Lower the Voting Age!

for Richard Rorty

The Voting Age was lowered from 21 to 18 only in 1971, by Constitutional amendment. A response to Vietnam, the consensus of the times was summed up in the slogan “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote!” Simple and direct. Like most of boomer politics, the campaign succeeded through an appeal from pride to shame: from the righteously self-centered youth of the Age of Aquarius to an older generation still capable of vague feelings of responsibility for their actions and the future effects of those actions. Its success, however, was at best incomplete. As the boomers aged, spawned, developed their own family romances, discovered market capitalism and medical dreams of eternal life, their early promise of civic engagement was left unfulfilled. America has never recovered from that failed promise. The voting age should have been lowered to 16, at least—because at 18 you could still suddenly be drafted, fight, and die in a war started by a government you had never previously voted for. It’s time for our overly cautious democratic Congress to fix that mistake and bring the voting age down again, even if we no longer have military conscription. Constitutional amendments, after all, are not under the oversight of either the judicial or the executive branch.

Lowering the voting age was always a good idea for American democracy for reasons that have little to do with military and security questions. The old reasons are still there, along with some new ones that have emerged since the ’70s. Lowering the voting age is not just a matter of rewarding potential soldiers with full citizenship rights. Electoral reform that expands the franchise, historically, has led to major social change. That change can be good or bad. On the good side, in America and Western Europe, the abolition of property requirements made possible the eventual enfranchisement of women and former slaves, and laid the foundation for social democracy. On the other hand, it opened the door to revanchist populist governments, such as those of Napoleon III and, later, Fascism. In our case, a lowered voting age might just be the catalyst to help release our stalled democratic, revolutionary energies. It might free us from our two-party stalemate, and end the increasingly brutal and pointless trench warfare for the tiny slice of the electorate known as “swing voters” or “independents.” Or—if voter psychology is as bad as cynics believe it to be—it would confirm the juvenility and irresponsibility imputed to the current “adult” electorate by the similar voting behavior of real juveniles. Why don’t we find out, once and for all, what we’re made of?

We should be wary of assuming that a surge of voting kids will benefit any one current party. The old cliché, now backed by some researchers in evolutionary neurobiology, is that the young are naturally radical, and that as we age we become naturally conservative. (No one is a natural liberal—one of the virtues and defects of liberalism—but many become liberals all the same.) Because the young are harder to predict, harder to homogenize, despite the best efforts of marketers, the young will probably not vote as a bloc at all. There will be conservatives, teenage religious enthusiasts, parent-pleasers, shady favor-traders who will learn to barter their votes for car keys or free pizza at a rally sponsored by the nearest chapter of College Republicans. And yet the elites raised these same cautionary cries when the poor were let in. Wouldn’t they simply sell their votes to the highest bidder? To the cynical all things are cynical. We must also imagine young voters who might join the army but are concerned about extended tours of duty and getting their legs blown off; others who like to play politics and debate measures seriously before taking a position and endorsing a candidate—the student-council types. There will be anarchists and globalists, environmentalists and libertarians, drug legalizers and Bible study groups, an entire spectrum. The trend ought to be toward an openness to new ideas, possibly to increased public service.

Perhaps the best reason for lowering the voting age now is that it could provide a cure for American political apathy. Under the present system, Americans become politically conscious before they’re allowed to vote at all. If history has been taught properly, most teenagers come into a sense of their political inheritance for the first time at 15 or even earlier. They may have just read and debated the Constitution, the Voting Rights Act, or the concept of separation of powers. How many of us, as older voters, can say the same? Flush with all this knowledge, what do the students get to do but run for student council, hand out leaflets as unpaid volunteers, and join their parents at protests? These are mere bagatelles, trivial experiences that will make it so much easier to trivialize the real thing later on. The clear-eyed teen who sees these activities as more dumb popularity contests and silly playacting will wisely hold back, but withdrawal and guarded distance too easily become a lifelong habit. For most of us, our initial experience of democracy is of disappointment and disenfranchisement.

