Too Young to Run?
A Proposal for an Age Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Too Young to Run?
A Proposal for an Age Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
“John Seery’s book is applied political theory at its best: it enunciates a proposition that no doubt will be initially implausible to many readers and offers a superb defense that should change a lot of minds and, along the way, provide wonderful food for thought about what constitutes a truly democratic electorate.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
“John Seery’s book is applied political theory at its best: it enunciates a proposition that no doubt will be initially implausible to many readers and offers a superb defense that should change a lot of minds and, along the way, provide wonderful food for thought about what constitutes a truly democratic electorate.”
“So much is controversial nowadays, but not so the set age limits for public service in Washington. Why not? What historical reasons informed these age limits in the first place, and what contemporary reasons support their maintenance now, hundreds of years later? John Seery is a political theorist committed to interrogating questions that many of us never think to ask. When he takes a position, he does not always persuade everyone to his view, but in his intelligence, tenacity, and inventiveness, he never disappoints.”
“Seery engages the important but neglected subject of the American age qualifications for public office and does so in an extraordinarily broad-gauged way that sheds a great deal of light on American democracy more generally.”
“This is a wonderful challenge to complacency about constitutional rights. Seery asks important questions and provides an energetic defense of the constitutional right of all citizens to hold office in the United States.”
John Seery is Professor of Politics at Pomona College.
Postscript: An Appeal to U.S. Civics Educators
Appendix 1: Federal Age Requirements in Other Democracies
Appendix 2: Average Age of Congress Since 1949
The destiny of any nation, at any given time, depends on the opinions of its young persons under twenty-five.
Forty-seven-year-old Barack Obama won the 2008 U.S. presidential election against seventy-two-year-old John McCain, and several commentators at the time proclaimed that the Obama victory constituted nothing less than a generational watershed in our nation’s history, ushering in a post-boomer epoch of youthful governance. Young voters, eighteen to twenty-nine years old, had voted for the younger candidate by a 68 to 32 percent margin. An estimated 23 million young voters overall cast ballots, an increase of 2 million since the 2004 election. Those voters turned out at the highest rate (est. 52–53 percent) since 1972, the year when the Twenty-Sixth Amendment (lowering the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen) went into effect. Columnists variously branded these new-era, twenty-something voters the Generation O (for Obama), the Millennial Tidal Wave, or the Youthquake (to be contrasted in retrospect with Thomas Friedman’s 2007 characterization of that age cohort as “Generation Q”—Q for “quiet”).
Whatever one calls it, the eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-old demographic also seemed to define itself as a generational interest group of sorts. Extensive polls and studies—by the Harvard Institute of Politics, the Pew Research Center for Politics, the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, and others —had all consistently revealed that the eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-old “millennials” held surprisingly similar and well-defined political views, particularly on the environment, health care, foreign policy, and gay rights. Numbering about 43 million and constituting 20 percent of the registered voters and 18 percent of the total vote nationwide in 2008, the O-Gen voting bloc, one might surmise, would also see its youthful surge and generational interests reflected in the halls of the newly elected 111th Congress.
The youngest electorate in history, however, elected the oldest Congress in our nation’s history, continuing a record-setting trend with the previous five U.S. Congresses, each successively setting a new record for the average age of its members. Only one senator was younger than President Obama (namely, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who turned forty-six on January 10, 2009). Only one House member, twenty-seven-year-old Aaron Schock of Illinois, was under thirty, and he was the one and only under-thirty member in several congressional sessions.
So let us ponder: How is it that the much ballyhooed 2008 “Youthquake” produced both the fourth-youngest president ever and the oldest U.S. Congress ever? How should we evaluate the attendant paradox that only one out of the 535 elected congressional representatives can claim to be an age-appropriate spokesperson for those 23 million under-thirty voters (not to mention the 43 million eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds overall)? Should young voters be especially concerned, or just wait the situation out?
Of course one could dismiss the event—a virtual stampede of youthfully engaged citizens electing a bunch of graybeards—as little more than a demographic anomaly, or the insignificant by-product of a range of contingent variables, or another quirk of U.S. political history. I’d like to press the issue in a particular direction, however, drawing sustained attention to a structural issue of constitutional design, of which the outcome of the 2008 elections is, at least in part, symptomatic. To wit: one of the major obstacles facing eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds who might seek to rejuvenate the halls of Congress is that they must faithfully observe the minimum age requirements for elected federal office. These age limits harshly proscribe youthful governance and thereby also strongly discourage youthful candidacy. Yet the age of eligibility for office, as an issue, has drawn little attention and stirred scant controversy over the years in these United States.
