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Vivek Ramaswamy Channels Robert Heinlein, and Me
Raising the voting age, and demanding a commitment
So Vivek Ramaswamy is channeling a weird mix of me and Robert Heinlein with his new voting age proposal. (Hey, he could do worse).
The proposal is that the voting age should be raised to 25 by constitutional amendment (necessary to overcome the 26th Amendment, passed in 1971, which set the voting age at 18). Younger people could vote, but only if they had served in the military or as first responders, or if they could pass the same test given to foreigners applying for U.S. citizenship.
The first part of the proposal echoes a column I wrote some years ago about raising the voting age. After some unfortunate events at Yale and the University of Missouri, I wrote:
To be a voter, one must be able to participate in adult political discussions. It’s necessary to be able to listen to opposing arguments and even — as I’m doing right here in this column — to change your mind in response to new evidence.
This evidence suggests that, whatever one might say about the 18-year-olds of 1971, the 18-year-olds of today aren’t up to that task. And even the 21-year-olds aren’t looking so good.
Consider Yale University, where a disagreement over what to do about — theoretically — offensive Halloween costumes devolved into a screaming fit by a Yale senior (old enough to vote, thanks to the 26th Amendment) who assaulted a professor, Nicholas Christakis, with a profane tirade because his failure to agree with her made her feel ... unsafe. His wife, Erika, who's a Yale lecturer on childhood education, had challenged a campus-wide request that students be sensitive when considering costumes that could be offensive.
As The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf writes: “Erika Christakis reflected on the frustrations of the students, drew on her scholarship and career experience, and composed an email inviting the community to think about the controversy through an intellectual lens that few if any had considered. Her message was a model of relevant, thoughtful, civil engagement. For her trouble, a faction of students are now trying to get (her and her husband, also a professor there) removed from their residential positions, which is to say, censured and ousted from their home on campus. Hundreds of Yale students are attacking them, some with hateful insults, shouted epithets, and a campaign of public shaming. In doing so, they have shown an illiberal streak that flows from flaws in their well-intentioned ideology.”
This isn’t the behavior of people who are capable of weighing opposing ideas, or of changing their minds when they are confronted with evidence that suggests that they are wrong. It’s the behavior of spoiled children — a characterization that Friedersdorf, perhaps unconsciously, underscores by not reporting the students’ names because, he implies, they are too young to be responsible for their actions. And spoiled children shouldn’t vote. . . .
As Reason’s Robby Soave notes, student demands for “safe spaces” boil down to a demand that universities fulfill the role of Mommy and Daddy. In the old days — this practice, interestingly, ended about 1971, too — colleges stood in loco parentis (in the place of a parent) and, as Soave writes, exercised extensive and detailed control over students’ social lives, sleeping hours, organizing and speaking. Now, he observes, the students are “desperate to be treated like children again.”
Well, OK, I guess. But children don’t vote. Those too fragile to handle different opinions are too fragile to participate in politics. So maybe we should raise the voting age to 25, an age at which, one fervently hopes, some degree of maturity will have set in. It’s bad enough to have to treat college students like children. But it’s intolerable to be governed by spoiled children.
That governance point is an important one. We tend to treat voting as an act of self-expression, but it is also, in a sense, an act of violence. It is both a sort of proxy for violence, measuring the size of the forces on either side of an issue, and it leads, eventually, to real violence, since voting establishes the mechanism for passing and instituting laws that will eventually be enforced with violence. (As my old law professor Stephen Carter says, when you want a law passed, you say that you’d be willing to kill the people who don’t obey your wishes. That it’s at second hand, through the institution of government, doesn’t make it less violent, just less obvious.)
So we want voters to be reasonably informed, and capable of mature judgment. (At present it looks as if a college education may often actually make them less capable of mature judgment).
So we winnow a bit. Age helps – there’s some reason to suppose that 25 year olds today are no more mature than 18 year olds in 1971. So does commitment. That’s where the Robert Heinlein part comes in.
Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, in his famous novel Starship Troopers,envisioned a society where voters, too, had to demonstrate their patriotism before being allowed to vote. In his fictional society, the right to vote came only after some kind of dangerous public service — in the military, as a volunteer in dangerous medical experiments, or in other ways that demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice personally for the common good. The thought was that such voters would be more careful, and less selfish, in their voting.
That seems to be at the core of Ramaswamy’s proposal for letting people with military or first responder service vote sooner. Military service is a sort of “expensive signaling” of one’s willingness to serve the nation even at high personal cost. Such people are, on average, likely to be more public spirited.
The part of Ramaswamy’s proposal that I’m least enthusiastic about is the citizenship test. America had those sorts of tests before, and in the abstract they sound fine, even laudable. But historically they were applied/graded very unfairly, so as to disadvantage marginalized groups (chiefly, but by no means exclusively, blacks) and keep them from voting. I have no faith in the institutions that would apply and grade such tests today.
I was listening to one of my local talk-radio hosts say that this proposal would never go anywhere because the trend has been to expand the electorate, and because it’s hard to amend the Constitution. He’s not wrong about the trend or the amendment process, but I wonder. If nothing else, Ramaswamy is moving the Overton Window.
And the reason why Democrats have been trying to lower the voting age is because, as I’ve pointed out before, leftism is something that old people sell to young people in order to control them. Raising the voting age would help with that. Maybe it’s inconceivable now, but a constitutional amendment establishing an 18 year old voting age was pretty inconceivable in 1965. Things change, and sometimes they do so suddenly.
Anyway, watch the reactions to Ramaswamy’s proposal. You’ll learn a lot.
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