Why We Need Young People To Run the Country—And Why I’m Voting for Bernie Anyway

You can’t trust anyone over 30 years in office. Except maybe one.

Dayton MartindaleOctober 24, 2019

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) holds hands with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) during "comeback rally" in Queensbridge Park, New York City on Oct. 19, 2019, after recovering from a heart attack. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

Young peo­ple are bad­ly under­rep­re­sent­ed in the U.S. gov­ern­ment. The aver­age age of Sen­a­tors is cur­rent­ly 63, a full 25 years old­er than the medi­an U.S. res­i­dent. In the House, it’s 58. The four lead­ing pres­i­den­tial con­tenders, includ­ing Trump, are all in their 70s. Joe Biden was first elect­ed to the Sen­ate in 1972 — he has been one of the planet’s most pow­er­ful peo­ple for near­ly half a cen­tu­ry, longer than most have been alive.

An aging elite is refusing to “pass the torch”—and using that torch to set the planet alight. As Greta Thunberg asked: How dare they?

Pol­i­tics is often con­strued as noble pub­lic ser­vice, but it is also a tremen­dous priv­i­lege. Fed­er­al office­hold­ers wield pow­er over not only U.S. vot­ers but also many who have no say in our elec­tions, includ­ing res­i­dents of oth­er coun­tries and those under 18. In fact, cli­mate change, nuclear war and envi­ron­men­tal pol­lu­tion have the poten­tial to affect all life on this plan­et for cen­turies if not mil­len­nia to come.

Prob­a­bly no sin­gle gov­ern­ment should have such pow­er. At the least, a sup­posed democ­ra­cy should share this pow­er as wide­ly as pos­si­ble. In real­i­ty, most ordi­nary peo­ple nev­er get near it.

Over time, this pow­er cor­rupts. As Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) reports: Behind closed doors, your arm is twist­ed, the vise pres­sure of polit­i­cal pres­sure gets put on you, every trick in the book, psy­cho­log­i­cal and oth­er­wise, is used to get us to aban­don the work­ing class.”

As a con­se­quence of my fundrais­ing I became more like the wealthy donors I met,” wrote Barack Oba­ma of his 2004 Sen­ate cam­paign in The Audac­i­ty of Hope. I spent more and more of my time above the fray, out­side the world of imme­di­ate hunger, dis­ap­point­ment, fear, irra­tional­i­ty and fre­quent hard­ship of the oth­er 99%. … I sus­pect this is true for every sen­a­tor: The longer you are a sen­a­tor, the nar­row­er the scope of your interactions.”

The youth coun­ter­cul­ture of the 1960s used to claim that you can’t trust any­one over 30. Obama’s words sug­gest that you can’t trust any­one who’s held fed­er­al office for over 30 years.

The ancient Athe­ni­ans would have agreed. They believed elec­tions favor the wealthy and influ­en­tial, instead appoint­ing (male, non-slave) cit­i­zens to polit­i­cal posi­tions for one-year terms through ran­dom selection.

Despite high-pro­file suc­cess­es such as the vic­to­ry of Oca­sio-Cortez (age 30) over Joe Crow­ley (age 57), most Con­gres­sion­al incum­bents can rest rel­a­tive­ly easy, with well above an 80% like­li­hood of reelec­tion. What we get is an insu­lat­ed class of pro­fes­sion­al politi­cians, propped up by a rel­a­tive­ly wealthy and old donor class. As Astra Tay­lor argues in the New York Times, struc­tur­al obsta­cles from age lim­its to eco­nom­ic pre­car­i­ty to the Senate’s rur­al-state bias hin­der young peo­ple (who dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly live in cities) from enter­ing politics.

On the sur­face, this may seem only a mod­est injus­tice — can’t mil­len­ni­als just wait our turn? But the impor­tance of youth rep­re­sen­ta­tion becomes clear when you begin to con­sid­er cli­mate change: The old folks in Con­gress will die before the worst impacts hit. (While the elder­ly poor are already get­ting slammed by heat waves and storms, the elder­ly poor are not who sit in Con­gress.) They can dis­miss youth-led calls for a Green New Deal as a green dream, or what­ev­er” (Nan­cy Pelosi, 79), know­ing they will be safe­ly in the grave while future gen­er­a­tions strug­gle to make a life among the wreck­age. An aging elite is refus­ing to pass the torch”—and using that torch to set the plan­et alight. As Gre­ta Thun­berg asked: How dare they?

