No Congress For Old Men (with Adam McKay)
When do age and experience become a liability?
Robert C. Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, served in the Senate for 51 years, 5 months, and 26 days. He is the longest-serving U.S. Senator, and the only one to last longer than a half-century—although Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, another Democrat, missed the 50-year mark by just two weeks.
Byrd and Inouye both had longer runs than Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina Republican who was basically a corpse for the last decade of his time in office. Thurmond lived into the 21st century despite being old enough to have run for president in 1948 as a third party States’ Rights (read: segregationist) Democrat. His year/month/day splits wound up at 47/5/8—which current Senator Pat Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, will eclipse in four months. Thurmond lasted a year longer than Ted Kennedy (46/9/19), five years longer than Utah’s Orrin Hatch (42/0/0), and six years longer than Chuck Grassley of Iowa (41/1/11). Mitch McConnell, incidentally, sits at 37/1/12—almost four full decades of obstruction and gaslighting on behalf of his corporate whoremasters.
In the House, meanwhile, there have been 30 Representatives who have served 40 or more years, including John Dingell, the late Democrat of Michigan, who came within 345 days of hitting the 60-year mark. One of the longest-serving current Representatives is the House Majority Leader, Steny Hoyer, who is 82 years old—the same age as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
It’s a Congress for old men.
Including McConnell, Grassley, and Leahy, there are now seven Senators aged 79 or older. Dianne Feinstein, the oldest member of Congress, turns 89 later this month. A progressive who entered the political scene in 1969 by embracing San Francisco’s burgeoning gay community, Feinstein has had an important, impactful career. But, like, so did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. There comes a point when even the all-time greats have to hang up the proverbial cleats. As they say in sports, Father Time is undefeated.
The difference is that Feinstein can still serve in the Senate, even in her 90th year, as long as Californians continue to vote for her—which they will, because what’s the alternative? Democrats won’t vote for a Republican, not when the party has been co-opted by fascists, and she has gobs of cash on hand plus name recognition to help her survive a primary. We are not supposed to have nobles and royals in the United States, but these eternal terms of office sure feel like reigns.
As the storied career of one of the nation’s longest-serving Democrats approaches its end, it’s easy to wonder how the generation whose entry into politics was enabled by progressive reforms has allowed those victories to be taken away. And how a woman who began her career with the support of conservationist communities in San Francisco, and who staked her political identity on advancing women’s rights, is now best known to young people as the senator who scolded environmental-activist kids in her office in 2019 and embraced Lindsey Graham after the 2020 confirmation hearings of Amy Coney Barrett, a Supreme Court justice who appears to be the fifth and final vote to end the constitutional right to an abortion. As Feinstein told Graham, “This is one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in.”
For many from a younger and more pugilistic left bucking with angry exasperation at the unwillingness of Feinstein’s generation to make room for new tactics and leadership before everything is lost, the senator is more than simply representative of a failed political generation—she is herself the problem. After she expressed her unwillingness to consider filibuster reform last year, noting that “if democracy were in jeopardy, I would want to protect it, but I don’t see it being in jeopardy right now,” The Nation ran a piece headlined “Dianne Feinstein Is an Embarrassment.”
Feinstein, who turns 89 in June, is older than any other sitting member of Congress. Her declining cognitive health has been the subject of recent reporting in both her hometown San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times. It seems clear that Feinstein is mentally compromised, even if she’s not all gone. “It’s definitely happening,” said one person who works in California politics. “And it’s definitely not happening all the time.”
The reality is that the longer a clearly diminished Feinstein holds onto her Senate seat, the greater the chance that a Republican winds up stealing it. In the meantime, we have a Senator from the Silicon Valley environs—who in a perfect world would keep a vigilant eye on Big Tech—who was born just six years after the television was invented.
I’m picking on Feinstein, and that’s not my intention. Republicans probably feel the same about Grassley, whose frequent nonsensical tweets are an embarrassment (not to mention his apparent adjacency to the January 6 traitors). But maybe age isn’t the problem. Maybe length of service isn’t the problem. There’s something to be said for experience, especially in the Senate, which rests so heavily on tradition (or what Mitch McConnell claims is tradition). Ted Kennedy was solid until the very end.
Maybe it’s really about capture. Maybe setting foot on Capitol Hill to begin with, let alone sticking around for decades, requires so much kowtowing to Big Money, so much capitulation to special interests, that any impulse to actually, like, help people has to necessarily be sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. Kill your darlings.
Sell enough pieces of your soul and all that remains is fear: of being embarrassed, of saying the wrong thing, of pissing off the donors, of having your dirty laundry come out, of falling in the polls, and most of all, of losing. You can’t win when you’re playing not to lose. And playing not to lose is the Democrats’ M.O.
“No doubt about it: Trump and this extremist right wing that we’re dealing with right now is a major, dangerous problem,” says Adam McKay, the director of The Big Short and Don’t Look Up and today’s guest on the PREVAIL podcast, “but I do think we give the sad-sack Democrats too much of a break. And I think we forget that every day, they’re taking in donor checks. Every day, they’re finding a wonderful new way to tank against this really frightening, extreme right wing.”
