Perhaps the most astonishing demographic to emerge from the New Hampshire primary is that young people voted in large numbers and that on the Democratic side 85% of those thirty or under voted for Bernie Sanders. But this should be no surprise. For too long, politics has been an old person’s game, shuffling tokens between parties in order to protect vested interests and to enhance the economic well being of both the over- 40 and the geriatric class.Why play in a game you can’t control that seems to have no immediate effect on you?
But then, after the Bush years and the calamitous economic collapse, the effects of politics became more immediate – no good-paying jobs except for elite graduates, crushing student loan debts, forced living with mom and dad, the first tangible flutters of climate change and the hypocrisy and dissembling that sucked meaning and idealism from institutions everywhere. Fear kept the young (and old) awake at night crowding out time for dreams of a better future.
The Hunger Games should have been the first warning: the immense popularity of a series predicated on the manipulation of young people by a distant and plutocratic “capitol” into “contests” that rewarded only the winner and destroyed everyone else. Now we have Bernie and the prospect of generational division and war against the “capitol”; it shouldn’t have come to this. There should have a breakwater, an early warning system, a canary in the cage. Let me propose one for the future.
I will betray my roots in the geriatric class by harking back to the 1970s. The Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) –long since dismembered by the national security establishment—was briefly, especially under the leadership of Paul Warnke, a true voice and force for arms control and disarmament. One of the key functions ACDA performed (even then sabotaged by the usual suspects) was to provide a required “arms control impact statement” to the President and Congress in connection with new programs. The requirement assured consideration of the impact of these on the prospects of disarmament or the likelihood of fostering another cycle in the arms race.
What we need now is an independent Youth Advocacy Agency in the Executive Branch. The Youth Advocate would be a channel for raising youth issues to the highest level and for assuring a youth perspective on all major domestic and international initiatives. Some proposals such as ones for refinancing of student loans have an obvious impact on young people but a wide range of other proposals may have less evident consequences.. Increases or adjustments to social security may burden today’s youth in twenty years; climate change will have little effect on the over-50 generation but failure to mitigate it could devastate the lives of those who are now young adults. Infrastructure investments, criminal justice reform, health care changes—all these, will affect youth in particular ways that need to be heard. Moreover, a Youth Advocacy Agency with a prominent Youth Advocate can function not just to assure that youth perspectives are considered in major decision-making but to publicize the needs and role of youth and to give young people a greater incentive to participate in our political processes.
The notion that decisions should look to the effect on seven generations (about 140 years) is attributed to the Iroquois Constitution. That constitution’s actual language is, “Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.” Surely we can find a way to look at least one generation ahead.