On March 3 of this year, 125 Democrats voted to give 16-year-olds the vote in federal elections. No Republicans joined them. Much has been made of the Democrats’ list of 121 Republican members of the House who two months earlier refused to confirm President Joe Biden’s election. Now both parties, like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, “Have got a little list / And they’ll none of them be missed.”
The Republican dissenters in January, who included some usually sensible people like Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), frequently expressed doubt about their votes but explained that they were honoring the presumed wishes of their Trump-supporting constituents. This vision of their duty hardly coincides with that expressed in Edmund Burke’s address to the electors of Bristol, but it has an element of truthfulness about it. Trump’s loyalists have undiminished gratitude to him for sparing the nation President Hillary Clinton—though almost any Republican presidential candidate in 2016 would have done so, and by a greater margin. Their fanaticism also rests on the fact that he clearly sought to keep his four main promises: on immigration, trade, the Supreme Court, and regime-change wars. They also wanted to put down a marker against the possibility of fraud in mail-in voting, if not in the 2020 election, at least in the next one.
The Democratic supporters of infantile voting have no such excuses. Their constituents, even in the most liberal or progressive districts, did not demand or expect it. Even in Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco, a proposal for lowering the voting age was voted down in 2016, and the California electorate emphatically rejected a well-financed proposal for 17-year-old voting in 2020.
Fear of retaliation by Pelosi, who is in command of committee assignments and large amounts of campaign money, may have prompted some votes, such as those of the occasionally independent Abigail Spanberger, Ro Khanna, James Clyburn, and C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger. But the dominant reason for them and others was the hope of partisan advantage, even though the examples of Brazil, Argentina, and Nicaragua, where 16-year-old voting is allowed, suggests that no advantage can outweigh the loss of political stability it produces. One refreshingly independent vote was that of the former chairman of the NAACP, my Congressman Kweisi Mfume, who unlike many members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted against the proposal.
The advent of 18-year-old voting almost certainly helped politicize higher education. Speaker Pelosi has avowed that she wants “to capture kids when they’re in high school, when they’re interested in all of this, when they’re learning about government to be able to vote.”
An organization known as “Vote 16 USA” is a subsidiary of another called “Generation Citizen,” supported by major foundations, including the Ford and Bezos Family Foundations, fostering a program of “civic education” or indoctrination reminiscent of that of, and associated with, the New York Times’s 1619 Project. This is not a pretty spectacle.
There is much science suggesting that the brain is not fully developed until age 25. Moreover, American youth is more sheltered and less experienced than ever before. The day is gone of the young citizens celebrated by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who preach, teach, farm, engage in manual labor, and try their hand as merchants—who “do not postpone life, but live already.” For every Napoleon or William Pitt, there are millions of trust fund babies, drones, and perpetual students. There are some who remember that Chancellors Bruning of Germany and Schuschnigg of Austria saw no cure for their countries’ political disturbances in the 1930s save for an increase in the voting age to 25.
The vote on March 3 should be seen as a political gift to Republicans, ensuring them restoration of a House majority and more than negating the effects of their own members’ mistake two months earlier.
George Liebmann is president of the Library Company of the Baltimore Bar, and is the author of works on law and history, most recently Vox Clamantis In Deserto: An Iconoclast Looks at Four Failed Administrations.
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