The U.S. Constitution sets strict minimum age qualifications for our elected federal representatives: 25 for the House of Representatives, 30 for the Senate, and 35 for the presidency. Unlike the residency requirements for legislators and the requirement that the president be native born, which are subject to various ongoing interpretive challenges and accommodations, the constitutional age qualifications have been, in the modern period, strictly observed and enforced. Only three underage persons have ever been admitted to the Senate: Henry Clay (aged 29 in 1806), Armistead Thomson Mason (aged 28 in 1816), and John Eaton (aged 28 in 1818).
A few underage candidates for that body have run and been elected before they officially qualified: In 1934, Rush D. Holt Sr. of Virginia was elected to the U.S. Senate at the age of twenty-nine, but he had to wait six months, until his thirtieth birthday, to take his oath of office. Vice President Joseph Biden was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972 at age twenty-nine but turned thirty just two weeks after Election Day, about a month before his swearing in. Young Joe Biden had to explain to his constituents that he would be old enough in plenty of time to take office. In general, however, the constitutional age requirements for officeholding deter underage candidacy. We the People can elect basically whomever we wish, but if they do not meet the constitutional age requirements for office, they will not be permitted to serve.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about one-quarter of the U.S. population, about 69,420,700 citizens, is between eighteen and thirty-four years old. Out of that pool of about 70 million adults, there are probably at least a few compelling individuals who might be electable to the U.S. presidency, or whose candidacy would prove strongly competitive and worthy of wide and serious consideration. Let us ask ourselves, Why did the framers of the Constitution create a system that forever bars even the possibility that charismatic and capable young adult candidates for office might emerge? What were the framers thinking? Why did they limit democracy in such a peremptory way? The quick answer is that the framers believed that only someone who had attained a sufficient level of maturity and experience was fit for elected federal office. But in that case, why didn’t they decide to let the voters decide about any particular adult-aged individual’s suitability for office? Why let process trump merit? Can it be that the framers designed a system that delivers, over time, a kind of prudential stability, even if it occasionally excludes exceptional individuals?
Surely most U.S. citizens take these requirements for granted; we simply accept them as the ground rules of our federal system. Perhaps it is time, however, to subject them to serious review. Only a bare handful of democratic governments the world over has adopted this elaborate, multitiered system of age encumbrances (and the U.S. system is the second-most convoluted, next only to the Italian). The majority of the world’s advanced democracies have no age restrictions on eligibility for office beyond the age of legal adulthood. Furthermore, almost every other field of meritorious endeavor—professional athletics, the music industry, higher education, Hollywood entertainment, the dot.com cyber-world, and gainful business generally—has become avidly opportunistic about recognizing and promoting talented individuals regardless of age. The military relies heavily on the ability and valor of the same age cohort (with no official age barriers to promotion). Only in politics do we see such structurally explicit constraints against greater formal involvement by the younger citizens among us.
In our country, eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds can buy cigarettes, donate organs, play the lottery, drive cars, fly airplanes, shoot guns, start businesses, own homes, sign contracts, have consensual sex, get married, get divorced, have children, have abortions, join the military, serve as jurors, and be tried in court as full adults, but for some reason they are still branded, as an entire group, as somehow too immature and too inexperienced to run for one or more categories of elected federal office. With this book I want to propose that full constitutional adulthood should commence at the age of majority, which means that all U.S. citizens would become fully enfranchised at the age of eighteen. Thus I’m insisting that eligibility for office ought to be regarded in the United States as a fundamental right of the democratic franchise: all adult citizens should enjoy the right to run for federal office; that right is, I claim, as important to full civic enfranchisement as the right to vote. As an incidental yet by no means trivial matter, I suspect that the recognition of such a right is likely to lead to derivative consequences more beneficial than not: it may have the effect, for instance, of expanding the pool of office aspirants and thus enhance electoral competition. I happen to doubt that it would significantly reduce the overall age of Congress, but I submit that the existence of the right to be eligible to hold office ought to be assessed, as it were, independently of its consequences, that is, as a matter of principle. I don’t want the argument that follows—which is essentially a normative case—to be staked on such consequences. I’m not making a causal argument contending that an increase in the numbers eligible for electoral office would lead to an increase in the number of younger candidates running for office, which would lead to an increase in the number of younger persons actually elected into office, which would lead to the passage of legislation beneficial to younger voters. I’m not contending that an age amendment can serve as antidote for all the generational ills and defects that may afflict our system. Instead, my attending to such on-the-ground concerns, when and where I do, is intended simply to draw attention to and sharpen awareness of the fact that the fundamental right to be eligible to hold office is not shared equally among adult citizens in the United States. And the absence of such a right, for so many, ought to make us pause. The average age of Congress rises every session, which means that our government is looking less and less like a truly representative democracy and more and more like a plutocratic gerontocracy. The framers explicitly rigged the system against younger citizens—and by doing so created a problem that has worsened in our lifetime. Knowing that these skewed demographics and the codified constraints are working effectively against them, why would a younger citizen, barred officially from holding the reins of power, even bother to vote? Would the O-Gen Youthquake voters have been as enthusiastic going into the election if they had realized that their collectively youthful efforts would result in the oldest Congress ever?
