How Gerontocracy Explains the Matt Gaetz Clown Show

You can analyze the circus in the House of Representatives in terms of personalities (the bland ambition of Kevin McCarthy colliding with the antic, made-for-television career of Matt Gaetz) or in terms of the nature of the Republican coalition (united only by anti-liberalism and rabble-rousing, and therefore held hostage to the most shameless rabble-rouser).

But the substance in the standoff, the posturing over what kind of spending cuts House Republicans should demand or accept, isn’t incidental either. Along with decrepit presidents and creepy deathwatches around senators and Supreme Court justices, chaotic clown-show debates over fiscal policy are part of what you get when a democracy becomes a gerontocracy.

The basic gerontocratic fiscal trap is easy to describe: As societies grow older, with longer life expectancies and fewer kids, their old-age commitments become steadily more costly even as the share of voters who benefit from those commitments (and turn out to vote) increases. This makes it harder to fix fiscal problems, and it makes the path of least political resistance the protection of the old and the shortchanging of the young — who, thus shortchanged, start fewer families and deepen societal senescence.

But there is a further twist in American politics, which is that the party that would normally be the ideological vehicle for resisting the drift into gerontocratic stasis — the party of free markets and limited government — is also increasingly dependent on the votes of culturally conservative older voters. Which makes it especially politically challenging, even self-undermining, to actually undertake the kind of fiscal reforms that the right’s philosophy officially supports.

This kind of challenge isn’t unique to the United States; in Britain, for instance, it helps explains why Tory politicians can’t push through the big building campaigns they like to promise — because their own prosperous and aging voters are invested in a low-growth but high-property-value status quo. But in America, the most important action (or inaction, rather) centers on Medicare and Social Security, and the transition from Paul Ryan’s G.O.P to Donald Trump’s, and now Matt Gaetz’s, shows the working-out of gerontocratic logic.

Ryan was a true limited-government man, devoted to blueprinting ambitious entitlement reforms and pushing his colleagues, against their natural inclinations, to endorse them. He was also an ambitious politician, and you could see him struggling to reconcile his fiscal vision with the interests and demands of his party’s base. This struggle never quite resolved itself, in part because his quest for a mandate (as Mitt Romney’s running mate) was defeated, and in part because his careful positioning was overrun by Trump, who simply tossed all those blueprints away and promised profligacy instead.

The irony is that in that moment Trump was mostly right on the merits: Neither 2012 nor 2016 was an ideal time for fiscal retrenchment, given the sluggish comeback from the Great Recession and the resilience of low interest rates. But as a matter of practical politics, the Ryan version of the G.O.P., with its libertarian leadership and prosperous suburban supporters, was probably the last iteration equipped to at least attempt serious fiscal reform, entitlement reform especially. Whereas after Trump’s remaking of the party, the task looks nearly impossible: Gerontocracy is now too advanced, the Republican base is now more working class and therefore more likely to depend on retirement programs, and the Democrats have entrenched themselves further to the left.

And unfortunately now is when we actually need some kind of fiscal adjustment. Even if the inflation generated by Covid superspending and pandemic disruptions is gradually abating, higher interest rates have dramatically altered our spending trajectory. After a long period in which low interest rates enabled the government to borrow trillions without adding much in annual debt servicing, last week the interest rate on the 10-year Treasury bond reached 4.5 percent — threatening a future, according to the Manhattan Institute’s Brian Riedl, in which debt payments cost roughly the equivalent of a second Defense Department every year.

That’s a future that is likely to starve any priority apart from shoring up entitlements. Industrial policy? Family policy? Military spending in a multipolar world? Forget about it: The money won’t be there. Populists, socialists, defense hawks — they all could use a Ryan-like figure now, or a Simpson-Bowles Commission, or a replay of the Barack Obama-John Boehner deficit negotiations that actually gets to a grand bargain.

What they have instead is Matt Gaetz. Who is, in his way, telling the truth when he criticizes the can-kicking style in which McCarthy has tried to negotiate between his own members and the Democrats, or when he tells the reporters gathered for his performances that the leaders of both parties are custodians of American decline. But Gaetz has, of course, no politically plausible vision of his own — neither a means of selling his own party’s voters on entitlement reform nor a willingness to strike a difficult bargain with Democrats even if such a thing were possible. He’s just using our fiscal crisis as a ladder; the worse the problems, the easier the climb.

To grow in age is supposedly to grow in wisdom, and in theory one might imagine that what an aging society lacked in dynamism and innovation, it would make up for in the sobriety and seriousness of its leaders.

Instead in our would-be presidents we see the weaknesses of age — the debilitation of Joe Biden, the instability of Donald Trump, even the paranoia of their potential third-party challenger, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (who if elected would be the second-oldest American to begin a first presidential term).

While in our younger leaders, instead of counteracting virtues, we have chaotic vices that threaten to make everything ungovernable — the Republican Party, the House of Representatives, the country as a whole.

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