“The one Constitutional office elected by all of the people is the presidency. So at minimum, we should expect a president to feel a sense of responsibility for the safety and welfare of all 330 million of us.”
In those remarks at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, former President Barack Obama hoped to paint President Donald Trump as a failure in these regards and to prop up Vice President Joe Biden as someone who uniquely cares for all Americans.
However, in saying that the president is elected by “all of the people,” Obama called to a truth in American politics by presenting a falsehood. Not all American citizens are involved in the political system, especially in but not limited to selecting a commander-in-chief. Putting aside for a moment the injustice that millions of American citizens who live in territories such as Puerto Rico and Guam who cannot vote in specifically in presidential elections, there is a much larger group that is not asked for their official opinion in any election or decision: children.
According to the US Census Bureau, in 2010 there were just over 74 million Americans under the age of 18, representing almost a quarter of the US population of 308 million. Of course, the Census counts all those living in America, including permanent residents and undocumented immigrants in addition to citizens. However, it is likely that in 2020 well over 75 million citizens under the age of 18 are kept out of essential parts of American politics. I’m not saying the voting age needs to change, as 18 makes sense for lots of reasons. But there is more to politics than voting, and kids have a golden opportunity to capitalize on that.
Children hold two major cards in the game of politics. For one, today’s children are tomorrow’s voters. Issues they care about now will likely drive their vote as a young adult. As political parties look to the future, they should look to children for pointers.
In order to capitalize on this strength to make real movement in real politics, young people should form local lobbying groups that collectively pressure national, state and local politicians to take action on issues young people care about. These coalitions could be as small as within a high school or as large as town or state. Professional activists would be more than happy to guide these groups in their quest for legitimacy, and they could attain real power in a shorter time then many may think.
As today’s kids get older, tomorrow’s kids will exist just the same. It is thus important to find a way to be tangibly involved in the political process as a minor so that the next generation may build off of the last one’s action.
To be clear, I’m aware there are many young people who are politically active. There are countless student groups that advocate for change in their communities and beyond.
But too often does youth political participation fall into what Ethan D. Hersh would describe as “political hobbyism” in his 2020 book Politics is for Power. People, children included, consume politics like they would a sport. They react on social media and argue with those who root for a different team, but not much beyond that. This leads to the illusion that Generation Z is disproportionately politically active. Unfortunately, that is not how politics is really played.
To get what you want, you need to get into the nitty-gritty of politics. The backroom deals, negotiations and favor-trading is what makes American politics move. It is easy to ignore vague demands made by people with no bargaining power. But throw in some specifics and pledges to universally oppose certain officials who do not listen? Ignoring the calls of young people would no longer be easy. It would be painful.
There is a second aspect of today’s youth that makes them powerful: their numbers. Rapid population growth affects young people first. Their ranks grow much faster than they grow up, and so they have a collective voice that can be louder than they are ever given credit for.
Maybe kids aren’t qualified. Maybe they can’t be trusted with complex political issues. But if Joan of Arc can fight for France at 17 and Greta Thunberg can inspire millions to take action at 15, I think a couple million American kids can get it together to fight for what they believe in when the adults in their lives don’t seem to care. But hey, what do I know. I’m only 17 myself.