"Old People Shouldn't Vote!" And The Selfish Democracy

I recently saw this wildly-popular tweet running around my social media feeds. It became pretty popular after Brexit, a vote in which young people in the UK voted 75% to remain, and old folks voted mostly to leave. 

This is followed up with various millennial-friendly articles that bemoan the plight of young people because old people voted against them, and the young people lost. Same thing here: the older generation have "screwed over" the younger one by voting Brexit.

What's Wrong With This, Pt I

So this of course takes tribalism to this weird new level. It's not just left vs. right or something else, but young vs. old. It's not just as if these folks have different interests, but that old people must be fundamentally unfit to vote, or necessarily make bad decisions, because of their age.

Interestingly, "back in the day," societies often trusted the elderly (think "village elder" or "elder council" or whatever) to make better decisions than the young: they've seen some stuff, developed some wisdom, and have overcome their wilder, immature youths to make some more reasoned, sagely decisions.

Now it seems in vogue to argue the opposite: that young people somehow know what's best, and perhaps anyone over 50 is too senile to figure out what's good for the country. Or, worse, since they're not going to be around as long, they don't care about the good of the country. Which gets even more sinister...

What's Wrong With This, Pt II

It assumes that people are just no longer voting for the good of the country, but are instead voting for their self-interest. These posts aren't about how the elderly just happen to be wrong, despite having seen the UK before and during the growth of the EU: the argument is going a little like this:

"Young people have to put up with the consequences of this longer, so only young people should be allowed to vote."

The implication is that the young are voting for their self-interest, rather than for the country, and same with the old. It's not saying, "you're wrong," but, "your interests are misaligned, and I expect you to vote on your interests rather than the good of the country."

We see the same in the US: it seems absurd that black people or gay people might vote Republican (I know a few of both) or that rich people might vote Democratic (I know a few of these as well). "It's not in your interest, how could you do that!?" I have definitely heard all of these people take flak from Democrats or Republicans that they're not voting for.

Or I've heard among young college grad friends: "Vote for Jill Stein; she's the only one that will forgive your student loans." Or, "Vote for Gary Johnson; he won't take your money." The use of "your" suggests that the expectation is that people are primarily looking out for themselves. 

When did the expectation of a voter change from, "you'll vote what you believe is best for the country" to "you'll vote for your self-interest?" Certainly Democraties were designed under the presumption that a populace would have its heart in the right place and vote for what it thought was best for the country, rather than each of us just fighting with others to extract as much as we can. 

Have we become a selfish democracy? What are the implications?

1 Comment

Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.