In the book that follows, I adopt a tone of cautious advocacy, dropping the academic convention or pretense that I have not yet drawn a judgment about the matters that follow. Truth be told, I have become convinced that the Constitution’s minimum age requirements for the House, the Senate, and the presidency are anachronisms based on a superannuated form of age discrimination that, when identified as such, calls out for contemporary remedy. But the case that follows is not a simple one, and I hope my skeptical readers will think that I do justice to the counterarguments that complicate my presentation. If my extended brief appears in places to be imbalanced, my occasional tendentiousness probably indicates the difficulties of trying to meet a burden of demonstration sufficient to overturn the constitutional status quo: the default position, namely that inexperienced younger citizens ought to be excluded from the highest offices in the land, is a formidable and time-tested proposition. I concede as much at this outset, and ask from my captious readers only that they keep an open mind. The results of this quixotic investigation may not be, finally, convincing and conclusive. There are many facets to the issue, and many questions to be asked along the way, and the eventual answers may not always be obvious or beyond cavil. But such questions do start to accumulate. How did these qualifications get into the Constitution in the first place? The Articles of Confederation included no such strictures for delegates to the Continental Congress. Did the Constitutional framers thereafter present arguments pro and con, and what were they? Do such arguments now stand the test of time? Might there be a good political principle behind the apparent prejudice? Do these prohibitions actually constitute invidious discrimination? If so, why haven’t we recognized it as a form of discrimination analogous to earlier constitutional prohibitions based on race, gender, property, and literacy—or can reasonable distinctions be drawn separating (youthful) age from the rest? Is running for office a fundamental right or liberty? Does it bear on our notions of representative government? If age barriers represent an injustice, an abridgement of individual rights or a discriminatory practice against an entire class of persons, does that injustice rise to a level of urgency compared with other pressing or egregious issues? Does it actually warrant an amendment to the Constitution? How likely would it be for such an amendment to get off the ground and to wind through the maze of the amendment process? What good effects could be expected to obtain in fact as a result of removing such age requirements? Might such tinkering with the Constitution create unintended, undesirable consequences as well?
I write this inquiry as a political theorist, not as a public law specialist or as an empirical political scientist. The topic requires, however, that one pursue leads into a mixed brew of different fields, subfields, and methods of analysis—democratic theory, normative theory, American historiography, constitutional law, analytic philosophy, comparative politics, and American political science. Such mingled methodologies will create certain shortcomings and frustrations. Specialists in any of the encroached areas will find that I’ve cut some corners in pursuit of an overview. I’m not sure my fellow theorists will be especially happy, either. While the prevailing conventions of political theory generally encourage such broad purviews and eclectic approaches, I must note as well that I am departing in this book from my usual modus operandi in the writing of political theory. My concern in this book is much more practicable, modest, and delimited than my own past efforts and those of many of my contemporaries. Herein I am not attempting to rewrite gender relations, restore first principles, reform patriarchal hegemony, undo colonial oppression, radicalize democracy, sabotage capitalism, challenge neoliberalism, revere the ancients over the moderns, instill global justice, save the planet, or unsettle logocentric heteronormativity. This is not an exercise in what Sheldon Wolin called epic political theory. Instead, I am working from within the frame of the American system, which is to be properly named as a constitutional democratic representative republic. I am not trying to rethink the entire system from scratch, nor am I proposing sweeping reforms to representative government, such as eliminating the Electoral College, converting to proportional or parliamentary representation, or extending suffrage to children or noncitizens. I see the possibility of an AGE (All Grown-ups Eligible) amendment to the Constitution as a moderate, plausible, and potentially feasible way to improve the system from within.
