The arena of politics can be a brutal place. Candidates are not only judged by their positions on important issues, but by personal factors such as charisma, personal successes and failures and prior personal and/or legal indiscretions. Age undeniably plays a role in politics as well and has the power to cut both ways.
On one hand, people want to elect an official whom they see as experienced. On the other hand, being advanced in age can be seen as a detriment. Just ask former Senator Bob Dole, who, among other things, was criticized for being too old for the Oval Office during his unsuccessful presidential run in 1996—which he lost to the charismatic (and much younger) Bill Clinton.
Richard Berke of The New York Times wrote an article in May of 1996 entitled, “Still Running; Is Age-Bashing Any Way to Beat Bob Dole?”  in which he described what he calls an “acceptable bias.” He writes:
“Racism and sexism have long been taboo in mainstream American politics, but in this Presidential campaign there is a high tolerance for ageism. In fact, Democrats say it may be their ticket to keeping the White House in November. In this election year, it seems, maturity is out and youth and vigor are in. But the frenzy of ridicule is at odds with what used to be an abiding American virtue: respect for your elders.” (Berke, 1996)
Even in politics, as Berke pointed out, there are certain subjects that are taboo. Allegations of racism and sexism are two things that will send any politician’s career into a tailspin. Yet ageist statements and points of view are met with almost none of the vitriolic condemnation reserved for subjects like racism or sexism. (There are groups that criticize these tactics, most notably the AARP, but on the whole, the mainstream media just glosses over ageism or avoids the subject entirely).
Recently, I saw a political ad that ran in Texas. It was an attack-ad aimed at Representative Ralph Hall, and it grabbed my attention within the first two lines, “Ralph Hall was first elected to congress when Jimmy Carter was president. Now he’s 90—Ralph Hall is the oldest member in congress EVER!”
The ad addresses exactly zero policy issues. The narrator ominously informs us that Ralph Hall is a “Washington Insider” (aren’t all congressmen Washington insiders?) and makes vague references to wasteful earmarks and increasing the debt ceiling.
Having come dangerously close to making a valid argument, the ad then switches back to its blatantly ageist message with this final image:
Now, I don’t personally care all that much whether or not Ralph Hall wins his primary election or keeps his seat. I know nothing of his record nor do I know where he currently stands on important issues.
What bothers me is that we’re experiencing the return of Berke’s “acceptable bias,” in which what I consider the “non-issue” of age is exploited—to the detriment of all involved. Ageism in politics marginalizes older candidates, not only insulting their physical and mental capacities, but also by belittling what good works they may have accomplished.
We would be shocked and appalled if a political attack-ad criticized a person based on racial or gender lines, and I think it’s about time we started crying foul when it comes to ageism in politics as well.
To view the full ad by Now or Never PAC on YouTube, click HERE, and be sure to leave comments!
To read The New York Times article by Richard Berke click HERE.
To get the definitive answer on whether this is ageism or just politics at its worst, check out the website Yo, Is This Ageist? The ad shows up in the entries for the week of March 25.
1. Berke, R. L. (1996, May 5). Still running; is age-bashing any way to beat Bob Dole? The New York Times. Retrieved from HERE