In our society, whatever is important is what we don’t let children do. They can’t buy property, take out loans, consent to medical procedures (with the glaring exception of abortion), or rent a car.
The aftermath of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has played out similarly to every mass shooting before it with one difference. A difference that sets it apart from all such previous incidents: a surge of activism by its victims and survivors to demand new gun control measures. This started as a wave directly after the shooting on Feb. 14 and reached its peak during the national school walkout last Wednesday.
So enthralled were they by the Parkland students’ juvenile enthusiasm that numerous commentators seized it as justification for lowering the voting age to 16. Former speechwriter to President Barack Obama Jon Lovett defended the proposal on the grounds that “voting is how America’s young people can protect themselves” from the threat of gun violence in schools. According to political scientist Jonathan Bernstein, “Voting is the training wheels of political participation.” Teens are allowed to lobby and organize, so there is no reason to bar even 13-year-olds from voting
“Maybe we shouldn’t be treating high schoolers as adults, but college students as children.”
The title of an op-ed by University of Kentucky law professor Joshua Douglas spoke for them all:“Parkland students show why 16-year-olds should be able to vote.” Similar appeals appeared in such reliably progressive organs as the New York Times and the Nation.
This adulation stands in stark contrast to progressives’ attitude to another form of youthful crusading: protests by college students targeting speakers who deviate from leftist orthodoxy, especially on identity politics. This is curious, for when they aren’t dismissing these demonstrations as isolated events which mask the real threat to free speech or rejecting the very notion of a free speech crisis at American universities (despite considerable evidence to the contrary), they’re excusing campus censorship on the grounds that college students are . . . children.
We should ignore their antics, no matter how distasteful they may be, because “college kids are dumb.” So Hamilton Nolan of Splinter, a website dedicated to peddling the latest in bien-pensant millennial identity politics, recently averred. “As a demographic group, they combine the lack of earned wisdom and grating, cocksure bravado of youth with just enough formal education to boost their snide self-confidence without actually knowing what the f— they’re talking about.” Anyone who has met (or been) a college sophomore realizes the justice of Nolan’s statement. But what does this say about high school kids, who are younger? Maybe we shouldn’t be treating high schoolers as adults, but college students as children.
This is the tack Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago law school, took in a 2015 apologia for the campus moral police. Despite officially being adults, college students, Posner asserted, are really “quasi-children who need protection from some of life’s harsh realities while they complete the larval stage of their lives.” All children do stupid things. As college students’ stupidity extends to things like sex, alcohol, and politics, it is only proper to extend adult supervision into that time of life when they begin dabbling seriously in such things. This way, they are kept from being harmed and harming others “until they are ready to accept the responsibilities of adults.”
“The privileges of voting cannot be bestowed without incurring its obligations.”
One such responsibility, of course, is voting. On this logic, we are supposed to take the activism of high school students, who are children, more seriously than the activism of college students, who are adults. Moreover, we are meant to believe that the former are so mature they should be allowed to vote but the latter are so immature their ears must be shielded from debates about the very issues they’re supposed to base their vote on. This, in a word, is ludicrous. By this reasoning, we should be striking collegians from voter rolls–not adding high schoolers to them.
Posner’s argument is fatuous to its core, but it is valuable for exposing a tension inherent in the premise of letting high schoolers vote. The champions of juvenile suffrage want them to be treated as adults for the purposes of voting but as children for the purposes of activism. But they can’t have it both ways. The privileges of voting cannot be bestowed without incurring its obligations. One of those obligations is accepting that with a public face comes public criticism, an obligation many of the students’ allies falsely believe they should be immune to.
The Parkland students, like all high schoolers, occupy a liminal state. In some ways they are children; in others, adults. Legally, though, this is an either/or proposition with fixed demarcations. In our society, whatever is important is what we don’t let children do. They can’t buy property, take out loans, consent to medical procedures (with the glaring exception of abortion), or rent a car. Eighteen-year-olds cannot purchase or consume alcohol (a prohibition long overdue for the scrapheap). Minors are exempt from the death penalty and, in most instances, subject to a different judicial system. They can’t marry without their parents’ permission. Nor can they buy guns. They can’t even gamble or buy lottery tickets. Is playing the PowerBall really more important than voting? It must be if you need to be over the age of 18 to do so.
Voting is a right and an action reserved for adults. When you say that children should vote, you are not stating that voting is of the utmost importance. Instead, you are saying it’s not important at all. Far from being progressive or enlightened, rushing to confer the franchise on high-school underclassmen because of a momentary fervor is the epitome of a reflexive, even reactionary gesture.
We have all heard the phrase that this is something so easy, even a child can do it. Quite so. But would you want one to?
Varad Mehta is chief historian at Decision Desk HQ. He lives in the Philadelphia area.