Calls for greater equality among citizens are all the rage among many candidates for the highest office in the land.
Hillary Clinton’s primary focus is on achieving full equality for LBGT Americans. Bernie Sanders is now interlacing his long-time call for greater socioeconomic equality with increasing emphasis on racial equality and global equality.
Republican candidates also are taking stabs at addressing income inequality. Carla Fiorina is among those at the vanguard of claiming it has worsened under President Obama’s watch, and would nosedive even more if any aspiring candidate on the Democratic slate is elected in 2016. But they tend to shy away from marriage and gender equality.
For Lawrence Lessig, a widely admired advocate for campaign finance reform who just threw his hat in the ring, “citizen equality” is what matters. He already has proposed the compelling Citizen Equality Act of 2017, a referendum that, if approved, he claims would garner citizens the equal freedom to vote and equal representation, and most and best of all, would provide for citizen-funded elections.
One may differ with Lessig’s prescription for campaign finance reform and his view that it’s the main way to make citizen equality a reality. I for one maintain that a more effective, sensible and constitutionally doable remedy for reviving our republic , is one bequeathed to us by our Constitution’s visionary Framers — namely, to vastly increase the number of members of the House of Representatives. Among many pluses, realizing this proposal, which requires a mere majority vote by Congress, would make it possible for virtually anyone, even with the shallowest financial pockets, to wage a viable campaign, and would render obsolete partisan attempts at gerrymandering.
Nonetheless, one may thoroughly agree with Lessig’s clear-eyed assessment that “the core problem in American democracy is a problem of equality” and that we must have “meaningful political equality for all American citizens.”
Yet every single one of the candidates for President is completely silent on, if not oblivious to, an equal right to self-determination when it comes to one of our largest groups of American citizens — our nation’s nearly 74 million children and youth.
Why aren’t they part of the stirring call for “meaningful political equality for all American citizens”? Why are they continually treated like second class citizens? Until and unless our youngest Americans are given equal political rights, our nation’s promise can’t be realized.
In our founding era, our nation’s youth often were front and center in the Revolutionary war effort, just as aroused to risk it all for independence as their adult counterparts. They put themselves in harm’s way to enlist and serve in our militias, most often as drummers in the thick of battle, helping convey critical signals to American troops that could prove decisive. Andrew Jackson, for one, enlisted at age 13 in South Carolina’s patriot militia, and was eventually taken prisoner (when a British officer ordered him to clean his boots and Jackson refused, he was slashed brutally with a sword).
Yet our youngest, then and now, have never been of “all men are created equal.” They are left out of the political decision-making process, much to their detriment. As things stand, the number of homeless school-age children is at an all-time high. Children suffering from abuse and neglect has been epidemic. What’s more, nearly a third of children have not had a regular source of health care.
And their access to the kind of “world class” education that President Obama asserts all our children and youth deserve remains out of reach for far too many. Our educational system remains separate and unequal,, making it nigh impossible for children and youth to develop and discover their talents and contribute them in ways that optimize self and societal flourishing.
Surely this lamentable state of affairs would change radically if and when they are given equal political right to become a formidable voting bloc to be reckoned with.
I hear routinely all the arguments against making children and youth equal political citizens — the two principle ones are that they’re too impressionable, and they’re too ill-informed on the salient political issues of our day.
Yet I’ve discovered time and again in my peregrinations holding Democracy Cafeand Constitution Cafe, and Socrates Cafe exchanges that our youngest are often very much ‘in the know’ on current events – and past ones, for that matter – and deeply committed to righting wrongs. Not only that, studies show that when the voting age has been lowered in other countries, youth rise to the occasion and become even more politically astute.
On the other hand, adults can be incredibly impressionable on political matters —negative advertising works wonders on adults, sadly.
And most American adults do not know even the most essential historical and political facts needed to be knowledgeable political citizens. The Center for the Study of the American Dream at Xavier University found, in a comprehensive survey, that only 65 percent of native-born Americans could answer correctly six of the 10 questions that aspiring naturalized Americans have to answer if they’re to become citizens (on the other hand, immigrants applying to become citizens could answer correctly a whopping 93 percent of the questions posed).
It is only fair that we include our youngest as partners in political life. We need kids voting, serving on school boards, as Cabinet members (in a new federal Department of Youth, as students at a magnet school for students from low-income families in Philadelphia proposed), as equal participants.
One might argue that the Republican candidates at least bend over backwards to stress the equal rights of the unborn — at least, until they actually enter the world, at which time there is little concern over what if any political rights those born in circumstances of tremendous inequality will enjoy.
And there’s the rub: no one seeking political office is willing to give kids the political clout needed to have their deepest desires in the political realm addressed. Let’s at least ask kids if they want the right to vote, and let them vote on the matter, up or down.
I want for my two precious young daughters what I want for every citizen — for their voices to be heeded and heard, to matter and count. For that to happen, we need to lower the voting age. To her credit, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi has proposed that we lower the voting age to 16. That’s a good start. I personally believe we should work towards lowering it to the lowest documented age that someone enlisted in the American Revolution.
Our youngest citizens must have the right to be a political force in their own right, so they have a pathway for greater self-determination. Doing so would make ours a nation in which ‘childkind’ at long last becomes a central part of “all men are created equal.”