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John Seery: Old Enough To Fight, Old Enough To Vote—Old Enough To Run For Office?

July 21, 2011

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40 years ago the 26th Amendment lowered the U.S. voting age from 21 to 18. Now, Professor John Seery, explains to critics why “old enough to fight, old enough to vote,” should also be old enough to run for Congress.

By **John Seery**

John Seery.JPG

In my new book, Too Young to Run?: A Proposal for an Age Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, I contend that the U.S. Constitution ought to be amended to lower the minimum age requirements for elected federal office (25 for the House, 30 for the Senate, and 35 for the president) to coincide with the age of majority (which, since the adoption of the 26th Amendment in 1971, has been fixed at 18 years old).

The crux of the case is: when you are deemed to be an adult citizen in the eyes of the law, you should become, at that time, fully enfranchised. Suffrage and office-eligibility are the twin pillars of civic standing in a modern constitutional republic, and yet the United States still clings to creaky and pernicious stereotypes about our 18-34 year old citizens, branding them all as so callow that the entire group must be officially precluded from eligibility for most offices (and only gradually weaned into them).

Instead of rehearsing my main arguments again (and you can find them here and here), I’d like to answer some of the early criticism that the proposal has piqued. Mind you, I’ve received an outpouring of support, too—albeit mostly from self-identified younger persons. Some old folks evidently feel their opinions should always preempt, displace, and silence—both formally and informally—the views of younger citizens. Ask yourself: Do your particular views on the matter adequately represent the views and interests of a younger generation from their various perspectives?

Our young soldiers are no longer simply buffed-out battlefield warriors who take and follow orders.

Below are some of the typical complaints about my proposed AGE (All Grown-ups Eligible) Amendment, and my quick rejoinders. I hope the call-and-refrain format isn’t a tedious tit for tat but, instead, helps to dispel some longstanding age-ist prejudices that still rule the day.

“We have bigger problems to solve first.” Imagine saying something similar in 1919, on the eve of female enfranchisement in the United States (and many did). Sometimes principle ought to trump pragmatism, and sometimes they need not be regarded as mutually exclusive. As for problem solving, in order to fashion better policy, we need to involve our younger citizens more actively in the debates about our (and their) country’s future.

“I would never vote for an 18 year old!” Good for you! Chances are, very few 18 year olds would ever emerge as viable candidates at the national level, let alone get elected. But foreclosing altogether the prospect of young candidacy serves only to reduce the talent pool, making elections less competitive than they could be. Instead of focusing on 18 year olds (with the hysteria that seems to induce), imagine a compelling 24 year-old candidate for the House, or an impressive 28 year-old for the Senate, or an extraordinary 33 year-old for the presidency. Maybe at times, under certain circumstances, you or other voters would greatly appreciate considering the views of a younger candidate. Why limit in advance your own voting options, your own political liberty?

“Young persons are fit to fight as soldiers, but not to govern as legislators.” This invidious distinction between a proper age for militarism versus a proper age for office holding is deeply rooted in biblical and classical sources. As well, it is woefully outdated, for both military and legislative purposes. Our young soldiers are no longer simply buffed-out battlefield warriors who take and follow orders. In the modern military, many assume enormous leadership, intellectual, and technological responsibilities at early points in their careers. By a similar token, many of our young civilians, in the modern economy, have gained unprecedented levels of experience and expertise at very early junctures.

To younger citizens, voting for older representatives may seem to be something of a sucker’s game. Why should they play at all?

“Young persons have no experience!” In a democracy, let the voters decide what experience is relevant in any particular election. Expand opportunities; enhance competition; let merit triumph. Besides, the best experience for future candidacy may be current candidacy. Get your name and ideas out there, even if you fail the first or second time around.

“Well, then, let’s just let children vote and run for office.” The slippery slope argument need not apply. In fact, it’s rather easy to observe, enforce, and justify a hard-line distinction between minors and adults. True, minors are also deprived direct representation under our system, but that’s a separate and severable issue.

“Young persons don’t vote anyway!” Not always true (e.g., 1972 and 2008). But maybe younger voters realize implicitly that the system is rigged against them, and maybe they have a nagging awareness that the U.S. Constitution regards them officially as second-class citizens, who enjoy the right to suffrage but not to office eligibility. The rest of us can’t really complain about their collective apathy until we grant them full rather than halfway enfranchisement. To younger citizens, voting for older representatives may seem to be something of a sucker’s game. Why should they play at all? (Urban Outfitters once put out a t-shirt that proclaimed, “Voting is for Old People.”)

Ask them whether they feel their generational views and interests are being adequately represented in the halls of Congress (spoiler alert: their generation is getting royally screwed, and if they don’t fully realize it now, they soon will).

“Neuroscientists tell us that the cerebral cortex isn’t fully developed until the mid-twenties.” Tell that to Alexander the Great or Joan of Arc or Mozart or Steve Jobs. Developmental psychology presents us with bell curves that may or may not apply to particular individuals. Even then, it’s not clear what political lessons are to be drawn from such generalized accounts. Should we also constitutionally disable old persons from office eligibility based on scientific reports of diminished brain function? What’s more, countervailing scientific studies inform us that young persons are operating at the peak of some of their other cognitive and physiological capabilities at precisely the time in their lives when the U.S. Constitution prevents them from running for various offices.

“This amendment would affect so few, why bother?” The point isn’t simply to permit a few exceptional individuals to run for federal office, nor simply to allow young persons to vote for someone from their own generational cohort. Rather, the Constitution’s age requirements restrict the range of democratic choice for all of us as voters, old, middle, and young alike. Those antiquated age requirements are an embarrassing legacy of originally codified, anti-democratic exclusion that ought to be rectified in order to accord with up-to-date notions and practices of political freedom and civic equality. We all have an interest in making our representative system more effective and fair.

To the naysayers and holdouts, I say: Float the idea of an AGE Amendment with some persons you know in the affected group, 18-34 years old; in fact, send them the link to this article. Ask them whether they feel their generational views and interests are being adequately represented in the halls of Congress (spoiler alert: their generation is getting royally screwed, and if they don’t fully realize it now, they soon will). An AGE Amendment wouldn’t be a cure-all for our political discontents, but it might help bring some fresh perspectives to the table. It also happens to be the right thing for a republican-minded people to do.

Copyright 2011 John Seery

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John Seery is the George Irving Thompson Memorial Professor of Government and Professor of Politics at Pomona College. Visit his website here.

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