The Politics of Age and Idealism: Young Voters Are Changing Democracy

“I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience," said Ronald Reagan in 1984. Today young people have never been more engaged in politics, but elder leaders have apparently found a new lease.

Vince Cable, at 74, is likely to succeed Tim Farron as leader of the Liberal Democrats. If successful Cable will be the oldest leader of a major British political party since Winston Churchill, who became Conservative prime minister for a second time at age 77 in 1951.

Cable’s party is a shell of its former self however, still paying the price for its coalition with the Tories. It descends from the Liberal Party led in the 19th century by “Grand Old Man” William Gladstone, who left Downing Street for the fourth and final time at 84.

As the GOM, Gladstone was a folk hero in his heyday. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn - who received a rock star reception at Glastonbury - is something of a GOM, but he has instead been christened by his disciples as The Absolute Boy.

Ironically though, if Corbyn does reach high office he will be one of the oldest first-time prime ministers in history, which raises the question of how long he would want to stay on as PM.

At 68 he is already as old as Neville Chamberlain was in 1938. Depending on the date of the next general election Corbyn could surpass the record of Lord Palmerston, who was 70 in 1784.

It was assumed Corbyn would rely on the McDonnell amendment to ensure an ideologically similar successor, but given Labour’s electoral success he might now be more confident.

The trio of May, Corbyn and Cable will be the oldest in generations

David Davis, a favourite to succeed Theresa May as Tory leader, is the same age as Corbyn. May herself is 60. The potential leader Labour should perhaps be most worried by is the charismatic Ruth Davidson, who at 38 has resurrected the Tories in Scotland. But Davidson is focused on replacing Nicola Sturgeon as first minister.

From 2010-2015 the three main party leaders - David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg - were in their forties. The trio of May, Corbyn and Cable will be the oldest in generations.

American socialist Bernie Sanders garnered a significant youth following in his US Democratic primary contest versus Hillary Clinton. Sanders has been rated as one of America’s most popular public figures and is a favourite to challenge Donald Trump (or his replacement) in the 2020 presidential contest, by which time Sanders will be 79.

At 70, Trump surpassed Reagan as the oldest incoming US president. But in contrast to the collectedness of Barack Obama, Trump’s teenage shit-poster personality is proving to be a global embarrassment. His White House is less amusing however, waging war on the free press and butchering public healthcare services to benefit corporate America.

With the benefit of hindsight, Bernie’s advocates are keen to suggest he “woulda won” in November 2016. Democrats could a take a serious look at Sanders for 2020.

Another senior Democratic contender is Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, who bitterly regretted turning down the 2016 race and has mulled running next time.

Older politicians can cite history for the merits of their maturity. In continental Europe, Konrad Adenauer served as the post-war Chancellor of West Germany from ages 73 to 87, paving the way to Germany’s status as the powerhouse of Europe upon its reunification - and in turn that of the EU.

The young have always been maligned for their idealism

But in the age of Brexit the biggest champion of the European project is French president Emmanuel Macron, who has swept to power at 39 and led his centre-left En Marche party to a parliamentary landslide.

Macron’s agenda, including multilateral free trade deals and tax cuts for big business, has received a cold reception from the left. His plans to water down employment protections are unlikely to win the graces of trade unions who do not shy away from militancy.

One sobering statistic is that in the second round of presidential voting, more young French voters than old voted for the far-right candidacy of Marine Le Pen, which speaks volumes about the failure to address social and economic divisions.

But Macron’s robust defence of multiculturalism and acceptance of refugees has not undermined him. His proposals to legislate for gender equality, clamp down on corruption and tax dodging, and expand public use of technology and access to the arts are radical ones.

His rejection of endless European austerity allies him with Alex Tsipras, elected Greek prime minister at 39, and Pablo Iglesias, the 38 year old founder of Spain’s Podemos party which rapidly gained momentum like En Marche.

These leaders differ in their political outlook but share the characteristic of having enthusiastic followers engaged by their transformative ideas - not just swayed by youthfulness as some might patronisingly suggest.

Corbyn and Sanders began their careers as activists in the 1960s and 70s yet were flocked to by young voters, who witnessing the Great Recession and faced with rising inequality of wealth and falling living standards, have grown increasingly sceptical of unfettered free-market capitalism.

Challenges have changed over the decades but contemporary politics has proven ill-equipped to address them.

The young have always been maligned for their idealism, but the effect of their political self-empowerment on both sides of the Atlantic is growing increasingly apparent. It also signals the kind of values the politicians of the future might stand for.

More about the author

About the author

Jacob Richardson began his career with Disclaimer and writes on culture, politics and society. Politically he is a democratic socialist and Labour Party supporter. His other interests include cinema, psychoanalysis and professional wrestling.

Follow Jacob on Twitter.

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