most progressive Senators are probably Bernie Sanders, who’s 81, and Elizabeth Warren, who is 74.
I very much agree that young people don’t have enough of a political voice. But the best way to change that isn’t to rail against old people, perpetuating invidious stereotypes which mostly hurt those who aren’t in power. The best way to empower young people is to, you know, empower young people. If you want more young people to vote, the quickest way to achieve that is to lower the voting age, not to look at a video of Mitch McConnell and extrapolate with little evidence that all elderly people are unfit to serve.
People are reluctant to lower the voting age for the same reason they dislike the aesthetics of having elderly people in office. We have a pretty narrow idea of who should be in power, and that narrow idea is very much restricted by age. Our country would be stronger, though, if we could bring ourselves to see that democracy is not just for some narrow demographic, but is instead for everyone, including the young, the old, and all those in between.
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