Monday, November 30, 2009
The Child Voter
As I have mentioned previously, my political awakening came when I was nine years old during the summer of 1992, watching then Governor Bill Clinton run for the presidency. I saw Clinton in much the same way that many college students last year viewed "the second black president," Barack Obama. To me Clinton was "change" and "hope." At that time this country faced a major crisis, a multi-trillion dollar deficit and I believed that Clinton was the man to do that; the Republicans had clearly failed after twelve years controlling the office of the president so it seemed reasonable to hope that Clinton could change this situation so I would not have to pay this debt when grew up. (We have failed miserably at this, but I will leave it to some other time to discuss who to blame for this.) I managed to impress my grandfather with my command of the issues and rallied my friends to support Clinton in an overwhelming victory in the mock elections held at school. Despite this, our legal system did not allow me to cast a vote in the actual election. I was not able to vote in 1996 nor was I allowed to vote in the closely contested election of 2000 despite the fact that I had skipped a grade and was therefore already out of high school as I was, frustratingly still just several months short of my eighteenth birthday. Readers are free to disagree with my reasons for supporting Clinton and I have certainly evolved in my political thinking over the past seventeen years. That being said I clearly had achieved, by the age of nine, a certain baseline of political understanding where I was capable, regardless of whether I was right or not, of articulating political views in a coherent fashion. So I possessed a political consciousness roughly equal to that of the average college student yet I was not able to directly help put Clinton into office as they helped Obama.
I am not here to argue for children's suffrage, though I do not consider the whole notion as something absurd to be dismissed out of hand. I recognize that, by and large, most children do not possess the baseline of political consciousness necessary in order to take part in civic life. Most children are not economically self sufficient nor do they pay taxes. They therefore have no stake in the system. Most children are under the thrall of their parents and would vote however they told them to. I accept these arguments, but I find it strange that any liberal accepts them, because to do so a person has to accept as part of the foundation of their political thinking a premise that puts a knife through over a century of liberal thinking, which assumes that one must judge people as individuals and that any attempt to deal with people as a group is nothing but stereotyping and prejudice.
When the authors of the Constitution decided to not give people like my nine year old self a vote, a decision confirmed more recently when the voting age was brought down from twenty-one to eighteen, but not nine, they bought into the notion that, since most nine year olds lack the intelligence or the economic/social self-sufficiency to serve as citizens, all nine year olds were not to be given a vote even those nine year olds who did possess these things. Furthermore they decided that, since most twenty-one/eighteen year olds are intelligent enough and are economically/socially self-sufficient enough to serve as citizens, all twenty-one/eighteen year olds were to be given a vote, even those who did not possess these things. So today if you are eighteen years old or above, a citizen of this country, have not been convicted of any serious crimes and mentally competent enough to carry out the physical action of voting you can vote. (Considering that we dropped the voting age to eighteen at about the same time as we brought in mass college education, I find the whole economic self-sufficiency argument to be laughable. If anything we should have gone the other way and pushed the voting age to twenty-two when most people leave college and start real jobs.) I wish we could scrap the age requirement and directly demand that people pass some sort of citizenship test, like the one we give immigrants, and report a certain level of income on tax returns in order to be allowed to vote. This would make the voting process much more difficult and expensive to boot so we take a short cut and limit the vote to people of the age bracket of people who generally possess the needed qualities despite the fact that many worthy individuals are shafted by it.
At the heart of this disenfranchisement of children is the argument that it is acceptable to disenfranchise people who belong to a specific group, known for their inability to fulfill a necessary requirement for suffrage. Another way to put this is that if person x belongs to group y and z percentage of y lack characteristic a then it is acceptable to strip x of b regardless of whether x lacks a. I do not object to this, it is essentially an extension of the principle that law can only deal with generalities and not specifics, which Maimonides and the pre-modern legal tradition accepted. That being said, this should put a shiver down every one of your spines.
I can plausibly replace children, as the x in the equation with other groups. Take blacks or women in the nineteenth century for example. Were these groups as a whole, at that point in time, at some theoretical baseline of political consciousness and economic/social self-sufficiency to be allowed to vote? Need I point out that keeping them from voting was justified by comparing them to children? There would be nothing irrational or intolerant about saying that white males (or property owning white males) as a group have reached this threshold and blacks and women have not and therefore voting should be restricted to white males. You can no longer argue that there are women and blacks who personally pass the necessary thresholds and white males who do not so one should not work with generalizations or stereotypes. We have already decided that it is okay to engage in generalizations and stereotypes when it comes to children. I do not know what sin the conservative who fought against women's and black suffrage, on the grounds of their fitness, committed; I do know that the non-child suffrage supporting liberal who chastises him for being prejudiced is a hypocrite.
This notion of stripping groups of their right to vote can be brought up to date. Women have proven to be highly successful in terms of education and taking up active roles in the economy. I would say that women in the western world hit our theoretical threshold sometime during the late nineteenth century. Proof of this is the fact that it was at this point that we see a mass women's suffrage movement. This required large amounts of women with educations and outside of the social or economic control of any fathers or husbands. What about blacks and particularly black men, with their frustrating inability to become productive upwardly mobile members of society, today; have they achieved the necessary threshold? To use examples of some of my fellow bloggers, we could say that Miss S., a black woman, should be allowed to vote while MaNishtana, a black man, should not, regardless of their comparative merit. We could take down Malcolm Gladwell, a writer and thinker I am in awe of, because he is black, male and even has an afro to boot. We can say that Obama is not qualified to be president. Is it any fairer than banning me from being president just because I am not forty years old? The argument for equality and against prejudice, so crucial to modern thinking, is nothing but a cheap clay idol packed with straw that fails to aid its believers when needed.
If we are to accept the legitimacy of generalizations than we can abandon any moral pretense of believing in literal equality as the whole discussion of civil rights is reduced to a cold calculus of what exactly is our theoretical threshold for citizenship and which groups as groups fulfill it. Admittedly the whole notion of group is arbitrary and any person can be tied to a group that does not pass the threshold and can therefore be disenfranchised. If someone wanted to they could try to disenfranchise my present self by arguing, that despite my graduate education, I still belong to the autism spectrum group. Since this group as a whole might not pass the necessary threshold, I therefore I should also lose my vote. Let us be clear, we are throwing around hand grenades and they can blow up in all sorts of unwanted places. The decision to put age into play as a relevant group is just as arbitrary as gender, color or even neurological state. It is simply a convenience that we, as a society indulge ourselves even at the expense precocious nine year olds. Of course if some groups can be made to pay the price then so can others; it is only fair.