Democracy depends on the cultivation of youth

Democrats need Joe Biden to step aside — not because he’s too old and fumbled his lines in the debate but because the survival of our democracy depends on the participation of younger generations.



July 10, 2024 - 4:18 PM

Democrats need Joe Biden to step aside — not because he’s too old and fumbled his lines in the debate but because the survival of our democracy depends on the participation of younger generations.

Biden was an effective one-term president during a time of turmoil, delivering the Green New Deal for the environment and creating 15 million new jobs during his tenure. But his insistence on staying in this race threatens to undo his legacy. Similarly, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’ s failure to step down as a Supreme Court justice during Barack Obama’s administration ultimately led to the undoing of her legacy and the gutting of women’s rights by a conservative Supreme Court.

Both failures speak to the usual hubris that’s common in those in power, but they also signal a specific shortsightedness of those in the “greatest” and baby boomer generations. These groups insist that they are the leaders in voting and participation in our democracy, while keeping the means of that participation squarely in their own media and failing to understand the technologies through which the young communicate.

The point is not that older statesmen are unfit for their jobs, but that they are failing at the deeper job of democratic legacy. One of the greatest jobs of a leader in any functioning family, society or democracy is to educate and cultivate the young, know when to pass the torch and trust that the next generation will do things differently, while protecting central tenets and values. Democrats, specifically, have several strong potential candidates who could sustain these values through our present and future.

As professors at Northwestern University, we teach some of the most intelligent, hardworking and talented young people in our country. We convey the traditions and latest thinking in our fields, while encouraging students to respond to the past and present critically and creatively. To be effective, we must model both authority and humility, and we must be ready for students to say and do things differently than we would.

This spring, Northwestern students protested the Israel government’s attack on Gaza, not only erecting an encampment but also collectively sharing food and water, distributing reading material, and giving speeches and teach-ins. Northwestern administrators peacefully negotiated with these students. Protesters agreed to disassemble their encampment in return for two visiting professorships for Palestinian scholars, a student center for non-Zionist Jews and Muslim students, and scholarships for five Palestinian students. At least six student groups participated in this process of diplomacy and consensus, mirroring the ideal of a House and Senate cooperating on behalf of their constituencies.

This protest was not “about” antisemitism. It was about students’ global sensibilities and their understanding that Palestinians are endowed with human rights. Even more so, it was about participation. For a generation of young people asked to stay home during COVID-19, cower under desks during active shooter drills and sit alone “doomscrolling” on their phones, the protest represented hope, solidarity and active participation.

Northwestern’s decision not to call in the police on these students in favor of negotiation, meanwhile, taught the students vital lessons in compromise and democracy. But public disregard and disparagement of this decision, which culminated in a congressional hearing and calls for Northwestern President Michael Schill to step down, showed how little we as a society understand our gravest threat to democracy. One grave threat is Donald Trump and the right-leaning Supreme Court, which recently granted unprecedented presidential immunity. But an even greater threat is that we have several generations of intelligent young Americans who remain unheard and uncounted in governance and who are at risk of detaching altogether from the democratic process.

This disenfranchisement is not only true of young leftists, but young centrists too. Some of our most talented students moved to Washington, D.C., right after graduation to work in consulting. Before they left, we got coffee and talked about the election, about the fact that both candidates are older than their grandparents and harbingers of a world that barely resembles the world that these young people will inherit. “Just think of how hard we would all be working right now,” one of the students said sadly, “if we had a candidate we could believe in.”

We mere mortals cannot see the future. Ginsburg, at the time of her death, could not have imagined how bad things would get for the left. But we can cultivate a relationship to the future. That means cultivating a relationship with younger people that engages them, instructs them, learns from them and helps put their gifts to use. That means cultivating an intelligent hope that trusts our institutions and our citizens and that understands that change is essential to democratic endurance.

Biden may still run and win against Trump. The younger generations may come out and vote for him like kids dutifully attending a party for their grandfather. But even this win for Democrats would be a loss, a public atrophying of hope and another delay in multi-generational participation in democracy.

Luckily, it is not too late. This August, the Democratic National Convention will be held in Chicago. The media are focused on giving protesters fair access to free speech during the convention. But the Democratic Party has the opportunity to model the democratic process more urgently and essentially, through actual debate on the floor and through the nomination of another ticket for president and vice president. We could learn from younger candidates and constituents about how to create a democracy that is widely inclusive and aware of its past and resonant with our future. We could activate untapped talent as we ensure that the U.S. does not slip into autocracy.

We could remember that every generation has the right to participate in their times.

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