Rebecca de Schweinitz: Can youth in politics save American democracy?

Mitt Romney’s suggestion is hardly a new idea.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rick Larsen, from the Sutherland Institute, chats with Sen. Mitt Romney at the Hinckley Institute of Politics on Aug. 21, 2023.

Mitt Romney’s suggestion, in his recent announcement that he would not seek reelection to the Senate, that American politics could benefit from the perspectives and participation of young people, is hardly a new idea.

Concerns about age and politics, about the ways that the older generation had become too tied to “vested interests,” overly “addicted to party habits,” “afflicted with the force of pressure groups” and “bound” to “familiar paths” rose to prominence when Romney’s father was seeking the United States presidency in the late 1960s.

Popular memory attributes the extension of voting rights to 18-20-year-olds, through the Civil Rights Extension Act of 1970 and the 26th Amendment in 1971, to the Vietnam War. The increasing unpopularity of the war made it untenable to force young men to fight and die abroad when most of them could not vote at home. Moreover, the usual story goes, channeling youthful political dissent into appropriate and manageable forms seemed a wise alternative to the disruptive protests of the era.

But the success of a decades-long effort to lower the nation’s voting age to 18 was the result of many factors, among them a growing sense that the younger generation possessed more civic virtue than the country’s elders. Young Americans won the right to vote in the Age of Aquarius at least partly because older adults, who were less open to change, and sometimes even described as chained to “institutionalized and bureaucratized patterns,” had created a national crisis of confidence in American democracy. It was no accident that a concerted coalition campaign to lower the voting age emerged in 1968 — a year described as a “watershed” wherein myths about American democracy “came crumbing down.”

More “at home in this time,” and equipped with a “clear view that has not become clouded through time and involvement,” youth in the late 1960s and early 1970s were celebrated as “adept structural defect specialists,” more capable of understanding the country’s emerging needs and more inclined to act for the common good than the older generations then in charge. Young people’s highly visible participation in the civil rights movement and their engagement with a variety of other important local, national and international issues suggested that modern youth provided a new model for civically minded citizenship.

Here in Utah in 1970, concerns over the inability of aging politicians and party regulars to move past political motivations, led youth at the University of Utah to launch what became a state-wide initiative, “Participation ‘70,” through which they worked for moderate policies, political reform and the contemporary issues they cared about most. Students flocked to neighborhood political meetings and to county and state party conventions. More than 300 students were elected to neighborhood political offices. Students also won 11% of the Republican convention delegate seats and 15% of those for the Democratic convention. Their participation in Utah political forums that year helped determine candidate selection for a range of electoral contests and resulted in passage of a number of resolutions, including support for environmental and education-related measures, which, according to documents from the period, represented young people’s top legislative priorities, no matter their political affiliation.

William Viavant, a University of Utah electrical engineering professor and voter registration chairman for Salt Lake County Democrats in 1970, made observations similar to those expressed by Romney. The “old-timers,” Viavant told a reporter for the National Observer in June 1970, tend to “think the primary purpose of politics is to get elected and keep the party in power.” In comparison, he described the state’s politically engaged students as admiringly “issue oriented” with “no interest” in such narrow, self-interested considerations. Young people were bringing much needed energy, idealism and perspectives to Utah politics.

Certainly not all young people (in the past or present) act outside self-interest or are unimpeded by “party habits,” but my study of youth in American history and my interactions with current students incline me to agree with Romney, as well as Viavant and others who put their faith in youth political participation decades ago. Greater youth engagement in electoral politics — as voters, candidates and everything in between — represents an opportunity for the revitalization of American politics and life.

Rebecca de Schweinitz

Rebecca de Schweinitz is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University. Her most recent book, co-authored with Jennifer Frost, is Achieving the 26th Amendment: A History with Primary Sources (Routledge, 2023).