Even in mature democracies, we frequently hear about its flaws: low voter turnout, unfair electoral districts, uninformed voters, corrupt, incompetent, or unqualified elected officials, polarization of party positions, violations of civil liberties, disproportionate influence of the rich, poorly designed electoral processes, deadlock between branches of government, undue influence of special interests, or abusive majorities. These are well-known flaws in democratic governments. Thankfully, there are always concerned citizens working to correct them, sometimes winning, sometimes not. There is one major failing, however, that few recognize. Every day, governments at every level are taking actions that have consequences far into the future. Decisions from local zoning laws to the financing of Medicare will have an impact on the lives of today’s children, but they have no vote until they reach the age of 18. Who speaks for these citizens during the first 18 years of their lives?

There are numerous laws, court rulings and advocacy organizations that protect their interests as children, but none that represent what their interests will be when they become adults. It would be comforting to believe that voters and elected officials think seriously about the interests of future voters when deciding which policies to support and how to improve institutions, but the reality, as shown in many studies, is that most voters and officials focus on party loyalty or short-term interests. If we, who are politically active, took seriously the job of protecting the interests of children who are born this year until they can vote for themselves, it would mean thinking about the impact of laws and policies until the year 2036—who does that?

There are 73 million people in the United States below the age of 18, most of them citizens, who have no say over the policies that will affect them when they become adults. Certainly some voters and officials think about them when making policies, but the evidence of disregard is easy to see in ballooning federal deficits, deteriorating infrastructure, declining support for education, and a lack of support for young families. What kind of world will we hand off to the youngest of them when they can first vote in 2036? Will the essential services and institutions of government be as strong as they were when we could first vote? Will the social and economic system they inherit allow them the opportunities their parents and grandparents had, or will their prospects be diminished?

It might be objected that planning for the future of children is the job of parents and many parents are careful to pick good schools for their kids, make sure they are well fed and healthy, and start college funds when they are young. However, 31% of children live in single parent households in the U.S. and another 43% have both parents working outside of the home. How many of these parents have the time, energy, knowledge and resources to think eighteen years into the future and lobby elected officials for smart, long-term policies?

How could we move government from its mainly short-term focus to one that examined every policy and institution from the view of eighteen years in the future—call it prospective democracy because it is forward looking. There will always be a short-term view because we have to satisfy our own interests as well as those of our children and grandchildren. How can we modify our democracy to balance our short-term needs with their future needs when they can vote? Three levels of questions can be asked about the interests of the next generation of voters: 1) Are we protecting and perfecting our democratic system so that, when they can vote, they will inherit a well-functioning system with fewer flaws? 2) Are we protecting their interests as children so that they will reach adulthood as healthy, well-educated citizens who can participate intelligently in the political process? 3) Are we protecting their future interests as adults, so that—to the best of our abilities and given the uncertainties of the future—the laws and policies we are putting in place today will result in better social and economic conditions than we inherited?

What practices would support a prospective democracy? Here are a few thoughts:

  1. During election campaigns, voters would demand that politicians outline how their current and intended policies promote the integrity and flexibility of our democratic system, and the well-being of children, now and into the future. How long into the future? It will be eighteen years until children born this year can vote for themselves.
  2. Congress and state legislatures would generously fund non-partisan bureaus to project the impact of implemented and proposed policies as far as is reasonable into the future. Because many trends and events cannot be predicted with certainty, the impact of policies would be monitored and projections revised periodically so policies can be amended as new conditions arise.
  3. Many non-governmental organizations would monitor and critique the work of these official agencies and advocate for improvements in policies and institutions. This might involve advisory bodies of older children to give voice to their aspirations and fears. These organizations would educate voters about our long-term policy choices.
  4. Because the future is unpredictable, governments at all levels would focus on making sure that children have good education, nutrition, healthcare and resources in the short term so they have the resilience to deal with whatever the future brings. In addition, we would find ways to train and motivate our young people to be engaged citizens who take seriously their responsibility to educate themselves on public issues, vote, and speak out.
  5. Because the future is uncertain, voters would select candidates who are skillful, flexible and open-minded in their approach to emerging issues.

If we embraced a the idea of a prospective democracy, we would be acting as trustees for the 73 million members of the next generation because they do not have the political power to protect themselves. This is not a new idea. The preamble of the Constitution of the United States of America states that one of its purposes is to, “…secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity….”

The flaws in our governments do not refute the fact that representative democracy, with free and fair elections, and civil liberties, offers benefits that no other system can. For all its flaws, only democracy provides broad public participation in choosing representatives, choosing policies, holding leaders to account, expressing opinions without fear of retribution, supporting the rule of law to protect property, and preventing abuse of citizens. Well-functioning democracies support citizens’ belief in the legitimacy of a government because even the losers in an election believe they have a chance to win in the next round. No other system of government has consistent mechanisms that allow citizens to peacefully dismiss a government that has become abusive, incompetent, or corrupt, and to implement reforms to eliminate flaws. Democracy is certainly worth protecting and perfecting.

At this point, it is unclear how we could evolve from our short-term democratic focus to a prospective democracy that takes obligations to “our Posterity” seriously. The scope of government has expanded in modern democracies to cover most aspects of life, “from cradle to grave.” The number of governmental units is huge—over 90,000 in the U.S. alone. The transition from conventional democracy to prospective democracy would require some creative combination of altruistic concern and self-interest that is not currently understood. It would take the efforts of many people for many years. One incentive for political parties to take this perspective seriously is that four million of these future voters gain voting rights in the U.S. each year. As a start, simply asking the question—in all areas and at all levels of government–of how laws and policies will affect future voters seventeen years into the future would expand the range of issues and options that policy-makers are forced to consider. Those politicians with the best answers would stand to gain the initial loyalty of four million emerging voters each year.

What is your reaction to these thoughts?

5 thoughts on “Essay

  1. A foward looking perspective democracy would be an amazing shift for this country. How do we get buy-in from the groups with controlling interest who’s myopic view of government is not only partisan but also incestuously self serving? Unfortunately, I feel as though politicians will only start to include conversations about the next generations when they have either devised a way to exploit and monetize their input, or have been knocked over the head and somehow awoke in Thomas Moore’s Utopia.


    1. Thanks for your comment! I think you have stated well the the second hard problem of a prospective democracy. The first, I believe is deciding what should be on the agenda to make sure we have healthy kids, a healthy democracy, and a healthy future. The second in how to actually get the agenda passed. There are days when I like your knock ’em on the head scenario, but I think the realistic way to get elected officials and the civil service on board is to show them how their careers will benefit it they do.


  2. I love this idea of focusing on future generations…it seems this is something we say we do but, in actuality tend to be overly invested in the next election cycle, fundraising, or today’s tweet. These are all distractors from the long-term vision we need to determine the best policies for the future. This is also probably part of the reason we’ve neglected climate change. Beyond the deniers, for too many it’s easy to enjoy a little warmer weather today hurry to care for the next (fill in the blank weather related trauma) rather than reckon with and invest in what’s needed to care for our planet for future generations. Thanks Tom for getting us all thinking and furthering the conversation.


  3. Thanks, Mary Jane.

    One of the key messages of time management books (I think I have them all) is that the urgent tends to squeeze out the important. That’s certainly true in a political world that feeds off a 24 hour news cycle.



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