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New Book by Professor John Seery Calls for an Age Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

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Would you elect Jesus president of the United States? It’s a fascinating thought experiment, but ultimately has no real answer because you couldn’t elect him if you wanted to. He died at age 33, and you must be 35 to be the president of the United States.

In his new book, Too Young to Run? A Proposal for an Age Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (Penn State Press), Professor of Politics John Seery considers the disconnect between the voting age and age requirements for running for federal office. His three-part argument for a constitutional amendment to lower the age barrier to 18 includes a history of how the age requirement made its way into the Constitution, a theoretical section on the arguments for office eligibility as a democratic right and liberty, and consideration of the real-world consequences of such an amendment and the prospects for its passage.

“Every democratic theorist has said that enfranchisement involves two parts: voting and office eligibility,” says Seery. “The history of American constitutional reform has always been that office eligibility and suffrage were a package deal when citizenship was extended to Native Americans, African Americans and then women, successfully.” But young adults who can vote at age 18 cannot run for the House of Representatives until age 25, the Senate until age 30, and the presidency until age 35.

Seery first became interested in the topic with the start of the Iraq War. He witnessed student demonstrations on campus and wondered what he should do, as a politics professor, to encourage students to get involved in the political discussion. “At the time, they were increasingly apathetic to the political process, even though the numbers showed they were engaged in volunteerism. I had been thinking about that disconnect. I started thinking about the 26th Amendment, which lowered the age of voting in the United States from 21 to 18, which was the product of another wartime context. There was a slogan at the time: ‘Old enough to fight, old enough to vote.’”

He was also inspired by Pomona students like Jake Oken-Berg ’02, who took a leave of absence from Pomona in his sophomore year to run for mayor of Portland, Oregon, coming in second and almost resulting in a run-off against the incumbent candidate. Another politics major, Jano Cabrera ‘96, became the national spokesperson for the Democratic National Party just a few years out of college.

“Just being around really smart, industrious, engaged Pomona College students made me resist the national narrative that this is a bunch of people who deserve to have a marginalized relationship to our formal political processes,” says Seery, who is also the author of America Goes to College: Political Theory for the Liberal Arts (2002) and Political Theory for Mortals: Shades of Justice, Images of Death (1996), and editor of A Political Companion to Walt Whtiman and co-editor of The Politics of Irony: Essays in Self-Betrayal (1992).

He began his research with an op-ed article about the topic several years ago and decided to further pursue the idea as a book. “The research process was this exciting detective story that no one had really covered,” says Seery. “It's also the product of a liberal arts environment.”

He found the topic defied simple disciplinary or sub-disciplinary categorization. “I'm a political theorist, and usually political theorists don't look at practical applications of the theory. Many legal scholars don’t know a lot about the political theory or American constitutional history. The history is examined separately. Many constitutional scholars are not into comparative constitutionalism. So I really had to go on my own and read the early history of how these age requirements became installed into the Constitution--what the arguments for and against were.”

Seery also had the help of three students who worked on Summer Undergraduate Research Projects for the book. Alexander Jakle ’06 researched the ages of the Constitutional framers and age requirements in other countries and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in comparative Constitutionalism and a J.D. at the University of Michigan. Derek Galey ‘09 worked on charts for the appendices and the index, and Emily Saliba ’11 built a website for the book.

“Over the course of writing this and rewriting it, I had three or four senior seminars read the manuscript. I told each of those classes, if you find anything I can use, an idea or a typo, I will acknowledge you on the acknowledgments page,” says Seery. “After it was published, I thought maybe I should count how many. The magic number? 47.” Seery also offered another nod to Pomona lore in the introduction, which begins with the words “Forty seven”--the age Barack Obama was when he was elected president of the United States.

Seery, who has also written recent articles on the topic for Salonthe American Constitutional Society and Guernica, says that reaction to the idea of extending office eligibility to those of voting age seems to depend on the age of the audience. For college-age groups, it is an “aha” moment. “The fact that younger citizens can see their own disengagement from the formal processes of politics and [my research now provides] a structural explanation that may account, in good part, for that sense of estrangement, it usually triggers ‘Oh, my goodness, I have been officially a second-class citizen in my own country.’” 

Other audiences, like those who populate online comment areas, “make these on-the-scene snap decisions, like ‘Young people are stupid! Young people have no right!’ I talk about that erasure of kind of discrimination and the kind of language people use to justify it in the book.”

Although Seery was originally going to title his book “Jesus for President,” he took a different route after the 2008 election of Barack Obama—fourth-youngest president ever—which presented a different way to introduce the book. But, the Jesus question idea still offers an important point for naysayers. Often, those who reject wholesale the idea of lowering the age limit think of 18-year-olds, not 30-year-olds, holding federal office.

“[Vice President] Joe Biden was elected to Congress at twenty nine. He knew he was going to turn 30 in time to take the oath of office. And there have been three senators who actually took the oath of office under age,” says Seery. “But basically what most countries do is have it at the age of voting. When you're an adult politically, you're an adult in every sense. The full rights of a political adulthood, political equality should accrue to you at that point, rather than this strange, graduated system that we have. [In this respect,] we are largely unusual in America.”