A Serious Commentary - The American Gerontocracy
The Volidity Report presents:
In a contemporary culture characterized by both amnesia and nostalgia, there has arisen a need to declare every new figure or fad to enter the stage “the new ______”. Barack Obama has been no stranger to this phenomenon, alternately being anointed the new FDR, the new JFK, the new Ronald Reagan, the new Herbert Hoover, or the new Jimmy Carter by various segments of the punditry. Of the proclamations of reincarnation that I’ve encountered, I find n+1’s essay on President Obama as Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev to be the most apt; however, I’d like to extend the allusion even further. There are parallels in almost every sector between the Soviet Union in the 1980s and the United States. Most crucially, as in the USSR, an elderly elite—or “gerontocracy”—and their hardline acolytes ferociously resisted structural reform while the economy and society stagnated.
Of course, the United States is not a totalitarian country and operates under a rather different political system than the USSR. But the remaining similarities are eerie. In the 1980s, the USSR was a superpower in relative decline, with a failing industrialized collective farm system, official ignorance of ecological sustainability and the damage being wrought on the environment, a disenchanted youth who were yearning for better, and in the midst of a long-running and bitter counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan. The United States in the 2010s is a superpower in relative economic decline, with a massively subsidized industrial-corporate agricultural sector, attitudes ranging from indifference to complete denial of climate change and other major environmental issues, a young generation that faces unemployment and disillusionment, and as of November 27, 2011, has occupied Afghanistan one year longer than the Soviet Union ever did.
When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, hopes were high that the status quo would change. The same characters who had haunted the Executive Branch since the Nixon Administration—Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz, to name a few—could finally be out of office for good. Obama’s new cabinet, though younger (mostly Boomers), was of mixed quality; ironically, Paul Volcker, born in 1927, was one of the best of the lot. But this is mostly irrelevant, because the real analog to the Soviet Politburo and its septuagenarian membership in the 1980s is the present-day U.S. Senate. The 112th Congress (2011-2013) is the most elderly in history, with the average age of Senators 60 and Representatives 55. As political scientist Larry Sabato of UVA notes, “The downside to that is an older Senate is at least one generation behind the rest of the country”; combine this with the incredible advantages of incumbency and mechanisms like the filibuster and reform seems remote or even unreachable. In the Kafkaesque world of the Senate, filibuster reform itself has to pass the filibuster to succeed. Mirroring the political power of the elderly in government, households headed by those 65 and up now have an average of 47 times the net worth of those under 35.
Where the Soviet gerontocracy and their hardliner lackeys were resisting reform as a supposed capitalist and Western conspiracy to undermine their country, the so-called “1%” and their dupes in the U.S. dismiss any attempt at structural reform as a devious socialist plot. Each group also uses the prestige it had from an earlier era as well; whatever Tom Brokow thinks, much the Soviet populace believed that the generation that fought in the “Great Patriotic War” was their “Greatest Generation,” Leonid Brezhnev’s “fruit salad” of self-awarded medals notwithstanding. In reality, each group protects their privileges at the expense of the general population, and coopts some with lesser stakes to support them. As the Soviet gerontocracy enlisted the support of demographic groups who feared change (industrial workers, ethnic Russians in other union republics, et al.) to support their Soyuz faction (and local astroturf groupings like the Interfront in Latvia and the Intermovement in Estonia), the powerful and elderly in the United States have the Tea Party to provide a smokescreen for their selfish agenda.
Caught between the pressures for reform and the intransigence of the hardline opposition, Gorbachev was temporarily removed from office by a hardliner coup—the “August Putsch”—and once back in office, could do nothing as the entire Soviet Union crumbled around him. Obama finds himself in a less dire but comparable position; having been elected on a wave of change, he faces an obstinate opposition that remains in the minority, yet deeply enough ensconced in positions of power (e.g. the Senate, House and the Supreme Court) that it can block, water down, or endlessly stall any agenda items. President Obama can’t even appoint circuit court judges in a timely manner, with Senate Republicans blocking appointees for months or even more than a year without reason or explanation and the debt ceiling crisis proved that even critical issues that elicited no debate in the past can become political footballs—at great risk to the American economy and people.
But a potential Prague Spring moment has arrived in the form of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Using the methods of samizdat, or DIY underground self-publication (from Google Groups and Twitter to the Occupied Wall Street Journal) and direct democracy, this movement gathers together forces that seek genuine reform in this country. Bolstering its case, OWS is supported by actual dissidents who fought against communism, such as Solidarity founder Lech Walesa (apparently he has since retracted his blanket support, but Your Editor still proudly wore a Solidarność pin while at the GA on the night of November 15th, as Zuccotti Park was being raided) and Shen Tong, one of the student organizers of the Tiananmen Square protests. And just as dissidents cooperated internationally from the East Bloc, notably in groups like Helsinki Watch (which later became Human Rights Watch), in our increasingly interdependent world cross-border collaboration—among OWS in North America, the resisters of austerity campaigns in Europe, and the organizations behind the Arab Spring, which notably ousted local gerontocrats like Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali—is becoming the rule rather than the exception. There will be setbacks—the November 15th raid by the NYPD that broke up the encampment in Zuccotti Park in New York is reminiscent of the Bulldozer Exhibition, when an underground art exhibition was destroyed by Soviet police with water cannons and bulldozers in 1974—but the movement remains dynamic and strong.
Admittedly, the United States is probably not going to collapse from this situation in the near future. But as political polarization increases due to the deteriorating economic and societal conditions and the inability of even a majority government to address them, the urgency for action has never been greater. Our gerontocracy is the major obstacle to remedying the pressing problems of our time—if we cannot convince them to think of the common good or vote them out of power, then Obama’s perestroika may meet the same end as Gorbachev’s.