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By Cas Mudde
Nancy Pelosi is 82. She was first elected to Congress in 1987, when Ronald Reagan was president.
Nancy Pelosi is 82. She was first elected to Congress in 1987, when Ronald Reagan was president. Photograph: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The population of the United States is much younger than that of most European countries, but its political establishment is much older. The 2020 presidential election was fought between 74-year-old Donald Trump and 77-year-old Joe Biden – compare that to 53-year-old Marine Le Pen and 44-year-old Emmanuel Macron in last month’s French presidential election. The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, is 71, while minority leader Mitch McConnell is 80. In the generally younger House of Representatives, the majority leader, Nancy Pelosi, is 82, making minority leader Kevin McCarthy look like a spring chicken at a mere 57. This is not just a problem for the functioning of the democratic system; it endangers the survival of it.

While the majority of political leaders in the US are over 65, only a small minority of the population – 16.9% – is. This is a serious problem for the representativeness of the political system. Not only are previous generations much less diverse in terms of ethnicity and race, they have very different ideological and partisan profiles. Obviously, there is nothing new to this “rule by the elderly”, but it is increasingly threatening not just satisfaction with the democratic system but the system itself.

French President Emmanuel Macron is 44.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, is 44. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Although political socialization is a lifelong process, the “impressionable or formative years” are between childhood and adulthood. Similarly, professionally, we are often heavily shaped by the early years of our careers, only partly updating our views later. For the Democratic leaders, this means that they were politically socialized in the 1960s and their professional socialization was in the 1980s – for Biden it even started in the 1970s. All have served in Congress for at least 35 years, starting when Ronald Reagan was president – in Biden’s case it was Richard Nixon – presidents, and Republicans, that most voters know only from the history books.

In itself, this huge age gap between elites and masses does not have to create a problem of representation. Politicians like Bernie Sanders (80) and Jeremy Corbyn (72) have become the political heroes of a new generation of voters in recent years. And in terms of political priorities and values even Biden and Pelosi might be relatively close to the people they represent. The real problem is in their dated understanding of politics and the contemporary Republican party, and its political leadership, which has gotten stuck in the 1980s.

For instance, President Biden regularly reminisces about the days when he could have lunch with segregationists, when he and politicians he disagreed with could still “respect” each other. (Incidentally, the segregationists were in his own party at that time.) And Pelosi recently said, “I want the Republican party to take back the party to where you were when you cared about a woman’s right to choose, you cared about the environment.” Now, I only moved to this country in 2008, but I am almost 55 and have been following US politics for quite a while, and I cannot remember that Republican party.

What Biden and Pelosi still cannot come to grips with is that the Republican party is a far-right party. A recent poll showed that nearly half of all Republicans agree with the so-called great replacement theory, a racist conspiracy theory mainly propagated by the Fox News host Tucker Carlson, but with a decades-long past in far-right Europe. And while the theory might be new (to the US), the racist sentiments are not. Scholars like Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto showed a decade ago that the Tea Party mobilization was fueled by racial resentment and, as Rachel Blum more recently showed, the Tea Party has since captured the GOP (thereby enabling Trump’s takeover and further radicalization).

Like many other older members of the liberal media and political establishment, Biden and Pelosi seem to think that media figures like Carlson and politicians like Ted Cruz do not really mean what they say and simply try to mobilize a crowd with their endorsement of Trump’s stolen election lie, their whitewashing of the storming of the Capitol, or their racist conspiracy theories about a “great replacement”. Leaving aside whether that actually matters, and whether it is morally less reprehensible or politically less dangerous – I actually think it is both more reprehensible and dangerous – it is politically irrelevant. The genie is out of the bottle!

Not only are Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy not in control of the Republican party, even Donald Trump is not. When he spoke out in support of Covid-19 vaccines, for example, few if any of “his” base changed their position. And people like Cruz and Josh Hawley have always run after the radicalized base, rather than led it. The point is, even if there were still people left in the Republican party with the courage and conviction to “take back” the party, they lack the power to do so. In fact, it hasn’t been “their” party for decades now.

It is high time that both Democrats and Democrats understand this. It is high time that Democratic leaders as well as liberal journalists stop listening to Republican politicians who say in private that they disagree with Trump, the insurrection, or “stop the steal”. They don’t matter! What the Democratic party is facing, as the rest of the country, is a political party that openly undermines the democratic system in word and deed. That is the only Republican party that exists, at least for now. And if they don’t act very quickly, that party will have full control of all major institutions of the country: the presidency, Senate, House and supreme court. To prevent this, we need leaders who live in the here and now, not in some (imagined) past.

  • Cas Mudde is a Guardian US columnist and the Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF professor in the school of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia

• This article was amended on 13 May 2022 because the caption to the picture of Emmanuel Macron gave his age as 53; as the piece itself says, he is 44.

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Dive Deeper:
McConnell defends Supreme Court on abortion, says issue will be 'a wash' in midterms
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Opinion | Sorry, Democrats. It’s Not Going to be the Rick Scott Midterms.
Biden’s kidding himself if he thinks the public will be swayed by focusing on a lone senator’s agenda.
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Biden marks imminent ‘tragic milestone’ of 1m US Covid deaths in address to global summit – as it happened
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Get all your news in one place