OPINION: Stop equating youth with progressive policies

An older man wearing a blue and white striped shirt and clue blazer smiles at something off camera.
Nicholas Black PO ’24 argues that many political candidates focus too much on the infusion of youth into the government. (Courtesy: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Common)

In a country that faces so many concurrent crises, when it’s time for new leadership to take hold, we shouldn’t simply install new faces who will do the exact same things as the old faces.

Discussions surrounding new governmental leadership are frequently centered around the need for an infusion of youth. Yet candidates who stake their campaigns on this issue often don’t actually seek to approach governing any differently, as has been the case for various presidential and congressional campaigns. 

Insurgent candidates with remarkably similar policy platforms as their predecessors will use their supposed youthful rigor to maintain the status quo of governing which has dissatisfied so many. Thus, it’s important that we as voters delve more deeply into the motives of candidates who are heavily invested in rhetoric surrounding the need for younger leaders, as these campaigns are often driven by career aspirations rather than a genuine desire for progress.

This dynamic, in which discussions of new leadership are primarily focused on age, has been clearly demonstrated in various campaigns. For instance, in his 2020 run for president, Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., constantly hit frontrunner Joe Biden over his age, citing the need for the current generation of politicians to “pass the torch.” 

However, in terms of what Swalwell sought to accomplish in office, he was remarkably similar to Biden. Both shared mainstream Democratic Party positions like a public option for healthcare and the need to address climate change, but neither embraced progressive legislation like Medicare for All or the Green New Deal

The candidacy of Joe Kennedy III for the Senate provided another example of calls for new leadership with little policy differentiation. Kennedy’s challenge to incumbent Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., was primarily staked on the need for younger leaders to take hold

Yet, similarly to many of the younger 2020 presidential candidates, Kennedy broadly agreed with his opponent on major issues. Both positioned themselves as progressives, both supported the Green New Deal and both considered addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustice as urgent priorities. 

The extensive similarities between Kennedy and the incumbent he challenged left many wondering why he chose to run in the first place. Conveniently, Kennedy opted to join the race a month after the release of a poll that favored him over Markey by 17 points, suggesting that he was simply looking to build onto his resume rather than being motivated by a principled desire to oust the senator he agreed on almost everything with. 

Candidates who don’t propose any substantively different policies not only run largely meaningless campaigns, but they have the potential to deceive voters into thinking that political progress is being made.

The use of flowery language like “generational change” implies some kind of advancement that would be made with the swearing in of these insurgent candidates, but in reality, they simply aim to be the new faces overseeing an identical government. 

This isn’t to say that the age of our leaders is wholly unimportant. President Biden is the oldest ever to assume the presidency, and House leaders Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn are all above 80 years old.

Clearly, our leaders are very, very old, but this should only be a concern if age is demonstrably holding leaders back from working effectively. This has been the case for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Feinstein’s own staff have expressed concern that her age is the cause of struggle in the day-to-day workings of Congress. 

In situations like these, when it is clear that old age has a tangible impact on the ability of our leaders to lead, invoking age in discussions of new leadership is completely fair. 

However, capacity to do the work is often not a problem when these campaigns hinged on the need for younger leadership are launched. This is true in the case of the Massachusetts Senate race — Markey has been recognized as a hardworking senator with a continuing history of progressive achievements

As our politicians continue to age and the use of rhetoric surrounding the need for a new generation of leaders intensifies, we should be careful not to be fooled — electing younger leaders who hail their insurgency yet support identical policies won’t actually change anything. 

As voters, we must do our research into what our potential new leaders actually stand for, and if we find that their stances are void of substantively different policy positions from those they seek to replace, consider looking elsewhere. 

Nicholas Black PO ’24 is from Rochester, New York. Although he doesn’t follow astrology closely, he believes his status as a Libra disqualifies the potential for debate with him.

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