The notion that the United States is a gerontocracy is now a reality that stands to hinder its progress and prospects, as reported in “Red, White, and Gray.” Insider journalists spent four months collectively interviewing hundreds of sources and analyzing gigabytes of data to understand how we arrived at this moment. The 30-part series explores the costs, benefits, and dangers of life in a democracy helmed by those of advanced age, where issues of profound importance to the nation’s youth and future — technology, civil rights, the environment — are in the hands of those whose primes have passed and priorities differ.
Following the release of this package of stories, public conversation about the advancing age of Congress began in earnest. Our first story, about the data underlying our project, received 5 million impressions on social media and 149,000 engagements. Furthermore, our polling and reporting for the first time articulated public tolerance for legislation to address the issue, and was the first to indicate robust, bipartisan and intergenerational dissatisfaction with the current system.
This project sought to address a new and unexpected shift in American politics, where the representatives in Congress, judges of federal courts, and the presidency itself have come to be uniquely dominated by older generations over the past thirty years. This is abnormal and a significant deviation from the overall trend of the twentieth century. Indeed, we found the percentage of Congress that is a septuagenarian or older has reached 23% of the body, which is substantially higher than the 4% to 10% range seen throughout the twentieth century. Given the zero-sum nature of elected office, this has been catastrophic for representation across age demographics within Congress: while half of Americans are aged 38 or younger, just 4% of Congress is, an abnormally low amount historically.
This has had reverberations across public life: on issues that pertain to young voters and the possibility for younger generations to become meaningfully involved in Congress. The American people feel very strongly about it: a Morning Consult/Insider poll conducted of 2,200 Americans found bipartisan and intergenerational discontent with the aging of the body. It’s a meaningful issue with a number of systemic causes — partisan redistricting, fundraising, the ascent of small-dollar donors, the value placed on seniority in the system and more — that we were able to report on throughout the series.
Besides traditional journalism, a number of social science research techniques were applied throughout this series.
First, we combined reams of historical information regarding the birth, death and service dates of American federal judges, Senators, members of Congress and members of the Cabinet into a database that allowed us to draw direct conclusions about the historical age of the American government. We combined this with data taken from the U.S. Census going back to 1820 to see how the American government has reflected the American population. We also used the GovTrack database of historical members of congress, which was instrumental in our findings.
Second, several of our journalists included historians and political scientists directly into their stories. The sophisticated electoral analysis required on some stories, including ones about the impact of age on presidents historically, the prevalence and cost of special elections, and the impact of partisan redistricting were only possible with the advice of social science practitioners.
Third, we worked with the Center for Responsive Politics to analyze millions of small donor records to determine how retirees were beginning to develop an outsized impact on U.S. political fundraising.
Fourth, we worked with the blue chip pollster Morning Consult on a massive survey of over 2,200 Americans that put the questions directly to the voters of how the age of the American government affected them. Working closely with the polling experts at Morning Consult, we used a number of techniques in this poll to ensure that the questions were asked in a manner that minimized possible bias.
We consistently involved experts in our journalism and confirmed with them that the trends we were seeing manifesting in the data and the polling were grounded in ongoing research into how Congress functions and how incentives in government can change outcomes in government.
Context about the project:
The genesis of the project stemmed from the observation that the people in Congress, especially congressional leadership, did not appear to share the concerns that a substantial amount of our younger audience did. We saw remarkable interest from readers in stories about student debt and activism about the slow movement of the climate transition and gun violence legislation but did not see the same concern among Congressional leadership. One contributing factor, we deduced, was the lack of exposure to the issue, that congressional and executive leadership born in the 1940s did not have student debt, nor a personal stake in the climate transition, nor had they ever had an active shooter drill in high school.
From there, we ran the numbers to see if our suspicions about the body as a whole were accurate in the data. When we confirmed that congress and the federal judiciary was older than anyone had even estimated, the project began in earnest.
“Red, White, and Gray” was a substantial undertaking involving dozens of reporters, editors, graphics designers and researchers. It contained an unprecedented number of ways we were able to convey our journalism, from essential classics like text articles and videos to new journalistic techniques like innovative graphic design, audio, and national polling, and finally even ambitious, rarely-attempted journalistic and commentary mediums such as tabletop roleplaying gaming. The project attempted to tell a comprehensive story about one of the most important issues in American government in an accessible, readable manner that would reach new readers that otherwise would not be aware of the issue at hand and the remedies on the table to fix it.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
Insider sought to present “Red, White, and Gray” in a compelling, exhaustive (but not exhausting!) and engaging fashion to better explain the stakes of government by gerontocracy as the nation headed to the polls for the 2022 midterms — and readies for an undoubtedly tumultuous 2024 presidential election season.
To that goal, we produced and published data interactives and visualizations, a quiz, a scientific poll, and several videos and slideshows, such as a mini-documentary featuring the descendants of five U.S. presidents explaining the pros and cons of a youthful commander in chief.