Time for Children’s Suffrage (You Read That Right!)

Our entire country, with the exception of legislators under the financial thrall of the NRA, has been moved by the high-school students’ walkouts and demonstrations, and I’m no exception. But I wanted to listen to the students more closely, and to think about their cause, which really is about more than gun reform. It’s about having a voice.

As I’ve grown older, ageism has come to be defined in my own reality more as discrimination against older people (yes, Tip O’Neill was right: all politics are local). But of course ageism runs both ways. Ageism is expressed by those who scoff at these young citizen-demonstrators, those who dismiss their naïveté or, contrarily, their audacity—or both. Yet the kids continue with their principled, peaceful, political determination, which at heart is about being denied “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Then I remembered that years ago I had called for lowering the age of suffrage eligibility, in my book The Anatomy of Freedom (now available in all e-book formats). I took it down, read that chapter, “Public Secrets,” and was shocked to find that what I had written in 1981 was deplorably relevant. I’d love to think that I was prescient and ahead of my time, but the more accurate reason is that some things have changed so little. In fact, I believe that such current issues as persistent voter suppression and increased gerrymandering have intensified reasons for the expansion of the electorate I proposed.

Here are extracts from that chapter, which was inspired by conversations with my son, at the time of that writing 12 years old. This is from a section about the ignorance-is-bliss indifference of those who have power.

Let’s take as an example the issue of children’s suffrage. Yes, the right of the child to vote. This right is denied to children on a number of grounds, all of them specious:

1. The Cuteness Defense. “No child, e.g. citizen below the age of 21 [in 1988 the Twenty Sixth Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18] has the maturity to vote.” Whoever puts forth this argument must be measuring maturity in terms of height or reproductive capacity, because any other measurements (well- rounded education, financial independence, emotional stability, intellectual and political acumen, knowledge of civics, government, and democratic systems, etc.) do not describe the current average voter anywhere in the world.

2. The Dependency Defense. “No child is autonomous enough to make her/his own voting choice; a child merely will act as a pawn for the parents, voting the way they tell him/her to vote.” This defense ought to ring familiar warning bells in every woman’s head, since a twin reason (husband’s influence) was hammered for 50 years as an excuse for denying the vote to women. It’s an example of the self-fulfilling property concept: First, rob someone of autonomy and make this person an item of property; then deny the person rights on the grounds that a piece of property wouldn’t know how to exercise such rights. The response in terms of children’s suffrage might be identical to that made by formerly enslaved, emancipated Africans and by women: “In the privacy of the voting booth, who knows how we might choose? We may well educate ourselves. Husbands [parents] may influence us, and then again you might be surprised at how quickly we can balance that influence with our own thoughts and desires, once we have the option. Besides, your argument is a priori. A human right is a right, basic and unqualified by credentials allowing one access to that right.”

3. The Innocence Defense. “No child is well-informed enough on the issues of the day to make reasonable voting decisions, unless, of course, parents do the informing—in which case they’re influencing, and that’s unacceptable, too.” This argument has a Mad Hatter quality of logic so debilitating it makes one wish, like the dormouse, to go back to sleep in the teapot. First, the average adult voter is as “well-informed on the issues of the day” as a groundhog on weather currents in the upper atmosphere. In fact, those in political and economic power positions do their best to keep the average voter in just this uninformed state, despite contrary efforts by a free press. Second, a child can become better informed on the issues in the same way that adults do-–by reading newspapers and magazines, watching television journalism, and monitoring coverage of candidates [and nowadays by being more savvy than adults about news sources on the Internet].

