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

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Letters to Editor

  1. Joseph T Coyle, MD says

    Being 75, I do recognize that the risk of debilitating disorders such stroke and dementia increase with age, especially over 70. This is a reality, not ageism. However, my objection to Bernie is his rigid approach to “Medicare for all”. He has made it clear that he wants ALL commercial health insurance to be terminated immediately to be replaced by a single payor for health care. The financial consequences of this would be disastrous The value of insurance stocks held in the portfolios of many retirees would collapse; and putting in place a single payor infrastructure would be incredibly complex and time consuming. A much more reasonable approach put forward by several Democratic candidates is a more gradual introduction of medicare for all by making it an elective choice, permitting a more orderly transition to a single payor or the evolution to a mixed system like several European countries that have much less expensive and more effective health care systems.

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