As the curtain rises on yet another election season, the spotlight remains on the same ol’ candidates from the 2020 presidential election: President Joe Biden and Donald J. Trump. For those politically inclined, election seasons are exciting times. But this year, the word ‘excitement’ does not seem to fit the United States’ political atmosphere.

To gain a better understanding of our current political climate, I met with Dr. Steven Greene, a Political Science professor at NC State. With over 20 years of experience as a professor, Dr. Greene has achieved widespread recognition at NC State and specializing in American public opinion and elections. My meeting with Dr. Greene showed me that the political discourse surrounding this election is anything but a celebration, and here’s why:

On one hand, Trump has become the first US president to face criminal charges. Regardless of his highly publicized trials, he has maintained large support from the Republican party and its voters, leading in the primaries against opponent Nikki Haley. Trump is projected to win the upcoming Republican primary.

On the other hand, President Biden’s record breaking age of 81 has become a hot topic of discussion. In the 2020 presidential election, Biden broke Trump’s record of becoming the oldest U.S. President, assuming office at 78 years old. Instead of celebrating this, the American public has shifted political discussions to the possibility of our country becoming a gerontocracy: a system of governance where power is held primarily by older individuals.

The 2024 election is evolving into another broken record, and it hasn’t even happened yet. In 2016, various polls published claiming Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump as the most unpopular Presidential candidates ever. I believe today’s voters would contest this claim, given the dreaded rematch between ‘sleepy Joe’ and the infamous Trump.

Mainstream media and voters have shifted the spotlight, heavily focusing on the role of age in this election. The wrinkles of wisdom are being reconsidered and redefined as something much worse than before. This, ladies and gentlemen, is called ageism.

Ageism is a form of discrimination that is often overlooked in American society. It is defined by Oxford Languages as “prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age.” Dr. Greene believes that ageism is “unfairly, and stereotypically thinking less of people because of their age.”

At the ripe age of 81, Biden is setting his sights on a second term of presidency. The potential of completing his term at 86 has many voters questioning Biden’s ability to reassume the responsibilities of president. Although his experience speaks volumes, Biden’s age has dominated the narrative of most media coverage of the upcoming election. This coverage is not simply critical of him, but has evolved into a form of ageism that is overlooked especially by younger generations.

This election season is crucial for American society to recognize the narrative of age and to understand where it is coming from. The truth- age has historically been an important factor for voters during election cycles. In fact, during the 1984 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan stated, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Reagan was 69 when he took office for his second term, becoming the then oldest President in U.S. history. The former President utilized his age merely as a sign of wisdom and experience. So what is different in this election with Biden?

Well, given the average U.S. life expectancy of 76 years, 81 sounds pretty scary. This fear influences the framing of political media. Perpetuation of this frame by politicians enhances political polarization which becomes more prevalent with every election. Headlines are made to generate clicks, and journalists are sacrificing honest reporting to create compelling and often misleading narratives. 

This fear-driven frame also reinforces a notion that our society is split up into two separate teams. Teams with different visions for our country, who assume that their conflicting goals could only be accomplished through the demise of the ‘other side.’ This frame is essentially destroying our democracy. 

There is a fine line between genuine age-related concerns and assuming a person’s capabilities based on their age. Assumptions will only reinforce stereotypes –  people cannot and should not simply assume incompetence by a person’s age. The truth is that there is certainly age-related decline, but this decline is not equally present in everyone. So what are the concerns that voters should really worry about?  

Dr. Greene emphasized voters’ true concerns; that “Biden has undoubtedly lost energy and some level of verbal fluency with age, and that’s real.” This reality is difficult to ignore, especially given Biden’s inconsistent memory and compilation of stumbles and stutters in press conferences. 

Our polarized media has capitalized on Biden’s every mistake, directing the narrative of age as if it was the most important variable to consider. Greene argues that this narrative is shifting age-related concerns to an ageist frame, “Ageism is Fox news treating this like he’s one step away from the nursing home.” 

On the contrary, Greene describes the opposing candidate with a certain robustness and vigor “that makes him seem twenty years younger than Biden.”  Trump has a very big personality, and he connects strongly with voters through his public speaking ability. 

The media plays a vital role in shaping public opinion, creating the frame through which every story is presented. Yet they have rarely achieved the balance necessary for unbiased, nonpartisan reporting. 

So here’s the truth: America is quickly becoming an aging society. A society advanced in prolonging the physical and mental capacities of older generations. Older workers have been increasingly involved in the workforce over recent decades.

In an aging society, it is crucial to recognize stereotypes in political discourse and address the dangers of perpetuating ageism. Polarization is threatening our democracy and it cannot sustain such divisive narratives. As we approach election season, we must understand the power of the media in order to navigate the broken record of stereotypes. Let’s foster informed discussions, recognizing the weight of the tasks at hand.