After the Supreme Court refused to rule on same-sex marriage bans in Virginia and four other states – effectively making same-sex marriage legal – Virginia Governor Tim Kaine lauded the fact that the Justices had “given loving couples across the Commonwealth the freedom to marry.” In doing so, Kaine claims, “we have taken a major step toward Jefferson’s ideal that ‘all men are created equal.’”
What major steps remain to be taken? What about children? Do we consider them part of Jefferson’s ideal? If so, is that reflected in our policies and laws?
The noted British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, for one, upon reading our Declaration of Independence and coming across the phrase “all men are created equal,” took ‘all men’ to include ‘all children.’ Bentham took great umbrage to this. “‘All men,’” he wrote, “‘are created equal.’ This surely is a new discovery; now, for the first time, we learn, that a child, at the moment of his birth, has the same quantity of natural power as the parent, the same quantity of political power as the magistrate.”
Bentham need not have fretted. Children have nowhere near the natural power of the parent, much less the political power of the magistrate. What might their world, and our democracy, be like if they did?
To this day, our youngest don’t enjoy suffrage. They don’t enjoy equally our First Amendment rights, though it makes no mention of age. This is so even though, in our founding area, many children and youth fought in the Revolutionary war – and many were injured and killed. They sometimes were sent to serve in the military rather than their older siblings or parents. They often served as foot soldiers, and fought side by side with their adult counterparts.
If they risked it all way back when, along with their adults counterparts, for our nation’s independence, why didn’t this earn them the right to vote, as it did us older folks?
Seemingly a lifetime ago, in his second inauguration speech, President Obama asked all Americans to join him in uniting our diverse citizenry. He maintained that “what makes us exceptional, what makes us America, is our allegiance to an idea articulated in the Declaration made more than two centuries ago. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Obama went on to equate the struggle for civil rights and for women’s right to vote with the fight for equal rights by gay Americans. He then said, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.” This has now been realized, thanks to the Supreme Court, to a much more considerable extent. But Obama, like most of the rest of us, has turned a blind eye to all the brothers and sisters under age 18 who are denied equal rights.
The only time Obama made a reference to kids in that speech was when he said that we adults have to respond to the threat of climate change, since “knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
Is denying kids the right to vote a betrayal as well? Would they do what we adults haven’t, and vote in ways that would see to it that there are the kinds of strict environmental laws in place that would prevent adults from wreaking havoc on the air we breathe?
How different might things be if our youngest were voters? They’d be a powerful constituency whose vote politicians would covet. As a result, my hunch is that we’d have much more funding for education. We’d have better schools, better educational materials and methods. There would be decent funding for social services, decent funding for housing.
Children would be a political force to be reckoned with. Parents should want their kids to vote. If they were a voting bloc that couldn’t be ignored, there would be sensible laws for leave for mothers and fathers, more sick leave, affordable daycare.
According to the most recent figures available, the number of homeless school-age children is at an all-time high. Children suffering from abuse and neglect is epidemic. And 29 percent of children, according to the most recent statistic, haveno regular source of health care.
Politicians surely would no longer be able to mortgage their future by saddling them with trillions in debt. They’d never dream of doing such a thing, leaving it to kids to pay off their boondoggles, if the youngest among us could vote here and now.
What is it about age 18 that makes someone ripe to vote? Are those age 18 and above more educated about the issues, more informed about the candidates vying for elective office? Or do our Internet-savvy children and youth tend to be more enlightened than their fellow citizens of more advanced years? My experience in the thousands of political and philosophical dialogues I’ve held over the years with those under age 18 is that they often are quite astute about the issues.
Adults might still counter: but kids are too impressionable. But it was adults who voted people into office who’ve gotten us into one war after another that we debatably have no business being in. It was adults who voted people into office who keep adding to our debt, and keep bailing out the companies responsible for so many parents losing their jobs. Can kids really do worse if given suffrage?
There’s also this: You only have to be 16 to vote in Austria, Brazil, Cuba and Nicaragua, and 17 in Indonesia, one of our most burgeoning democracies, as well as in East Timor, Sudan and Seychelles. In 2004, John Vasconcellos, a Congressman from California, proposed a constitutional amendment called Training Wheels for Citizenship that would give 14-year-olds a quarter vote, 16-year-olds half a vote, and 17-year-olds a full vote. His proposed amendment never went anywhere. Maybe it’s time to revisit it.
No constitutional amendment is required to lower the voting aging. Rather, each state has the authority to make the voting age less than the age of 18 mandated in the Constitution. What is needed now is a groundswell of kids and adults to demand that their state legislature do so.
At the very least, should kids be able to vote on whether they should be able to vote? They might decide they don’t want the right. But if democracy is all about self-determination, they should be given the right to decide for themselves.
Randall Huff, in The Revolutionary War Era, notes that kids were not only “aware of their own mortality at a tender age,” but they were “treated as small adults.” They were “allowed to participate in the political discussions of their elders,” as well they should, given that many of them made the supreme sacrifice for the war effort. Yet they were left out of having any semblance of a direct role in deciding issues that were of just as much importance to them as their elders. They were no part of “all men are created equal” than blacks or women.
Our Declaration of Independence states that “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes” for seeking independence. Perhaps one day kids will issue their own declaration. After all, as our Declaration makes clear, none of us is supposed to be governed without our consent. And so, our littlest might well argue, “it is the right of childkind, nay it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Originally published on Huffpost