Obama and the Cult of Youth

Young people are stupid. 

I do not exclude myself from this judgment; when I was a lad newly of voting age, my news addiction made me a curious specimen (though in those days, CNN and newspapers were the only dealers in town), and as such I was as well-informed a teenage boy as can reasonably be expected. And yet I supported Ross Perot (ah, the follies of youth) -- until he flaked out, of course, after which I drifted back to my natural home in the Republican Party.  

And really, is it any wonder young people are given to so much folly, political and otherwise? Good Lord! Who can be expected to think straight with all those hormones coursing through the bloodstream? Thinking clearly at that age is not just a bad idea -- it's practically impossible (and thank God for it).

Would that stupidity were the most unappealing aspect of youth. Sadly, it often comes mixed with callowness and a smug, unearned moral superiority -- a truly repugnant cocktail. Once again, I do not except myself; I hated young people even when I was one.

Societies of all kinds recognize these inherent failings of youth. The difference between healthy societies and sick societies is that sick societies take advantage of the young, flattering them by indulging their self-superiority and cultivating their loyalty while propagandizing them into following the ideology of the regime.

In the Roman Republic -- as healthy, vigorous, and successful a society as has ever existed -- age was the prized characteristic, especially in public servants, who engaged in a political rat-race called the cursus honorum, the "race of honors." This was a complex system of elected offices which included consuls (a sort of duel executive), tribunes, and various magistrates in charge of state finance, religion, and administration.  

To succeed in this highly competitive, intellectually and morally challenging system, a degree of wisdom and temperance was required -- characteristics which are the sole province of elders then and now. The Romans were passionately attached to their Republic, which they correctly saw as a unique and precious form of government, and they wanted it helmed by wise and virtuous men. Such men are by definition free of the emotional fevers of youth.  

In Republic-era art, and especially the portraiture, you will see statues of senators in their elderly Republican glory, wrinkles and bald pates reproduced with loving clarity in the veristic, or truthful, style. Children, by contrast, are rarely, if ever, depicted.

The advent of the Caesars brought a change in Roman attitudes towards youth and age.  Julius Caesar himself was ashamed of the visible signs of his aging, and took care to hide his balding with carefully positioned hair (the famous "Caesar cut" is still with us) and head-wear, usually a crown of laurel leaves.  

After Caesar was murdered, his grand-nephew and adopted son Octavian avenged him. In the process, Octavian destroyed the Republic and established the principate, with himself as first Emperor. Re-named Augustus, the Emperor instituted a state policy of glorification of youth -- for the first time, children appeared in state-sponsored Roman art. Augustus himself was portrayed as forever young and vigorous, even as he grew to a ripe old age.  

The Roman state degenerated from liberty to tyranny as it came to value youth over age and wisdom.

I think about all of this often when I hear of the "youth vote," so prized and pursued in contemporary American politics. You are the future, politicians tell throngs of college students every election season. Not true; the future belongs to the older, wiser men and women they will -- if they are lucky -- become.  But the present can belong to young people if their elders give them that power.

Last November, we gave them that power -- the "youth vote" turned out in record numbers for Barack Obama. Some believe it was enough to put him over the top and into the White House. Maybe, maybe not. Obama certainly flattered the youth on the campaign trail, certainly knew what buttons to push, which poses to affect. Obama seemed cool and young...one of them. He won their devotion, and it seems he still has it.

These young people will not know the ruin they have brought until they are older and wiser and it is too late.

Matt Patterson is a National Review Institute Washington Fellow and the author of "Union of Hearts: The Abraham Lincoln & Ann Rutledge Story."  His email is mpatterson.column@gmail.com.