Google Searches for “Gerontocracy” Skyrocket After McConnell Episode

A day after Sen. Mitch McConnell, 81, froze during a press conference, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 90, was coached to “just say ‘aye’” during a vote.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., seems to freeze at the microphones as he arrived for a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on July 26, 2023.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., seems to freeze at the microphones as he arrived for a news conference at the Capitol in Washington D.C., July 26, 2023. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

After Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell froze mid-sentence during a press conference Tuesday, Google searches for the term “gerontocracy” — oligarchical rule by the elderly — spiked, according to Google Trends. 

In the days before the episode, virtually no one was searching for the term. In the afternoon hours, as news of McConnell’s episode spread, Google searches for the term began to rise then quickly quadrupled, peaking around 7 p.m. 

McConnell, for his part, has insisted that he is “fine,” though both he and aides have declined to comment on his medical status. Earlier this year, McConnell suffered a traumatic head injury from a fall. While his office disclosed details of the episode, they did not mention a reported second fall two weeks ago and that he sometimes uses a wheelchair to get around. 

At age 81, McConnell is one of a rapidly growing cohort of political leaders over 70 on Capitol Hill. The average age in Congress has increased sharply over the past several decades. Whereas in the 1980s, only about 5 percent of Congress was over 70, now almost 25 percent is. 

As a member of the so-called Gang of Eight, McConnell, a Republican, is routinely briefed on the most highly classified intelligence that the U.S. government possesses. This makes questions about his mental fitness perhaps more important than for most other members of Congress.

Yelena Biberman, a political scientist and Atlantic Council senior fellow, has said that it is “very concerning” that there is “an entire cohort of very old politicians at the highest levels of the federal government.”

The problem of aging American rulers is far from partisan. For years, it has been an open secret on Capitol Hill that California’s Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has suffered from an age-related decline. Feinstein’s situation came to the fore again Wednesday — less than 24 hours after McConnell’s episode. 

In a Senate Appropriations hearing, Feinstein attempted to cast her vote for an $823 billion military budget before being repeatedly coached by her colleagues to “just say ‘aye.’” Feinstein — in remarks she was apparently not supposed to be giving — praised the $26 billion increase in the defense budget, before being interrupted and told to simply vote yes.

Later, during the same hearing, Feinstein was again corrected, prevented from voting against a measure, when she — and her party — intended her to be voting for it. 

As was the case with McConnell, Feinstein’s aides have in the past not been forthcoming about her health status. Earlier this year, Feinstein underwent an extended absence for what she claimed was a case of shingles that was later revealed to include a bout with encephalitis, inflammation of the brain. As chair of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, the absence left Democrats unable to appoint federal judges.


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In May, following her return, Feinstein was asked by a reporter about coming back. She did not seem to be aware of her absence. “I haven’t been gone. I’ve been working,” she insisted. When asked if she’d been working remote, she retorted, “I’ve been here. I’ve been voting.” 

The age trend extends beyond just Congress. At age 80, Joe Biden is the oldest president in U.S. history. Polling data reviewed by NBC found that 44 percent of Democratic primary voters believe Biden should not run for reelection, many citing his age. Likewise, former President Donald Trump, the current frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, is 77 years old.

In 2017, Vox reported that a pharmacist had filled Alzheimer’s prescriptions for members of Congress.

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