Why we should restrict the national voting age to 65
There is a crisis in American democracy today. We see this in the polarization of both voters and their elected representatives. This has led to calls to “throw the bums out”, but we have seen that this has not worked. We do not need to look far to discover why. Even though the median age of all Americans is less than 40, the average age of the House of Representatives and Senate are 56.7 and 62.2 years1, respectively. The Congress is elected by, and must respond to the wishes of, the electorate, of whom 66.8% are between 15 and 64 years, with only 13.4% aged 65 or older2. It thus appears that older people are disproportionally represented in our Congress, which has important implications for both their decisions and the voting patterns of the electorate.
It is an assumption founded on the U.S. Constitution that all men have a basic right to vote, although this national franchise took many steps to develop from the original right of only property-owning white men in the original Constitution: white men (over 21 years) whether or not they owned property from 1792-1856; all white men in 1868 (Fourteenth Amendment); non-white men in 1870 (Fifteenth Amendment); for these men to directly elect senators in 1913 (Seventeenth Amendment); women in 1920 (Nineteenth Amendment); all Native Americans in 1924; residents of Washington D.C. for president in 1961 (Twenty-third Amendment); poll taxes were abolished in 1964 (Twenty-fourth Amendment); adults between 18 and 21 in 1971 (Twenty-sixth Amendment); and soldiers living overseas couldn’t vote for President until 1986. It is apparent that elected representatives have seen fit to change the national voting franchise to adjust to a changing world. Is there any reason we shouldn’t continue this bold experiment in democracy? I will attempt in this essay to discuss the reasons why we should consider a decrease in the national voting age to allow our democracy to keep up with the changing world.
A recent survey of Twitter posts identifies the ten most pressing issues for people who tweet, which is dominated by younger Americans: (1) job opportunities; (2) discrimination; (3) education; (4) good government; (5) political freedom; (6) climate change; (7) environmental protection; (8) sexual equality; (9) energy; and (10) transportation3. A recent survey by the AARP4 reveals major concerns for its members, who are older than 50 years: (1) health care; (2) economic issues (e.g. Social Security); (3) vacation and hobbies; (4) staying healthy; (5) consumer protection; (6) community issues (e.g. lighting and sidewalks; (7) long-term care and home-care services. These two lists are not directly comparable and it is not my intent to summarize the importance of social issues for all Americans, but there is a striking difference between them; the overwhelming concern of older Americans in health care, and not the future of American democracy.
The AARP survey shows the justifiable concern that older Americans have for health care and living in a sustainable way within their communities. Few of the long-term issues reflected in the Twitter data are reflected in these concerns, however, yet these older voters so consistently vote for representatives based on issues of public support, e.g., Medicare and Social Security, that these topics cannot even be discussed within Congress without fear of reprisal. This is an understandably selfish view that is not consistent with the real problems facing America in these turbulent times. Those of us with adult children are aware of their preoccupation with their futures as well as social issues, yet we cannot help but want what’s best for them. They will always be our children but they are no longer younglings (a phrase from Star Wars) for whom we know best. We cannot possibly know what is most dear to them and thus we should not try and determine the world they will live in.
We humans invariably develop many long-term relationships throughout our lives and these are reflected in webs of trust as we grow older. However, as natural as this social web is and its contribution to our health as we age, it also engenders a patrimonial hierarchy of interdependence that is too often exhibited in both the re-election of well-known representatives, who support issues we find most important, and clientelism among our representatives, which we call corruption in developing democracies. The undemocratic political result of these engrained social webs is exacerbated by the natural accumulation of wealth by older Americans, which we expect and encourage in a capitalist society, but it endows them with political power beyond our demographic status. This disequilibrium is further increased by the large number of Americans born after World War II, the “Baby Boom” generation (born between 1946 and 1964), with a projected increase in those older than 65 from 15% in 2015 to 21% in 2030.
We all remember the “good old days” but any browsing of a modern history book will show that they weren’t that good for most of us; instead of remembering skyrocketing oil prices, double-digit inflation, stagflation, wage and price controls, or the Viet Nam war, we seem to recall Hollywood products like American Graffiti or Happy Days. We have a strong desire to pass this fantasy world to our children, a world that never existed. Even though Americans are living to almost 80 years, we know that we are not starting a family or a career, or entering a new field through college or a job. Thus, we cannot really feel the angst we did when we were young; the result is that we fall back on our partly imagined memories of the past. Although we see the past perfectly through our rose-colored glasses, we see the future bleakly through the cataracts on our minds and what we cannot see we cannot plan for.
Human beings also remember old animosities in a distorted manner. Those who lived through past wars, and there have been continuous wars throughout every living American’s life, remember those adversaries similarly to our fond memories, only with lasting animosity that doesn’t reflect changes in the world outside our homes and families. But these irrelevant fears are eventually exposed in our support for aggressive foreign policy based on concepts like Communism and Global Thermonuclear War (e.g. MAD or Mutually Assured Destruction) when dealing with other states. Thus, we think that solutions that avoided such calamitous outcomes as a communist world or a Nuclear-Winter will serve us well in the twenty-first century, and these false solutions become issues that are used to elect our representatives and make strategic decisions.
The importance of health on our mental state is acknowledged by the medical field and yet older Americans with a variety of painful diseases, such as arthritis and cancer, vote regularly. This has an immeasurable effect on our government and its goals. The final problem with the overblown electoral impact of older Americans on our government is that we really aren’t going to be around to see the consequences of our actions today. Action taken by Americans and their elected representatives today will not be fully implemented until into the 2030s but who is making these decisions? These same older Americans will not be here to say, “Oops…my bad”
Against this weight of evidence, older Americans have but one unambiguous response: it is un-American to restrict the voting franchise. Yet, generations of Americans have modified the franchise to keep up with the changing times. Do we have the same strength? It is an ideal of a democracy that its citizens vote for the good of all citizens rather than their own interest, but this would be contrary to human psychology. Herein lays a fundamental problem with our democracy, and one that our children will have to deal with on their own but which is made worse by the undemocratic concentration of political power in an older generation that is motivated by self-interest alone. Adam Smith would whole-heartedly support this situation, but he lived in a time and place where suffrage was limited to Forty-Shilling Freeholders5. God help us if we cannot trust our children to keep our needs in mind when confronting their future.