Designated Survivors

The gerontocratic elephant in the graveyard.

An overgrown graveyard. One of the tombstones is actually the US Capitol. The shadow of a scythe looms over the scene.

I went back to my home town last month and while I was there, I invited a large group of old friends, many of whom I’d known since childhood, for an evening on the patio of a pub.

It was so good to see them all again and to relive our old days, and catch up on all the things that had happened in the years since we’d last seen one another — a decade or more, in some cases.

Then, as is inevitable for a group of old friends in their fifties and sixties, we started talking about who was dead.

We’ve got a lot of dead, which is only to be expected. Barring war or plague or violent natural disaster, the presence of death in a life follows a predictable procession. I lost a great-grandmother at four. A playmate was struck by a car and killed when I was six. A friend committed suicide when I was fifteen. Another when I was sixteen. At eighteen, I lost an aunt to cancer. At twenty, a grandfather died of a heart attack, and then a cousin was killed by a car.

After twenty, things picked up a little. An overdose. Another. Cancer took a grandparent, dementia took another. My mentors — the ones old enough to be my parents or grandparents — died from “natural causes.” A few more contemporaries lost to cancer. A few more to suicide.

By my thirties, all of the mentors old enough to be my grandparents were dead. Many of the ones old enough to be my parents were dead, too. A few of the ones old enough to be an older sibling died, too. One of my dearest friends lay down to sleep and never awoke, felled by a freak brain-bleed.

In my forties, I lost all my grandparents, most of the great uncles and aunts, several cousins, more friends. Some of my friends lost their kids, too: cancer, OD, suicide. Cars, of course.

Now, in my fifties, my friends and I count our dead, name them, mourn them, remember them.

Last month, as we named our dead, a dear old pal said, “It used to be that when I heard about a friend dying, I thought, ‘I wish he’d asked for help,’ or ‘What a freak accident.’ Now I just think, ‘at least it was quick.’” Because they used to die by suicide or misadventure.

Now, they just die.

This week, the GOP supermajority on the Supreme Court made a series of increasingly bizarre and unhinged rulings, including a ruling on a wholly imaginary situation (the ruling’s consequences will not be imaginary).

The outcomes of these elections are incredibly consequential. Many races are determined by the thinnest of margins, and both chambers of Congress sit on razor-thin margins. A single lawmaker’s absence can derail whole swathes of policymaking. A single intransigent lawmaker can plunge millions into poverty, or hold the majority hostage.

Every winter, both houses of Congress gather to hear the American President deliver the State of the Union address. These speeches are usually pretty thin gruel, but everyone attends.

Everyone, that is, except for one person: the designated survivor, a single official who sits out the State of the Union in a distant, armored, “undisclosed location.”

This “survivor” is sequestered in case a nuclear blast or other horrific catastrophe wipes out all those lawmakers and officials who have gathered to hear the President’s boasts.

It’s a grim contingency to ponder, but the US government has the executive function and foresight to contemplate this low-probability, high-consequence event, and take measures to ensure that if it comes to pass, things will go on.

The current president is 80 years old. His presumed opponent for 2024 is 77 years old.

Four US Senators are in their eighties. Twenty nine US senators are in their seventies. Seven more are sixty-eight or sixty-nine.

The current Democratic Senate majority is 51-49.

Twelve members of the House are in their eighties. Sixty-two reps are in their seventies (thirteen more are sixty-nine).

The current Republican Congressional majority is 222–213.

Two Supreme Court justices are in their seventies (Clarence Thomas is 75). Three more are in their sixties.

The right-wing Supreme Court “supermajority” is 6–3.

The US Social Security Administration compiles a national actuarial life table listing the probability that a person will die at any given age. There are two 89 year olds in the US Senate, a man and a woman. The SSA gives the woman (Dianne Feinstein, D-CA), a 13.1 percent chance of dying this year. The man (Chuck Grassley, R-IA) has a 16.4 percent chance of dying.

At 80, Joe Biden has a 6.55 percent chance of dying this year. For Trump (77), it’s 4.9 percent.

All other things being equal, there’s a four percent chance that Clarence Thomas will not live to see his next birthday.

All this to say: it would not be extraordinary for the balance of power in the Senate, or the House, or the Supreme Court, to flip in the next year.

Demographically speaking, it wouldn’t be remarkable if both men presumed to be on next year’s presidential ballot were dead before inauguration day.

Gather one hundred 70- and 80-somethings in a single building for a year, and chances are you’ll have fewer than a hundred at the end of it — even if that building has all the amenities of the Capitol Dome.

There is something genuinely weird that the US institution that sticks a “designated survivor” in a secret bunker for a few hours every winter hasn’t taken any steps to remediate this wildly unstable situation.

“Natural causes” could provoke a complete turnover in one or all of the most important chambers for lawmaking and dispute resolution in the richest, most powerful country in the world.

As a science fiction writer, I can come up with plenty of ways that this could be a blessing, or a curse (as a decent human being, of course, I don’t wish death on anyone).

If there was a 13 percent chance that an assassin could end the Democratic Senate majority this year, the whole nation would be on high alert. If there was a 4.9–6.55 percent chance that a killer would nail the US President this year, the manhunt would be even more all-consuming than a missing billionaire’s submarine.

But this completely foreseeable, undeniable risk — one that every single one of us contends with every time we gather with our old friends — is completely unremarked-upon.

Indeed, once you start thinking about this, the wildest part is that it hasn’t happened already.