The Case for an AGE Amendment
My main argument will be normative, but not overly idealizing, romantic, moralistic, or utopian. I contend that passing a constitutional amendment to reduce the age restrictions for elected federal office to eighteen, the age of majority, is, speaking plainly, the right thing to do. I will point out possible beneficial consequences to such an amendment—but as I mentioned, my argument will not depend or turn finally on a consequentialist justification. This is a matter, not of effect or efficacy, but of justice. No less an authority than John Rawls, in his magisterial A Theory of Justice, lists the opportunity to run for public office as one of the “basic liberties” of citizenship (akin to the right to vote), to be distributed equally among all citizens. Yet Rawls eventually mentions, albeit somewhat in passing and only briefly, that an age restriction on eligibility for office might be acceptable on certain grounds without undermining the basic principle of equal liberty. We will need to scrutinize his reasoning, both the principle and possible qualifications, with care.
While concerns for fairness and equity in the American electoral system might present the most compelling reasons for the case at hand, we should emphasize as well that empirical circumstances also bear on the question and render the topic salient and timely. Developments in medicine, changes in life expectancy, and shifts toward an older population have altered the democratic calculus of politics since the national founding. Money, numbers, and power have been inexorably accruing to the aging “baby boomer” generation over the last few decades. As a result of these trends, certain political, economic, and cultural conflicts these days have become—sometimes conspicuously, sometimes incipiently—intergenerational in nature. Militarism, environmentalism, global warming, budget deficits, transgenerational trusts and taxes, health care, stock market investment, savings rates, Social Security, and public education are all potential hot-button issues that can look quite different from short-term as opposed to long-term perspectives. Whether the elderly or the young actually or potentially constitute a coherent voting bloc or interest group on particular issues is really secondary. For now, what’s becoming clear is that “the system” is inherently skewed in favor of older folks, a system that may even suppress the formation of younger generational groupings, and the situation is growing more and more acute. The AARP (formerly, the American Association of Retired Persons) has become one of the nation’s most powerful lobbies, thanks to numbers, experience, organization, and wealth. Even if younger voters could get their act together (beyond Obama-mania), recognize that they likely share certain generational concerns, then mobilize themselves into a voting bloc and raise sufficient funds to press for their concerns in a manner comparable to the AARP, the odds would still be stacked against them. The harsh fact would remain that younger voters cannot run for federal office or elect one of their own. To translate their group influence into legislative power, they therefore would still need to appeal to the good graces of a good number of older representatives—who, in many cases, would need to act against their own generational interests in order to do right by their younger constituents. Such younger voters would be, at best, virtually represented by their elders—which is much the same argument that many American (male) representatives once upon a time invoked to justify the delay and denial of female enfranchisement in the United States. We will need to examine whether the idea of virtual representation, or call it generational guardianship, for eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds ought to be defended or discredited.
My own investment in the issue is as follows: As a professor of politics, I find it increasingly hypocritical to look my undergraduate students in the eye and encourage them to participate wholeheartedly in the American political system, as if their vote truly counted the same as the rest. The representative system puts them, as younger citizens, at a decided disadvantage, and many of them seem to know it. For instance, in the run-up to the Iraq War, twenty-seven women students from the Claremont colleges posed nude on the main campus quad, spelling out the word “PEACE” with their bodies. Frankly, I was embarrassed by the political lameness of their exhibitionist act. Did they really believe they were somehow the legatees of Lysistrata who could actually accomplish something by invoking the specter of female forbearance? At the time, I suppose I could have done my civic and professorial duty and instructed them to write their elected representatives instead; or I could have organized a teach-in on the theory and techniques of direct action, civil disobedience, and nonviolent protest. But I’m no longer sure that I can offer any of that political advice in good faith. For their age cohort, contacting or pressuring or voting for their (older) representatives seems to be an equally empty or desperate gesture. They might as well try to get what attention they can by taking off their clothes. But I think that their constitutional exclusion from front-row involvement in representative government should be seen—by all of us—as a more embarrassing display.
