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Commentary

Our aging politicians

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As you might expect, I spend a good deal of time talking to people about politics, at least if I can manage to get them not to run away.

And I’ve noticed something remarkable this year. If I can badly abuse William Butler Yeats, the worst may be filled with passionate intensity, but the best are largely frustrated and bored out of their skulls. Here’s something to think about.

When President Obama completes his term in office a year from January, we’ll have had three presidents in a row who each served a full eight years in office. Do you know the last time in history that happened?

The answer is that it never has. This has been the longest sustained period of political continuity in American history. Compare this to a few decades ago. President Kennedy was assassinated; Lyndon Johnson essentially driven from the White House; Richard Nixon quit to avoid being thrown out, and the next two men defeated when they ran for reelection.

Things have been, if anything, even more boringly stable in Michigan. Governor Snyder, like his predecessor, will have served eight years in office. The three previous governors served 12 years, eight years, and 14 years. We’re not in an era of rapid personnel change.

Add to this the fact that our politics, both state and national, have come to resemble something like the static trench warfare of World War I. In Michigan, the legislature is so gerrymandered that there’s no true two-party competition for more than eighty percent of the seats. The parties are so polarized meaningful collaboration has proven virtually impossible.

When it comes to Presidential politics, eighty percent of the states are considered safely “red,” or Republican, or “blue” Democratic. Those colors have no ideological meaning; they come from the colors the TV networks use on Election Night to designate which party’s candidate has won a state. We live, of course, in a world where politics have been ruled by television.

We also are living in an era where our leaders are far older than they used to be. I just finished writing a book with Former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley. When he was appointed to that job in 1961, he had just turned 37 years old. The governor of Michigan was 36; the mayor of Detroit 33, and the President of the United States 44.

Today, the three leading candidates for the Democratic Presidential nomination will be 69, 74 and 75 years old next year; the leading Republican candidate will be 70. Biological age, however, may be less important than fossilized thought. When the current political cycle began, we were told by the talking heads that we were headed for an election between two candidates who seemed like incumbents: Hillary Clinton, the wife of one former president, a woman who has been in prominent positions and continuously on the scene for a quarter of a century, and Jeb Bush, the son of one president and the brother of another.

Instead, the voters are flocking to Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Some are angry, some hopeful, but it’s pretty clear they are deeply frustrated and long for something different. It will be interesting to see when and if this carries over into state politics as well.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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