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Dianne Feinstein, the aging New Left, and the curse of careerism

Like RBG before her, Sen. Dianne Feinstein's refusal to retire at 89 despite poor health hurts the causes she fought for. Some thoughts on careerism.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) attends a Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing at the Hart Senate Office Building on Thursday, May 11, 2023, in Washington, D.C. This was Feinstein's first hearing after fighting illness and being absent from the Senate for almost three months.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) attends a Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing at the Hart Senate Office Building on Thursday, May 11, 2023, in Washington, D.C. This was Feinstein's first hearing after fighting illness and being absent from the Senate for almost three months.Read moreKent Nishimura / MCT

In 2016, when she was 83 years old, the trailblazing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — known to her growing fan club as “The Notorious RBG” — wrote an op-ed for the New York Times sharing her advice on how to live a long and happy life. The most memorable tip was something that her mother-in-law told her on her wedding day, that “it helps to be a little deaf.”

That advice had to have been in the back of RBG’s mind two years earlier in 2014, when there were whispers — given Ginsburg’s increasing health woes, and polls showing Republicans were all but certain to retake the Senate — that she should consider stepping down after more than two decades on the high court. That would have allowed Barack Obama to appoint a young, liberal justice who could continue her advocacy for women’s rights for another generation. But such pleas fell on ears that went, well, a little deaf.

That fall, Ginsburg told Elle magazine that “anybody who thinks that if I step down, Obama could appoint someone like me, they’re misguided” — suggesting that any replacement would not be as liberal. Instead, she remained on the Supreme Court until her death on Sept. 18, 2020 — in the waning months of Donald Trump’s presidency and GOP Senate control. Her replacement, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, was an ultraconservative who became the fifth vote to overturn Roe v. Wade and undo 49 years of reproductive rights.

A writer named Dorothy Samuels who interviewed RBG’s friends and former clerks for a book later reported of the justice’s 2014 decision that she was “struck” by how many “felt she should have resigned at the time and that her staying on was terribly self-centered — a view I share.” It’s clear now that the rollback of abortion rights — a direct consequence of not allowing Obama to name her replacement — will forever compete for her historical legacy alongside her rulings that did expand rights for women and others.

The memory of Ginsburg is looming large as Democrats in Washington grapple with a new drama around health, age, and politics: the highly public struggles of another female pioneer, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. At age 89, Feinstein’s recent, long bout with shingles slowed Democratic efforts to install more liberal judges, and she has been the subject of several devastating news reports questioning her mental acuity. Feinstein recently told reporters, “I’ve been here … I’ve been voting,” even though she’d just returned from several months recuperating at home in San Francisco, where she’d missed scores of votes.

Currently, Feinstein isn’t planning to leave the Senate until her term expires in January 2025, but her battle with aging has reached the point that some congressional colleagues like Rep. Ro Khanna, who represents California’s Silicon Valley, have openly urged her to resign now and let fellow Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom pick her immediate replacement.

There are some striking similarities between the Feinstein and Ginsburg controversies. Both have at least hindered the Democratic agenda of rolling back a conservative takeover of the federal judiciary. And both have raised uncomfortable questions about not only ageism but also sexism, with supporters saying the resignation calls for these 80-something women were never heard for male representatives such as late GOP Sen. Strom Thurmond, who served until he was 100.

“I don’t know what political agendas are at work that are going after Sen. Feinstein in that way,” former House speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who herself clung to her leadership post until this January, when she was 82, told reporters. “I’ve never seen them go after a man who was sick in the Senate in that way.”

Pelosi — who, it’s been suggested, might have more Machiavellian motivations in wanting Feinstein to finish her term — isn’t wrong. Sexism is always a factor in politics — but it’s also true that there are complicated specifics around Feinstein, as with Ginsburg, that center on the Democrats’ narrow margins for success. There is the paradox that extending the career of a feminist icon leads to policy outcomes that are actually harmful to women.

What’s more, wider concern about an entrenched gerontocracy of over-75 leaders, male and female, is rising in the electorate, especially among young voters who feel their views aren’t represented in the corridors of power. Polls show widespread dissatisfaction that the 2024 White House race might be a rematch between President Joe Biden, the oldest man to hold the office, who’d turn 82 that November, and Donald Trump, who’d be 78 and who seems to be determined to play Russian roulette with his fast-food diet.

The so-called Silent Generation like Biden and Feinstein, who grew up after World War II — and, increasingly, the massive generation of baby boomers as they pass Social Security age — are living longer; at the same time, they seem increasingly uninterested in retiring and yielding their accumulated clout. Not only is this unfair to the Gen Xers and millennials stuck circling the runways of power, but it has profound consequences for policy.

The gerontocracy was slow to understand the student debt crisis, and has produced cringeworthy moments like Pelosi dismissing youth demands for climate action as “the Green Dream or whatever.” In 2019, Feinstein was also harshly criticized for her dismissive smugness toward students who tried to lobby her on climate matters, telling a group: “I’ve been doing this for 30 years, I know what I’m doing.”

In understanding what’s created this unyielding gray wall … it’s complicated. Surely some of it comes down to personal stubbornness — an unwillingness to give up the power and camaraderie of Washington for the feared quiet of retirement, but there are other factors. Biden’s argument that he came out of retirement in 2020 because only he could defeat the autocratic threat from Trump actually proved true, after all. But as a student of post-World War II America, I feel the roots of today’s gerontocracy are also generational.

For much of the early and mid-20th century, success in American politics was a matter of coalition building. In an industrial era when only a sliver of young people went on to college, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and an era of Democratic dominance were intrinsically linked to the rising collective power of labor unions.

The post-war generations that included folks like Biden, Feinstein, and Ginsburg grew amid soaring middle-class affluence and a surge in college attendance. This created new excitement about self-achievement and fulfillment on a scale that hadn’t been dreamed of during the Industrial Revolution. In 1962, the legendary youth leader Tom Hayden drafted the Port Huron Statement, which became the foundational document of a New Left that would be centered not in labor halls but on college campuses.

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Hayden’s focus on the educated individual as the cornerstone of a “participatory democracy” morphed into a mantra around personal freedom to thrive in this supposed meritocracy. At the same time, awareness of the obstacles to success faced by women and Black and brown people attending college in rising numbers sparked the birth of “identity politics.” Perhaps unintentionally, the invention of the New Left led to a politics of careerism, where personality trumped policy, and the personal freedom to never retire felt like a manifesto of purpose.

For someone like Ginsburg, the political achievement that seemed to matter most was the power of her own biography as the first true feminist on the Supreme Court, even more so than any of her landmark rulings or dissents — or the future she could shape by stepping down at the right time. It’s not surprising that she came to view herself as practically irreplaceable — even though that view seems a tad silly watching the impressive launch of Biden-appointed Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, a progressive Gen Xer.

It’s sad to think about how many other Ketanji Brown Jacksons are being held back by the gerontocracy, or how a younger political leadership could do more for millennials and Gen Zers facing overlapping crises of student debt, astronomical rents, and declining mental health. It’s well past time for Sen. Feinstein to retire and bask in praise for her lifetime of accomplishments. Many others should consider the same.

But something else needs to retire: the political glorification of the self. In desperately clinging to the torch of democracy instead of passing it to a new generation, the careerist elder pooh-bahs of Feinstein’s aging cohort haven’t even noticed that it’s been reduced to just a few smoldering embers.

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