The fact of the matter is that our governmental system is not simply a “one person, one vote” democracy; rather, we are a representative republic, and it matters immensely that it is a system that is stacked against younger citizens. Exhorting younger citizens to vote, as many organizations do around every election cycle, is asking them to participate in something like a national Ponzi scheme, where earlier participants at the top become enriched through the contributions of later investors. Rock the Vote is one such get-out-the-youth-vote organization. Founded in 1990, it has attempted to raise youth turnout at the polls through high-profile registration and voter mobilization campaigns. It has spawned a bevy of other youth voter turnout organizations, all of which, however well intentioned, are based on a common misconception, namely that the U.S. political system is a majoritarian democracy rather than a representative republic. They are based on the assumption that young citizens can work effectively within the existing framework of the representative system, if only they become sufficiently motivated to register and to vote. These groups do not seem to consider that the Constitution’s representative structure, especially with respect to age, may need to be amended before their constituencies can make any real generational difference.
As Hannah Arendt emphasizes at some length, the framers did not inscribe the Constitution in stone, literally or figuratively. They intended that it could be, would be, and should be changed. They made explicit provisions and procedures for such change, though they did not make the amendment process easy. The amendments subsequent to the first ten (the Bill of Rights) express at least two ongoing themes of correction: Amendments 12, 17, 20, 22, 23, and 25 provide redress on problems relating to electoral and representational issues; Amendments 13, 14, 15, 19, and 24 provide redress for earlier discriminatory exclusions based on race, gender, and property. One of the most recent amendments, the Twenty-Sixth, which lowered the federal voting age to eighteen, provides ample precedent that the Constitution has not fully withstood the test of time with respect to its original assumptions and requirements about age. It may be time that those two recurring amending motifs in American constitutional history, corrections for representation and discrimination, converge into a joint impetus toward lowering the minimum age requirements for office.
The Constitution’s age requirements present, however, a special problem of representation. Citizens not eligible to hold office are eligible to vote, and they enjoy formal representation in that sense of the term. It’s not as if the youth today can unequivocally declare “No taxation without representation” and justifiably dump their chai lattes into the Boston Harbor. Rather, as citizens they fall into an ambiguous zone of classification: they enjoy some rights of citizenship, but not all, at least not yet. But, at least from the perspective of the history of group enfranchisement in these United States, they fall into an anomalous category. When the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments effectively enfranchised Native Americans, African Americans, and women, they extended the rights of suffrage and eligibility for office simultaneously (if only tacitly) to these respective groups; that is to say, these amendments contained no provision that would disqualify, or temporarily disqualify, these newly enfranchised citizens from running for office on account of their race or gender. All of a sudden, blacks and women—older ones, that is—could vote and run for office. (The Fourteenth Amendment did bar from federal office any former federal or state official who served the Confederacy in the Civil War.) Younger voters in the United States—the separate yet partially overlapping underage blocs of 18 to 24 for the House, 18 to 29 for the Senate, and 18 to 34 for the presidency—fall into the awkwardly halfway category wherein these members have been granted the rights of citizenship, but not yet fully. The Constitution bestows on them the right to run for these various federal offices in a phased-in manner, rendering the polity overall into stratified categories of enfranchisement. Does that mean that they’ve been denied representation, or part of it, or only a kind of representation, or what?
Compounding the complexity of this problem, the word youth doesn’t accurately describe the underage citizens that fall into these gradational blocs of ineligibility: A thirty-three-year-old voter doesn’t quite belong to “youth” in the same way that an eighteen-year-old does. The term youth is thus misleading here, and there’s no quick catchword to describe the eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-old bloc. Relatedly, it needs to be emphasized that the age requirements provide an exclusionary discrimination that redounds to the possible detriment, not only of the excluded members but also of all citizens, since the requirements equally disable older voters from voting for younger candidates and thus limit every citizen’s range of democratic choice. Thus this book isn’t simply addressing a niche or special interest or an identity politics problem but, instead, is aiming at a general matter of the public good—the issue strikes at the heart of what it means to be living in a representative democracy at all.