4. The Playfulness Defense. “Children wouldn’t be interested in newspapers and current events. They’d be bored. Why burden them? They want to play and have fun.” Let us leave aside for a moment the fact that the majority of adult voters are bored by current political practice; in 1980 almost half of the U.S. potential electorate didn’t vote—out of disillusionment and boredom. [Today, in 2018, 4 out of 10 eligible voters still don’t vote.] As for children, the truth is that they play very seriously. It’s how they learn, in fact. Play isn’t frivolous or foolish; it’s a life-sustaining creative activity. (When adults engage in it they’re called artists, and are frequently mistaken for children.) Children are quite capable of being fascinated with the news of our times, and of understanding how deeply it affects them, not only right now but in the tomorrow they will inherit. And if political rhetoric is impenetrable to a child, what an easy solution there is to that one! In order to equip this new voter with the facts, such mystification must be simplified and clarified! Think how this would alarm those in power—and relieve the average adult voter who also, as we know, cannot penetrate political obfuscation. What a benefit to all would result! The Emperor, in other words, would have to get decently dressed. As for “burdening” children with rights, how that smacks of the Ye Olde Paternalism: “the white man’s burden,” stereotypes of happy carefree slaves on the plantation, and sweetly silly childlike women.

5. The Divide and Conquer Defense. “But where do you draw the line? Should everyone over age 16 be enfranchised? Over 12? Six? Are you going to oppress toddlers—ha ha ha—by excluding them? Once you start with this, you’re lost! Don’t you see the impossibility?” Ahh, the Slippery Slope or Domino Argument. How reminiscent of the 19th Century position that it was alright for black men to vote, but not for any woman—or that it was acceptable for white women to be enfranchised but not black [or Native] women. Surely a simple standard like functional literacy might be a guideline, thus setting the voting age—at least to begin with—at 15 years old. Then, once the idea is established, children themselves, along with the rest of the electorate, could debate the practical feasibility of enfranchising even younger citizens. A literacy standard can be misused, of course. Although literacy itself is an objective good, it is fair as a credential only when all have equal access to it, and when tests are free of cultural values and assumptions and are multilingual.

6. The Comic Defense. “Well anyway, it’s ridiculous. I mean really! Kids voting! How absurd!” This argument too is a familiar one to women: ridicule. When pseudo logic fails, resort to mockery, derision, scorn. Racial, sexual, and ethnic ”jokes,” humor that targets the physically disabled, all are part of this tactic. When oppressed peoples cease chuckling amiably at jokes that degrade their own dignity as human beings, then they are accused of having lost a sense of humor. Apparently, nobody in the power class stops to think of what a deliciously sharp sense of humor the oppressed have when alone and not being overheard—but those jokes happen to be about the oppressor. As the poet Alice Meynell noted, “The sense of humor has other things to do than to make itself conspicuous in the act of laughter.” To see children’s suffrage as hilarious is as ignorant and arrogant a reaction as it was when proposals for non-property holders’ suffrage, ”Negro” (male) suffrage, or women’s suffrage were viewed as comparably hilarious. Such laughter is the giggling of the morally and politically bankrupt—and of the scared.

The example of children’s suffrage is vital in itself but also indicative of the way children are really regarded in a culture that purports to adore kids, Disneyland style. The truth about how Americans regard children is ugly. Whole housing projects and entire townships deny tenancy to families with children; children still do manual labor here in the richest superpower in the world—as migrant farm workers, sharecroppers, and in some mining communities; children as a subclass within racial minorities suffer higher mortality rates, lack of minimal nutrition, clothing, and education; the growing statistics on sexual abuse of children are horrifying. Meanwhile, fundamentalists—religious and political—passionate in their defense of the fetus and their own narrow definition of the family, are unconcerned about what happens to children once babies are past the delivery stage. In fact, they don’t even care about a healthy fetus, because that would mean ensuring good healthcare, diet, and clean air for even the poorest pregnant woman. The right wing has shown its love for kids peculiarly, by avidly supporting corporal punishment in the schools and at home, denouncing child-abuse studies and shelters as “subversive of the American family,” lobbying to deprive public-school students of free lunches and religious freedom (by requiring prayer in the classrooms), and much more.

How I would love to let loose a children’s electorate on them!

P.S. How I would still love that, now more than ever! Wouldn’t you?