Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Democratic Prudence and the Youth Suffrage Debate

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Democratic Prudence and the Youth Suffrage Debate

Article excerpt

The 1968 film Wild in the Streets depicted a dystopian future in which youth were extended the right to vote at age fourteen. With their newfound political power (and a little LSD hidden in Washington, D.C.'s drinking supply), they forced through a constitutional amendment lowering the age required for holding elected office. Soon thereafter they promoted a rock star and megalomaniac to the White House, established compulsory retirement at age thirty, and confined all U.S. citizens to concentration camps at age thirty-five. The film, which became something of a minor cult classic, appears to contemporary viewers as more comedy than drama. Nevertheless, as outlandish as the script was, argumentation scholars should not discount its message. It spoke potently, albeit hyperbolically, to fears that have animated U.S. politics since the birth of the nation. Robert Ivie (2005) has referred to these fears as "demophobia" (p. 191). They are based on a caricature of the people as an irrational mob or disease threatening to undermine the stability of the nation's republican institutions, and they are stymied only to the extent that the qualities of irrationality and depravity are localized in the persona of a scapegoat. Wild in the Streets worked this way, by replacing generalized fears of "democratic distemper" (Ivie, 2005, p. 46) with a localized threat that could be more easily contained, if not purged. And at least one critic took the film seriously. Renata Adler (1968a) of the New York Times described it as an "instant classic" (p. 21) that

sees with gay clarity ... the absolute tyranny at the hands of the young to which adults in this country seem determined, for fairly odd reasons, to subject themselves. What it knows is what every Brownie troop leader and new kid on the block used to know--that there is no more violent, demagogic, elitist, vicious and totalitarian society than a group of children. (Adler, 1968b, p. D1)

Adler's tone was atypically vitriolic, perhaps, but there is little doubt that hers was a fear widely shared in her time.

The relationship of U.S. democracy to youth is far more ambivalent than Wild in the Streets would suggest, however. In point of contrast, TIME magazine declared youth--the generation twenty-five and under--"Man of the Year" in 1966. This generation, TIME predicted, would "land on the moon, cure cancer and the common cold, lay out blight-proof, smog-free cities, enrich the underdeveloped world and, no doubt, write finis to poverty and war" (para. 8). Although the sentence's coda suggested a degree of irony, the article offered, on the whole, an incredibly flattering portrayal of the young generation. Describing youth at various points as diverse, idealistic, skeptical, committed, alienated, and shrewd, the article had little to hold it together except for a profound sense of optimism in its subject.

In reality, of course, youth are neither devils nor prophets; rather, they are (among other things) a screen upon which U.S. citizens project their hopes and fears for the future of democracy. And if Jeremy Engels (2011) is correct that U.S. democracy exists in a tension between demophobia and demophilia--between fears of democratic volatility and hopes that democratic deliberation can transform that volatility into consensus--then the way that the U.S. public culture talks about youth could say far more about democracy than it does about youth. Consequently, debates concerning the role of youth in the public culture offer an extremely productive site for diagnosing the health of American democracy, and for understanding the processes by which it balances hopefulness and fears of unrest. The congressional debate over the voting age, which occurred between 1942 and 1971, is ideal for these purposes, not only because it came to fruition at the height of the generation wars, but more importantly, because it was concerned less with the substantive qualities of youth than it was with the formal qualities of deliberation and judgment in a democracy. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.