Even as the issue potentially impacts citizens of every age, this book is nonetheless pitched especially to the young and young at heart in American political life. It is also directed especially to those who teach the young about the U.S. political system. The problem with changing the system on behalf of the young is that the young simply cannot do it by themselves (a point that shouldn’t be construed as a reason to extend their original exclusion). First, they don’t have a seat at the table, so the issue probably won’t be raised or seriously raised unless they speak forth insistently. But even before pressing for influence, inclusion, and power, younger citizens face a catch-22 of how to learn about and recognize the problem as a problem. The U.S. system of governance is complex. It generally takes a while to learn about it and to understand it. It especially takes some time to know its weaknesses and possible areas of reform and methods of reform. By the time most younger persons might recognize the Constitution’s age requirements as unjust and as alterable, they may well have grown out of the very condition of their exclusion, or graduated from one stage to the next—thus incrementally divesting themselves of their stake in the matter. If the eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-old demographic represents a potential interest group, then its membership is ever changing. Yet here’s one place where the experience and education of older folks can serve politics productively, in a proactive rather than reactive manner, and in a deliberative rather than factional manner. Civics teachers can and should assume, I propose, a catalytic role in eliminating this uniquely political form of age discrimination. Instead of eliding or ignoring the crucial differences between representative self-government and generational guardianship, educators should point out and insist upon this key distinction to their students—along with the fact that their students currently operate more under the latter system than the former. Political age discrimination is, alas, one of the last vestiges of early American prejudice. Yet once alerted to the problem, this enduring structural flaw in the Constitution, thoughtful educators, I suspect, will find it increasingly difficult to teach American government without raising the issue conspicuously, especially when we public-spirited teachers realize that the group of persons largely populating our classrooms has been constituted into an officially second-class category of citizenship for far too long.
As I see it, the potential ramifications for an AGE amendment do not boil down to a numbers game of how many previously underage candidates would in fact be elected into office and, thereupon, whether such a younger congressional presence overall would in fact translate into a significantly altered political landscape. Nor does it hinge on some speculation that voting rates of younger voters would necessarily rise. Rather, I think the bottom-line or end-of-the-day importance of such a proposal (in addition to its normative propriety) would issue foremost from its “signaling” effects. First, it would signal that all U.S. adult citizens should and do enjoy equal civic standing under the explicit terms of the Constitution—and equal civic standing, as Judith Shklar and Robert Dahl have both vigorously contended, is the institutional bedrock of the American polity. Second, the immediate payoffs for younger citizens (as a whole) would likely result from their transformed status in eligibility for office, not actual officeholding. That is to say, I would expect that only a very few candidates would start to vie for national office at a younger age and that the overall electorate would continue to vote into office an overwhelming majority of representatives who remain well past the former age thresholds. I submit, however, that even hypothetically enlarging the pool of candidates eligible to hold office would alone deliver an important benefit, helping for one thing to make our federal elections more competitive, by now introducing age as a potential and explicit element of representation.
Such signaling—of democratic inclusion and expanded competition—could have ripple effects. Surely the best way to alter our cultural assumptions and ingrained prejudices about the proper age for governing would be empirical: actual exposure to impressive younger candidates, who by their merits, ideas, charisma, and living presence would naturally dispel doubts about their viability for office. In comparison, an a priori theoretical case confronts some uphill obstacles. We could adduce considerable historical evidence showing that younger rulers have in fact assumed high office in the past: in Israel, China, Egypt, Rome, and Europe. We could point to prime ministers and elected parliamentarians in other contemporary democracies who would be age-ineligible under our system. We could point to actual recent examples in our country where young persons have achieved extraordinary, mind-boggling success in other fields —say, in business—that strongly suggests we are selling short our young political hopefuls. One thinks of the entrepreneurial and precocious managerial leadership of, for example, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, who founded Microsoft at 20 and 22; or Steven Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who founded Apple at 21 and 26; or Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who founded Google at 22; or Pierre Omidyar, who founded eBay at 28; or Mark Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook at 20; or Jawed Karin, Chad Hurley, and Steve Chen, who founded YouTube at 25, 27, and 26. We could name all sorts of young actors and actresses, all sorts of young musicians and entertainers, all sorts of young athletes, all sorts of young decorated soldiers, all sorts of young artists, craftspersons, managers, and workers. Arguably, many of these young stars and heroes in other fields achieve their great successes precisely because they are operating at the very height of their physical and mental powers. Only in politics do we disqualify this bloc of humanity. If there is a potential “LeBron James of Politics” waiting in the wings, the U.S. Constitution expressly prevents such a person from even running onto the court.