It’s certainly true that, with a few notable exceptions, the Democrats seem to lack a sense of urgency. Witness Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in the days after the Uvalde massacre. That horrible tragedy awakened the collective nation from its stupor. In the aftermath of the slaughter, there seemed to be a groundswell of popular support for common-sense gun reform. Even sports franchises were using their platforms to speak out. But, you know, Uvalde happened right before Memorial Day weekend, when the Senate had scheduled a recess. Schumer could have taken advantage of the popular support and made everyone stick around. He did not.
Nor did any sitting politician distinguish him- or herself in the aftermath of the massacre. The two most poignant statements about gun control after Uvalde came from Steve Kerr, a basketball coach, and Matthew McConaughey, an actor. If our political leaders can’t give voice to the people after a national tragedy, what good are they?
“I really think, for the good of the nation, Schumer, Pelosi, Clyburn, on and on, should all resign,” McKay says. “I think they are killing this country. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that. I think they’re doing great harm. And their reaction to the slaughter of those schoolchildren was a perfect example. Utterly clueless. Just treated it like another week. And by the way, that’s fine. You’ve been there a long time. Recognize it. Step aside. Let new energy, let people with real emotions come into play.”
This is risky—especially now, when the Republican Party has gone full fascist, and the Democrats are all that stand between democracy and authoritarianism. As Cheri Jacobus and many other commentators said at the time, Pelosi miscalculated in not immediately impeaching Trump after the release of the Mueller Report. But by and large, she handled the DFG better than almost anyone during his presidency. She impeached the fucker twice. And it was Nancy Pelosi who gave us the January 6th Committee hearings that premiered last night. She made that happen, she chose Liz Cheney to help lead the effort, and she outsmarted Kevin McCarthy in keeping Trumpist baboons like Jim Jordan far, far away. I don’t think AOC or Seth Moulton could have managed that.
Getting shit done in Washington takes patience, political skill, and media savvy. The politicians who are the best at articulating their vision for a better, more equitable America tend to be the worst at implementing that vision, and vice versa. Bernie Sanders has long been the grown-up equivalent of the kid running for class president who promises free soda machines in the high school cafeteria—it all sounds wonderful, until you ask him how he plans to make this happen, and it quickly becomes clear he has no fucking idea. But when free soda is universal healthcare, something all other Western nations enjoy, that message resonates powerfully. Why has no one else made that a thing?
The real problem, as McKay points out, is that Congress has become completely disconnected with the will of the people. The House of Representatives, in particular, was created to represent the common man (and not the common woman; the Founders didn’t care about women). It no longer does, if ever it did. Citizens United has destroyed citizens, united.
“The famous Princeton study from ‘14 showing the people’s will has near zero effect on what government does [and] that outcomes [are] almost entirely driven by big [money and] private interest groups is the skeleton key that explains EVERYTHING going on in America right now,” McKay tweeted last week. By 2014, Ivy League political scientists were already convinced that democracy in the U.S. was on the way out—and that was before Trump took a flamethrower to the place.
Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.
If three out of four people want to ban AR-15s and ensure that women are allowed safe and legal access to abortions, that should be the law of the land. A clutch of soulless dinosaurs in the Senate, and six Federalist Society reactionaries on the Supreme Court, should not thwart the will of 250 million people—i.e., the vast majority of Americans.
One of the reasons that last night’s J6 hearing was extremely effective is that with the possible exception of Adam Schiff, a frequent target of rightwing vitriol, the members of Congress on the Committee didn’t bring decades of baggage to the dais with them. There were no polarizing figures. There was no Pelosi. There was no Hoyer. There was no AOC. And there was no Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, or Marjorie Taylor Greene. Going in, I was unfamiliar with Bennie Thompson, and will now associate him only with this. I’ve been lauding Liz Cheney’s brave defense of democracy for many months, but that was the first time I’d heard her speak more than a few sentences. These are fresh faces, in other words, and all of them clearly give a shit. The same can’t be said for much of the Senate.
“We need human beings in there who aren’t worn down by the grind of donor checks. It’s a toxic, removed environment in D.C. that crosses red and blue lines,” McKay says. “We should be looking at primaries, and getting corporate Dems out of there, so we can have a viable opposition party—which, right now, we clearly do not.”
Greg Olear talks to filmmaker Adam McKay, writer/director of THE BIG SHORT, VICE, and DON’T LOOK UP, and executive producer of SUCCESSION and WINNING TIME, about the state of the Democratic party, why populist movements can be good, how Biden’s doing, the difference between satire and comedy, IDIOCRACY, his career including his latest films and shows, the Lakers then and now, the sad travails of being a Knicks fan, and the all-time greatest acting performance by a pro athlete. Plus: a new parlor game for the GOP.
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Photo credits: John Mathew Smith (Strom Thurmond), Netflix (Vecna), Gage Skidmore (Mitch McConnell).