Office Eligibility as Democratic Bedrock?

Too Young to Run?
Too Young to Run? A Proposal for An Age Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
John Seery
July 14, 2011

By John Seery, the George Irving Thompson Memorial Professor of Government and Professor of Politics at Pomona College. Visit his website here.

My just published book, Too Young to Run?  A Proposal for An Age Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, examines the historical, philosophical, and political reasons for the Constitution’s minimum age requirements for elected federal office — 25 for the House, 30 for the Senate, and 35 for the presidency — and concludes that these original barriers to candidacy ought now to be lowered to coincide with the age of majority. 

A quick run-down of some of the argument is available here. That post doesn’t emphasize sufficiently, however, the distinction between office eligibility and office holding (the book is more focused on the former than the latter), and perhaps for that reason some commentators seem hell-bent on reminding me that electing jejune 18 year old legislators would wreck havoc upon our entire Madisonian system. Perhaps if I had gone with my original title for the book, “Jesus for President,” they would have made a more age-differentiated rebuttal. In debating the relative utility of these age thresholds, and speculating about the consequences of the AGE (All Grown-ups Eligible) Amendment that I propose, some of my virtual respondents seem to overlook that the issue is really about the principled foundations of our democratic-representative republic: What constitutes equal adulthood citizenship under the law? How can it be that our 18-34 year olds still do not enjoy full civic standing?

I could blog your ear off about that particular matter — but I’ll spare you here.  Many years ago, after I started investigating the Constitution’s age requirements, I realized that I didn’t want to broach the topic for the first time through a blog venue or short article. The issue — including the relevant history, the political theory, the legal scholarship, and the real-world implications — quickly became more complicated than I initially thought and more deserving of patient and extended scrutiny. Yet many of my early interlocutors, once exposed to the issue as an issue, seemed to consider themselves already capable of rendering a snap and summary judgment about the matter. Thus early on, I decided to bite my tongue until the full case could come forward in a book-length treatment. 

It takes a while, for instance, to understand why the political theorist Hannah Arendt asserted (in 1959), “Strictly speaking, the franchise and eligibility for office are the only political rights, and they constitute in a modern democracy the very quintessence of citizenship.” In U.S. constitutional history, the extension of citizenship, rectifying our originally codified exclusions, has always (if, at first, only tacitly) included suffrage and office-eligibility as a package deal. The 26th Amendment was an exception, and in retrospect, now certainly seems to have been a halfway measure.

I hope the book can help trigger thoughtful discussion and debate about the proper age of U.S. candidacy such that we might eventually get past typical knee-jerk reactions, as “The youth are immature!” “The youth are inexperienced!” and “The youth don’t vote anyway!” Those sweeping smears do a rhetorical injustice to the over 70 million U.S. citizens who fall into the affected 18-34 year old age group. To my ear, those disparaging truisms sound like little more than rank prejudice and plain old ignorance, comparable to earlier group smears that provided the sorry rationalizations for keeping Native Americans, African Americans, and women from voting and candidacy in earlier episodes of our constitutional history. For my part, I’ve been privileged to teach at places where I get to know many young adult citizens who provide living examples against such cynicism, and maybe it’s high time to give such persons a fair shake in the form of full enfranchisement.