Of course, age should not be the only fac­tor in mak­ing our pres­i­den­tial deci­sions. It is per­haps iron­ic that the old­est can­di­date, Bernie Sanders, has the most ambi­tious plan to rein in cli­mate change, stu­dent debt and war, all issues dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect­ing the youth; he also eschews cor­po­rate fundrais­ing and, accord­ing to Oca­sio-Cortez, who recent­ly endorsed him, has main­tained con­sis­tent and non­stop advo­ca­cy” for the 99% despite his 34 years in elect­ed office. This is prob­a­bly why the vast plu­ral­i­ty of mil­len­ni­als plan­ning to vote in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry — this author includ­ed — back him.

It is prob­a­bly not coin­ci­dence, how­ev­er, that the long-tenured Sanders has been reluc­tant to embrace such insti­tu­tion­al reforms as abol­ish­ing the fil­i­buster or expand­ing the Supreme Court. Sev­er­al younger can­di­dates, such as Pete Buttigieg (37) and Kamala Har­ris (55), are much more open, as is Eliz­a­beth War­ren (70). Their rel­a­tive youth and new­ness to pol­i­tics may give them a fresh­er per­spec­tive on how gov­ern­ment should be oper­at­ed. (War­ren, although just eight years younger than Sanders, has only held elect­ed office since 2013.)

In fact, Buttigieg, the youngest can­di­date at 37, intro­duced inter­gen­er­a­tional jus­tice” as a cam­paign theme and has voiced the strongest sup­port for court pack­ing. (Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the details of his court-pack­ing plan are need­less­ly con­vo­lut­ed and, like his whole cam­paign, leave much to be desired.)

Sanders’ oth­er elec­toral weak­ness­es — his improved but imper­fectmes­sag­ing around raceandgen­der; bag­gage and old grudges from 2016 (not total­ly his fault); con­cerns about his heart — also cor­re­late with age and length of time in pol­i­tics. All of this sug­gests that pass­ing the torch” to a younger, more diverse suite of left politi­cians will need to hap­pen soon­er than later.

It is to his cred­it that Sanders is doing this, both direct­ly and indi­rect­ly. The orga­ni­za­tion that came out of his 2016 cam­paign, Our Rev­o­lu­tion, is active­ly work­ing to build up new pro­gres­sive lead­er­ship at every lev­el of gov­ern­ment. And many of the young peo­ple mobi­lized by that cam­paign have gone on to hold office, from Oca­sio-Cortez to social­ist Chica­go alder­man Andre Vasquez (now 40). Rep. Ilhan Omar (D‑Minn., age 38), too, says she was inspired to run for Con­gress by the Sanders campaign.

We may have seen a glimpse of the future in New York this Octo­ber, where Sanders and Oca­sio-Cortez shared a stage before an audi­ence of 26,000.

Are you will­ing to fight for young peo­ple drown­ing in stu­dent debt, even if you are not?” Sanders asked to close his speech. Are you will­ing to fight for a future for gen­er­a­tions of peo­ple who have not yet even been born, but are enti­tled to live on a plan­et that is healthy and hab­it­able? Because if you are will­ing to do that, if you are will­ing to love, if you are will­ing to fight for a gov­ern­ment of com­pas­sion and jus­tice and decen­cy … [then] togeth­er we will trans­form this country.”

Lat­er, in a joint inter­view, Oca­sio-Cortez was asked whether she would work in a Sanders admin­is­tra­tion. Bernie jumped in: Yes, you would!”

This is part of a debate about whether age mat­ters in a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. Read the first entry, Ageism Has No Place in a Pres­i­den­tial Elec­tion,“ by Susan Dou­glas, here.

Views expressed are those of the writer. As a 501©3 non­prof­it, In These Times does not sup­port or oppose any can­di­date for pub­lic office.

Day­ton Mar­tin­dale is an asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times, and a found­ing mem­ber of Sym­bio­sis. His writ­ing has appeared in In These Times, Earth Island Jour­nal and The Next Sys­tem Project. He tweets at @DaytonRMartind.
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