There are two traditional objections to lowering the voting age. When the voting age was reduced to 18, most states also lowered the age of legal majority to match. The current voting age is seen, in part, as the beginning of property-holding maturity, the age at which, in some states, one can be sole title holder of a house or stocks, or, at least, open a bank account in one’s own name. The assumption governing these changes was that one ought not vote until one had a specific monetary stake in society. Or that the right to vote tacitly granted the right to acquire and manage property. Of course, we have no official property requirement for voting. Such laws, once part of the old, exclusionary mechanisms of pre-Jacksonian democracy, are now unconstitutional. You do not need to own a home, a car, or a bank account to vote; you only need to be an American citizen.

The other objection requires a belief that majority accords with an age of reason, which all of us now magically reach on our eighteenth birthday. Before 19th-century voting reforms, most adult men who did not own property—along with blacks and women—were thought never to reach the age of reason. Definitions of what counts as reason are too numerous to summarize here, but take one to start: Kant’s. Take, in fact, the journalistically friendly definition from “What is Enlightenment?” originally written for a newspaper. Enlightenment, or reason, is the ability to use one’s understanding, to be able to think for oneself, free from the guidance of another: parent, doctor, priest, teacher, boss. Kant’s definition is intellectual, deliberately so. He did not dream of democracy; he had no wish to shake the foundations of the monarchical Prussian state. Reason is only used for public problem solving, not private scheming. It does not and cannot serve a special interest, especially our own. This is not American reason, certainly not today. If it were, how many of us could be said to have reached the age of reason at all?

If adolescents can be consumers, they can certainly be voters. Americans tend now to prefer an economist’s idea of reason: the ability to judge and make intelligent choices about one’s interests or desires at the lowest common level, that of material survival. “Old enough to buy? Old enough to vote!” The same techniques used to sell clothes, video games, music, and other products to kids as young as 3 are already used to direct which buttons citizens push in the voting booth. Typical utterance of a campaign consultant: “What I think Edwards has failed to understand is that he himself is one of the products placed on the market. . . . This means that—when you run for political office—you must conform your life to your political message as much as you are able.” It’s an easier task to conform your political message to your selfish life, and that’s what we’ve had for eight years. What was the Bush tax cut if not the promise of free candy for all? To the consultant who spends his time off from campaigns advising corporations, there is no practical difference between a voter and a consumer. Voting is buyer’s choice and buyer beware.

As buyers have special interests (shoes, guns, organic foods), so there are voters’ special-interest groups: people who vote for the guy who promises to fix the schools, end abortion, or provide jobs regardless of whatever else he will or will not do. If anything, enfranchising the young might create another series of interest groups to counteract some of the dominant ones. Would American youth really want to vote for people who promise to improve education by cutting funding to schools and making the students take understimulating standardized tests? (Let’s assume that most children want to learn, are excited by new knowledge but are bored or humiliated or discouraged by school, the first taste of the mass society that awaits them.) Or would enfranchising the young, most importantly, create a large group with no discernible interests except in the general welfare? They are not yet lawyers, lobbyists, business people, steelworkers, or corn farmers. They might have the future good of all sorts of people at heart, before they turn into holders of any particular jobs or start down professional paths.

Perhaps it’s middle-aged adults who ought to be disenfranchised. Having become a government of spoiled children, with laws by spoiled children, for spoiled children, we still recognize, guiltily, that we’ve defrauded the real kids, out of ignorance or spite. We’ve licensed a growing national debt to be paid off by budget cuts in necessary social services, or ignored, only to be called in by creditors to the ruin of the US economy. We’ve participated in the continued defunding of education and the shift to an increasingly mechanical view of the student as test taker. We’ve guaranteed a stagnant society in which the brightest Americans indenture themselves for the best years of their lives to pay off student loans. We’ve tolerated the forward-looking Pentagon planners’ desire to reinstitute an arms race of small “tactical” nuclear weapons. We’ve allowed an indifference to, or active destruction of, the global environment. Could a bunch of 16-year-olds choose any worse?

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