Lowering the age of eligibility for office would mean, at the very least, that younger candidates could gain valuable campaign experience on the federal stage at an earlier point in their careers. Studies show that the earlier the point of entry for candidacy, the greater the likelihood of a longer eventual career in politics. We could probably expect that a number of young officials at the state and local levels would throw their hats into the national ring at an earlier age simply because they now could—and such early exposure would help position them for the next round of elections, even if they weren’t successful on their first attempts. A patchwork of laws governs the various ages of eligibility for state and local elections, but a number of young candidates are indeed routinely voted into office at subnational levels (the Young Elected Officials Network claims that 4.8 percent of all elected state and local officials in the United States are under thirty-five). In 2003 the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University issued a first-ever national study on Young Elected Leaders (“YELs”) under thirty-five. The study found 814 YELs in forty-eight states in 2002, including statewide elected legislators and executives, and elected mayors and council members in cities and towns with populations of thirty-thousand or more. A sizable 86 percent of the YELs indicated that they aspire to offices beyond their current positions. Asked to name the highest elective or appointive office they hope to achieve, 58 percent chose a position at the federal level—including 14 percent who want to be president, 2 percent vice president, 24 percent U.S. senator, and 18 percent U.S. representative. The study pointed out that half of today’s top federal officeholders were thirty-five or younger when they first won elective office. Of the 19 U.S. presidents in the last century, 12 held their first elective offices at thirty-five or younger. The same is true of 57 of the 100 current U.S. senators, 215 of the 435 U.S. representatives, and 25 of the 50 governors in 2003.
Other indicators hint that lowering the U.S. age of candidacy may not be entirely far-fetched and untimely. In a 2005 Greenberg Quinlan Rosner survey of eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds, respondents scored themselves “seven” on a ten-point scale as to how well the statement “I read a lot about politics” describes them. The so-called Millennials also volunteer more than any other demographic: according to the Harvard Institute of Politics survey in 2006, a majority of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds had volunteered for community service in the previous year. A 2007 Harvard Institute of Politics survey showed that 55 percent of eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds had discussed politics during the previous week. A 2007 Pew Research Center survey found that 85 percent of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds report they are “interested in keeping up with national affairs,” a 14 percent increase over the 1999 findings. The 2008 UCLA American Freshman survey indicated the highest interest in politics than at any other point in the forty years covered by the survey. Perhaps as a sign of the times or of things to come, U.S. Representative Phil English (R-Pa.) in 2004 introduced a resolution to Congress (H.J.Res. 105) for a constitutional amendment to lower the age of qualification for the House and the Senate to twenty-one. While Representative English’s bill attracted no cosponsors and was inauspiciously referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution (where it sits), during that same year the British Parliament’s Electoral Commission produced a report recommending that Britain lower its age of candidacy from twenty-one to eighteen. For several years running the British Youth Council had campaigned aggressively for such a measure. On the findings of its independent commission, Parliament lowered the age of candidacy when it passed the Electoral Administration Act of 2006, which went into effect on January 1, 2007 (for more on the British example, see chapter 3). Given these trends, one wonders how long young American citizens will remain content to lag behind their British counterparts.
Timely or no, why does it matter whether or not young adult citizens enjoy the right to candidacy? Some might dismiss out of hand the sheer idea of a twenty-three-year-old candidate for Congress, or a twenty-seven-year-old candidate for the Senate, or a thirty-three-year-old candidate for the presidency, on the grounds that “skateboarders shouldn’t be officeholders.” To which a quick reply might be: Maybe the best representative for a generation of skateboarders would be a fellow skateboarder, not some doddering old codger. Furthermore, maybe the ideas of a skateboarding generation won’t be taken seriously until a skateboarding candidate is given the proper national forum to speak his or her mind. And maybe the skateboarding generation should be able to vote for its own representatives, or to circulate its own various views in the context of a competitive election, in order to exert greater formal and informal influence on pressing federal decisions such as whether the nation ought to interrupt those skateboarding activities by sending its skateboarding young persons off to war. The death and injury statistics from the Iraq War reconfirm the problem of political representation voiced in these 1965 antiwar song lyrics: “It’s always the old who lead us to war. / It’s always the young to fall.” Those who think the issue of eligibility for office is too obscure or insignificant to warrant national attention may need to think about the propriety of a democratic republic sending its young adults off to war while denying them even the possibility of sitting at the table where those decisions are reached and funded.
Without preempting the complexity of the case to come, I want to be clear from the outset about the bare bones of my proposal for an AGE amendment. Put it in the language of positive rights, the main pillars of my argument will be:
1. All citizens of the United States eighteen and older should enjoy a constitutional right to run for elected federal office, assuming they meet all other eligibility requirements (which is to say, age should not be a barrier to candidacy for citizens who have reached the age of majority).
