Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.
Is there a youth movement afoot in the U.S. Democratic Party? Prominent case in point: New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, at 29, has already made a mark on public discourse, especially on issues ranging from climate change to immigration policy.
But the pushback within the Democratic Party, not to mention predictable contempt and sexism from the Republicans, has been swift. They say Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is out of her depth, she is overentitled, she is pushy, she is playing the race card, she is all image and no substance. Those of us who happen to think that this stirring-up is good for politics are opposed by others – including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (79) – who think that any divisions within the Democratic Party just hand the 2020 presidential race to Donald Trump (73), who remains the oldest person to assume the office.
But one thing that the current round of Democratic debate demonstrates is that radical ideas are not generational. In fact, most things are not generational, despite the marketing strategies of every company that isolates an 18-35 cohort as their target audience, or employs demographers who assign names to clumps of citizens born between arbitrary dates, who might or might not have anything at all in common.
Generational language is the snake oil of public discourse. It reflects aspects of luck and economic power, not cultural identity. Hello, you so-called boomers! You don’t exist except as a function of your individual privilege, shadowing multiple pensions and keeping jobs from younger people! Hope that’s working out for you – at least for those of you for whom it’s working out. Other people in their 60s are working at McDonald’s or Amazon fulfillment centres.
For the record, I was born in 1963. According to demographers, I might be a late baby boomer or an early Gen-Xer. I do not demographically exist. Excellent!
So anyway, it is quite obvious that Bernie Sanders of Vermont (77) has the most radical ideas on offer in today’s American landscape. Centrist Kamala Harris (54) and left-of-centre Elizabeth Warren (70) are arguably his closest competitors with future-oriented voters. Former vice-president Joe Biden (76) is leading the race, but there are emergent cracks in his taut cosmetic face and Obama-trailing platform. Cory Booker (50) and Pete Buttigieg (37) are the newish kids on the block. One is black and one is gay.
But can anyone win? Who knows, but it’s never about youth. The U.S. Constitution states that the president must be 35 years of age or older. The threshold is 30 for a senator and 25 for a representative. Thirty-five must have seemed impressive to the Founding Fathers, an obvious threshold of maturity, since in those days men (but not women!) held substantial assets at 20 and died in their 50s. These days, we live longer and prolong adolescence past any previous norm. Thirty-five now seems practically teenage-dirtbag territory, dreaming of Keds and tube socks (clue: insider age-based reference). Becoming president in your mid-30s? You must be joking.
Trivia points: The youngest-ever elected president was John F. Kennedy (43). He looked even younger in his hatless, Harvard football glory years. The youngest-ever president, though, was Teddy Roosevelt, who was 42 when he succeeded William McKinley, shot by an anarchist in Buffalo in 1901. As a friend of mine said recently, you never think of Mr. Roosevelt as young, because he was born looking middle-aged, maybe already with mustache and pince-nez.
The upshot of all the birthdate chicanery is this: The real issues facing the Democrats, and hence the voters of America, are not about who is young or not, even young-sounding or not. But they might be about who is black or not, and male or not. The United States has of course elected a black president, Barack Obama (47 when he was sworn in, eight years below the median age for the Oval Office). But can the nation elect a woman, or a woman of colour, or a married gay man, or an avowed old radical?
Mr. Trump, of course, loves all this tension. It is the proverbial circular firing squad, as 20 candidates chop each other up week after week. My sad-but-true, maybe-Gen-X take: The Dems may have to wait until Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is eligible for them to win back the White House. Meanwhile, fasten your seatbelts for another Trump term. Or even two, if that sexist, racist, uncivil dinosaur can get other multiaged relics on the Supreme Court to change the rules.