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Who comes next?
The transfer of power from one generation to the next is a problem that has vexed humanity for at least as long as records have been kept and stories told. From the Book of Kings to the Game of Thrones, from Charlemagne to Logan Roy, heirs and pretenders have jostled, connived and murdered to seize the mantle.
Various methods have been devised to keep successions from descending into civil war. Monarchies specify the order of inheritance; republics mandate elections. These often work but not always. Younger sons, jealous uncles and ambitious mothers challenge the order of royal inheritance; elected officials tamper with elections. In other types of regimes, successions are ad hoc and chronically disruptive. Dictatorships lurch from one jefe to the next. Corporations witness boardroom intrigue and shopfloor sabotage.
One might have thought that during the millennia we humans have been dealing with the succession problem, we’d have come up with a solution. In other realms of human activity, it’s possible to imagine that certain problems won’t recur. From 1815 to 1914 European leaders fancied that they’d resolved the problem of war. From the 1980s to the early 2020s America’s Federal Reserve flattered itself that it had conquered inflation. Even today we can hope that nuclear weapons preclude a general war among great powers. But until humans figure out how to live forever, we’ll encounter the succession problem at predictable intervals.
Why is it so hard to resolve? First, because although death is inevitable, it's rarely imminent. For any individual ruler, it’s not unreasonable to try to squeeze out another year in power. The succession problem is inescapable but only periodically pressing.
Second, power is difficult to achieve and, partly for this reason, hard to relinquish. For many, perhaps most, of those who attain the highest rank in politics, the quest has been their life's work. They wouldn't know what to do with themselves otherwise. So they hang on.
Third, more than a few of those who reach the top of the ladder do so by stepping on those farther down. Their power is all that protects them from retribution. Dictators in particular can’t count on peaceful retirement. Better not to retire at all.
Fourth, success breeds smugness. Not without reason, those who get to the top believe they’re better qualified than others to hold the top position. They don't change their minds readily.
This is all the more reason they need to be nudged, if not tossed, from power. Democracies do better at managing successions than other forms of government. But even in America’s democracy, we don't do it particularly well. Especially of late, America has been slouching toward gerontocracy. Quite likely, the candidate elected president in 2024 will be in his eighties before he leaves office. One of them—Donald Trump—has already resisted being removed from office, denying the outcome of the last presidential election and encouraging those who violently sought to overturn it. Until recently an octogenarian Democrat led the House of Representatives; an octogenarian Republican leads his party in the Senate.
Even if there are no more assaults on the Constitution, this state of affairs is bad for America. People with but a few years ahead of them make crucial decisions for those with several decades to go. In three areas is this most troubling.
Decisions for war are invariably made by old people, and invariably carried out by young people. Of the more than 600,000 who died in the Civil War, only one—Senator Edward Baker of Oregon—was a member of Congress. That conflict has historically been characterized as Blue against Gray, but like other wars it was an operative example of the young against the graybeards.
Progressives like to think of social programs as redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor. But since the 1930s, the real redistribution has been from the young to the old. The two largest federal programs by far are Social Security and Medicare, whose redistribution to the old increases by the year. A reckoning will come, via one or more of higher taxes, lower spending, and inflation. And the young will be paying the bill.
Some of the silver-maned take climate change seriously. But others, consciously or unconsciously, realize that rising temperatures and sea levels, intensifying drought, more powerful storms, and the population displacements these produce will really kick in after we’re gone. Our grandchildren will have to deal with the mess we leave behind.
If any system should be able to manage succession prudently, it's democracy. But in the American case we're doing a poor job of it. The best thing would be for our ancients to step aside voluntarily. For a century and a half, there was an unwritten rule that presidents would serve no more than two terms. After Franklin Roosevelt broke the rule, it was written into the Constitution. Almost everybody now thinks this term limit is a good idea. Congress as an institution is held in lower repute than presidency. An amendment similar to the 22nd but applying to the Senate and the House of Representatives—specifying, say, twelve years as maximum in each house—shouldn't be impossible to write and ratify.
This wouldn't deal with age directly, just as the 22nd Amendment does not. But it would go far toward lowering the median age of lawmakers. An indirect effect would be to discourage octogenarians from clogging the executive branch, in that they would look very much older than their legislative counterparts. Appearances count in the presidency—which is one reason Joe Biden doesn't appear in public very often.
New ideas don’t come easily to old brains. The conversion of Benjamin Franklin to abolitionism in his eighties is an exception that proves the rule. New ideas aren’t always better than old ideas, but they have the merit of being more likely to represent the thinking of the generations who will have to live with their consequences.
And living with consequences is what democracy should be all about.