Youth and Power

It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving, it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.

~ Thomas Paine ~

“…mentally faithful to himself.” Hmm. The idea of professing to believe what I do not believe is odd. Although I might do it in jest, I cannot imagine doing it (at least not in a way that others would find believable). I cannot imagine being a politician who speaks fervently in support of or in opposition to a bill, while privately having a diametrically opposed position. But it happens. All the time. So, is it the politicians? Is it the circumstance? Is it simple political expediency? Whatever it is…it smells bad and I can only imagine it tastes worse.


When Maren Grøthe was elected to Norway’s Storting, the country’s national assembly, she became Norway’s youngest national politician in history, at twenty years old. Her youth—though she is the youngest member of the Storting in the country’s history—is not as big a deviation from “average” as it would be in the U.S. The average age of members of the Storting is 46, while the average age in the U.S. Senate is 64 and in the U.S. House of Representatives, 58.


Though I am firmly ensconced in geezerhood, I favor the cleansing of both houses of the U.S. Congress through the introduction of a much younger collection of representatives. Young people, I think, are less likely to accept “that’s just the way things are” as a rationale for maintaining an unworkable status quo. That having been said, wisdom accrues from personal experience, so the presence of more advanced age and experience in those deliberative bodies is equally as important. But the current advanced average age of the U.S. Senate (one year shy of traditional “retirement age”) should be lowered considerably if that legislative body is to be truly representative of issues important to both current generations and those to come. Young people are more flexible, more adaptable, and more likely to consider compromises, regardless of whether a meeting of the minds might clash with the official philosophies or platforms of one party or the other.

As I read the article from which the information above was extracted, the following information caught my attention:

“They [the researchers at Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE)] argue that while political parties do not typically have a youth strategy, youth organisations – particularly on the Republican side – have garnered more visibility and funding.”

My concern is that, if young Republicans are getting more visibility and funding, Democrats will face increasingly steep and powerful opposition in coming years. If Democrats expect to maintain a strong presence in political discourse, a much more organized and better-funded approach to youth involvement is and will continue to be critical. If I had my way, “civics” classes would begin very early (perhaps fifth or sixth grades) and continue through high school. By the time children would complete high school, they would have a comprehensive grasp of the legislative process and would understand the importance of the concept that “all politics is local.” Democrats would be well-advised to recruit young, extremely intelligent, intellectually flexible people to run in both local/regional and national elections. Young people, before they have been subjected to so much propaganda and such intense indoctrination in the “ways of the old guard,” could reshape politics on a global scale.


My convoluted thinking—after I read and mulled over and wrote about the article mentioned above—led me to a consideration of civilian versus military power structures and thought processes. That consideration led me to reach the following, perhaps obvious, conclusion: the military mindset is not compatible with democracy. While I think I understand the fundamental importance of adherence to the chain of command in a military context, I think the rigidity of military discipline may be the weakest link in a democracy. Democracy is “a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system,” according to a definition advanced by In a military setting, the power is vested in a chain of command created and maintained through rigid discipline and unwavering adherence to “rules” that govern virtually all aspects of behavior. Theoretically, participants in a democracy can reject politically-based mandates by recalling and/or replacing incumbents. Rank and file members of the military do not have the luxury of control that their civilian counterparts enjoy. Members of the military cannot lawfully decide, collectively, to reject orders given to them by their superior officers; such rejection would be considered mutiny, a crime for which punishment may well seem excessive, as well as “cruel and unusual.”

Yet the incompatibility of military and civilian philosophies is what allows the supremacy of civilian rule. As long as military leaders at every level understand and agree to be bound by recognition that civilian authority reigns supreme, the model may work. Because militaries are equipped with weapons that are far more powerful than those available to their civilian counterparts, the ultimate supremacy of civilian rule must be inculcated into the heads of members of the military at every level. Especially, the top levels, where orders could be catastrophic to civilian rule. Yet, as long as the military accepts its role as “defender of democracy” as opposed to blind obedience to authoritarian rule, military “protection” of civilian rule may be the glue that holds opposing factions together.


The problem with entrusting young people to properly use the political process to control the direction countries take is this: their youth. I know, I argued in favor of “cleansing” both houses of Congress through the injection of youth. I did not say, though, I favor giving over absolute control to young members of Congress.  Youth, by its very nature, prevents the young from having experiences they might have as they age. Those experiences can help shape one’s thought processes and one’s understanding of the world around them. Wisdom, in other words. Some members of Congress, with sufficient age-based “power” to facilitate or to suppress legislative initiatives must remain, if for no other reason to serve as tethers and to rein-in the power and potentially catastrophically consequences of youthful exuberance.  I am arguing both for and against myself; I know that. Perhaps there is not solution but to place one’s blind, but watchful, trust in the young—being ready at a moment’s notice to exercise the power of age and experience to protect civilization from the bumbling mistakes of youth.

Ultimately, of course, it’s not age that dictates the success or failure of political engagement. It is intelligence and wisdom. When we vote to put people in the House of Representatives or the Senate, we ought not to spend so much time trying to ensure that we are voting for people who mirror our philosophies and our intelligence. We should focus, almost exclusively, on voting for people who are more intelligent than we are. And we should vote for people whose philosophies align with our fundamental humanitarian principles; not necessarily people whose votes always will correspond to the way we would vote.


The town of San Miguel Totolapan in the Mexican state of Guerrero suffered a massive attack on Wednesday afternoon. The mayor of the town and 17 others were killed; at least three others were injured in the attack, which has been attributed to Los Tequileros, a criminal gang. Though a motive for the attack has not been suggested in public media reports, the history of drug gang violence suggests that the attack was designed to frighten the remaining (and future) local politicians into compliance with demands for protection for the gang’s drug runners.

I think criminal gangs may have more in common with the military that we would like to think. They seem to operate on a rigid chain of command structure that requires absolute loyalty to the leader of the gang and willing adherence to the commands issued by leaders at every level of the gang’s organization. I have no solutions; only subjective opinions and observations.


There’s so much more on my mind this morning, but transcribing my thoughts and laying them out here for the world to see might cause more trouble than my thoughts are worth. So I will leave them to fester inside my head.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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