Columns

Moffat ’13: Fight for your right to part … icipate

By
Opinions Columnist

There is an insidious form of institutionalized discrimination written into our Constitution, and it affects virtually every student at the University. Young people under the age of 35 — nearly half of the citizens in the United States — do not enjoy the full benefits of enfranchisement: We are denied the right to hold important offices in government. Twenty-five is the minimum legal age for a House representative — and it’s 30 for a senator and 35 for a president.

Underlying these age-based oppression laws is what some might first think an innocuous assumption: Young people are not fully equipped to make decisions about something as important as government. One might suggest that our “brains are not fully developed” or that we “aren’t mature enough.” Give me a break.

Are these laws really protecting us from the great perils of inept leadership? Just look at how Congress handled the so-called “fiscal cliff” crisis earlier this year. And now they’re having another ridiculous debate about whether we should pay back our creditors in the deceptively named “debt ceiling” debacle. Yet the 113th Congress is one of the oldest in U.S. history — the average House representative is 58 years old and the average senator is 61.

It turns out that the US is an outlier among constitutional democracies. Most of them, including Canada and Britain, allow 18-year-olds to run for public office. So why are we perpetuating a form of political discrimination that most other countries have long abandoned?

What many take for granted as a benign form of discrimination meant to protect against “inexperience” is actually a serious threat to the democratic integrity of our country. Restricting young people from public office creates pernicious consequences for the entire electorate.

First, the systematic disenfranchisement of millions of young adult citizens significantly discourages them from being politically engaged. Year after year, many commentators lament the lack of voter turnout among 18 to 24 year-olds, but perhaps this is because our candidacy laws inadvertently signal to young people that their opinions don’t matter. Perhaps young people would pay more attention to elections if they and their peers were allowed to participate in them. Restricting young people from public office sends a terrible message about the value of civic participation.

Second, we miss out on a particular kind of creativity and innovativeness in federal policymaking when we exclude young people from political races. Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates all made their first billion dollars during their early 20s. These young entrepreneurs succeeded in the marketplace despite their lack of “experience,” so why should we think that young people would not be able to similarly compete in the marketplace of policy ideas? Young people often bring a fresh curiosity and open-mindedness to old problems, and we need that now more than ever. We need leaders who understand how to think globally and thrive within diversity. These are some of our generation’s greatest strengths, and the halls of power could benefit from them if only we weren’t locked out.

Third, restricting young people from running for office means that the issues that young people care most about will be largely ignored. If we had had a younger candidate on the stage during the presidential debates, perhaps there would have been a more serious conversation about the war on drugs, Internet censorship, climate change or marriage equality.

Young people have a greater interest in the functioning of our political system than anyone else. US soldiers between the ages of 18 and 24 make up 54 percent of those who died in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and 90 percent of those who sacrificed their lives were under 35. These brave men and women died for our country without ever having the rights of a full citizen. Decisions to go to war might be more rigorously debated if we allowed young people to have a stronger voice in government. Long-term environmental and fiscal issues might be given our full and focused attention. Instead, these problems tend to be ignored by people who won’t be around when the ultimate consequences become manifest.

According to a study by the Brookings Institute, the federal budget allocates seven times more money for the elderly than it does for children. Is this any surprise, since we systematically restrict the representation of young people in public office? Are we just counting on the generosity of the old-timers to vote against their generational interests? Young people are more affected by governmental policies and economic vicissitudes than anyone else, so it is simply immoral that we are being denied access to the decision-making institutions of our nation.

It’s time we had a national debate about this issue. More enlightened countries have discarded the baseless stereotypes about young people and have embraced a more inclusive and diverse model for political participation. We should do the same.

Jared Moffat ’13 gets his chance to be a serious contender in the 2028 presidential election. Send your endorsements and campaign donations to jared_moffat@brown.edu