2. All voters should enjoy the right (derived from the foregoing, even if not stipulated) to vote for candidates for federal office of their choosing, unrestricted by age (assuming such candidates meet other eligibility requirements and have reached the age of majority).
3. The foremost rationale for the foregoing is normative, not consequentialist, an appeal to the terms of justice rather than utility. Therewith, this book is mainly about eligibility for office, not election to office.
The historical, theoretical, and political arguments that follow in this book may not convince every reader that an AGE amendment is a just and worthy cause whose time has come. In the history of our constitutional republic, we the people have rectified long-standing exclusions and codified discriminations only after protracted debate and struggle. Recognizing and withstanding rank prejudice, then winning over and converting hearts and minds, may not even rest, ultimately, on scrupulous argument but something more like a leap of democratic faith—in this case, faith in some of the younger citizens among us, or faith in the idea of democracy itself. I am not sure how to teach or to inspire such faith. By now I’ve presented and discussed this amendment proposal to many groups of mostly college-age citizens, and I take heart, and find further encouragement, in their thoughtfully enthusiastic responses (though I think some young persons secretly favor prolonging their adolescence into their adult years, as a kind of alibi for their political non-involvement). By the same token, I’ve encountered at times a kind of negative reaction, beginning with shrug-of-the-shoulders indifference and perhaps developing into stodgy resistance, I must say largely from older folks, who seem to want to dismiss this idea out of hand. I wish this latter group would assess the U.S. representative system through the eyes of today’s youth. But I think that’s a big part of the problem: it’s hard for some older folks even to recognize, let alone listen to, let alone take seriously, their younger cohort as political equals. They simply don’t see the Constitution’s age requirements as a problem.
Myself, I’ve benefited, as a scholar, from intellectual exposure to many rich and provocative theoretical studies that variously attest to the “unmarked” and seemingly “naturalized” hallmarks of hegemonic rule, a kind of rule, I’ve learned, that can be invidiously exclusionary without drawing special attention to its own terms of domination and privilege. Many feminists have unmasked “male privilege” and the unspoken masculinist rudiments seeming to inform many configurations of political authority and liberal contracturalism. Race theorists have performed a similar exposé with respect to “white” privilege, queer theorists have interrogated “heteronormativity,” postcolonial theorists have disclosed East-West dichotomies that turn on unspoken assumptions about “otherness” and “orientalism,” and disabilities theorists have challenged long-standing assumptions about “normal” conceptions of personhood. Yet age—even in feminist studies attending to paternalism—is seldom mentioned as one of the key, even if apparently naturalized and thus occluded, components of patriarchy. Recent developments in the emerging scholarly field of “age studies” are just starting to challenge long-standing stereotypes about different age “groups.” Yet in my own reading of these pioneering studies, the main problem seems to be that ageist assumptions redound to the detriment of older persons. Work that might question debilitating preconceptions about younger persons tends to get short shrift.
In politics, one repeatedly, almost incessantly, hears the undying refrain that young persons are “inexperienced.” Experience thus becomes encoded as a not-so-cryptic synonym for seniority, an amorphously ennobling quality arising somehow out of sheer duration, a hallowed if indistinct aura achieved only over time, which younger persons almost by definition cannot possess. Few ever challenge the notion that experience is the exclusive province of oldsters. Hence it is apt to end this preliminary chapter with a passage from Randolph Bourne’s essay “Youth,” (circa 1913) that does precisely that, all to suggest that it may not be possible to sever constitutional analysis from a broadly ranging inquiry into cultural politics:
Old men cherish a fond delusion that there is something mystically valuable in mere quantity of experience. Now the fact is, of course, that it is the young people who have all the really valuable experience. It is they who have constantly to face new situations, to react constantly to new aspects of life, who are getting the whole beauty and terror and cruelty of the world in its fresh and undiluted purity. It is only the interpretation of this first collision with life that is worth anything. For the weakness of experience is that it so soon gets stereotyped; without new situations and crises it becomes so conventional as to be practically unconscious. Very few people get any really new experience after they are twenty-five, unless there is a real change of environment. Most older men live only in the experience of their youthful years.
If we get few ideas after we are twenty-five, we get few ideals after we are twenty. A man’s spiritual fabric is woven by that time, and his “experience,” if he keeps true to himself, consists simply in broadening and enriching it, but not in adding to it in arithmetical proportion as the years roll on, in the way that the wise teachers of youth would have us believe.
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