Ever since the 26th Amendment to the Constitution granted American citizens the right to vote at age 18, politicians have looked for ways to rally support from the youngest voting block. In 1972, the first presidential election where 18 year-olds could vote, the turnout was pronounced. Ever after, young voters have drifted away from the ballot box in a move most often attributed to apathy. That trend changed in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected as the first African American president of the United States, in no small part due to his ability to connect with young voters.
As the 2012 elections approach, both Democrats and Republicans seek affinity with young voters by connecting with them on relevant issues. Both parties frequently appeal to future generations, promising prosperity and warning against the dangers of the policies of the other party. While young people tend to be more, in general, liberal on social issues like same-sex marriage, recent economic hardship has taken its toil on the youngest Americans. Many 18-29 year old Americans live paycheck to paycheck or struggle to even find consistent employment. College students face mounting debt from school loans while job prospects shrink. Overall, politics seem far from the mundane life that most young Americans wake up to every morning.
Perhaps there is some apathy among young potential voters. Then again, what recent events have led them to believe that their vote makes a tangible difference in the world? While high school social studies programs seek to cultivate active citizenship in the democratic process, some teenagers don’t see the connection between their world and the political system. In the volatile world of social media, every candidate is caricatured and criticized. Every flippant aside can instantly become the topic du jour and send campaign advisors scrambling to backtrack and explain away the gaff.
What if young voters are not apathetic, but rather disillusioned?
Some younger voters are discouraged and disillusioned by what hasn’t happened during Obama’s first term in office. The swelling tide that carried Obama to the White House has receded, leaving a sour taste in many Millennials mouths as they come to terms with the fact that a platform that sang the promise of “change” sounds too much like a verse to the repetitive chorus that’s been streaming from Washington for the last dozen years. Constantly combating a Republican controlled legislature, Obama staked his first term on passage of a healthcare bill that, 4 years later, has barely survived the scrutiny of the Supreme Court. With younger voters, however, the issue has been a resounding failure.
Millennials resonate most closely with topics nearer to their own experience – the environment, student loans, gay marriage, and unemployment carry more weight with 20 year olds who see health as a back burner issue. The enthusiasm that lifted Obama to the White House has bent under the underwhelming performance of the past four years. The sputtering economy has gradually worn on young voters who entered college in 2008, only to find that upon their graduation in 2012, the job market had all but dried up for young professionals. Skepticism has replaced optimism, and Obama’s support among Millennials is slipping.
Interestingly, Millennials put more faith in the United Nations to “do the right thing” than the Federal or Local Government. (http://www.iop.harvard.edu/spring-2012-survey)
However, hope is returning to young Americans. 2012 has seen an increase in the number of Americans who believe the country is headed in the right direction.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. Do you think young Americans are interested in politics? Why or why not?
2. What political issues are the most important to young Americans?
3. Do you know any young voters who plan on voting in the upcoming elections? Do you know any who are intentionally boycotting the voting process? What do you think about their decision?
4. Do you think “very vote counts”?
5. What needs to happen for young voters to become more involved citizens of American politics?
6. Do you think young people have a fair opportunity to vote? What impediments might prevent a young person from voting?
7. What would you most like to change about politics?
1. The perceptions that young people have of American political leaders is an important measure of our health as a nation. A growing disconnect between leadership and citizenry could potentially lead to political upheaval and social unrest (as seen in the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations).
2. Democracy requires an informed citizenry. If young voters are not getting accurate information about the political parties and candidates running for office, we run the danger of voting based on superficial stereotypes.
3. Political parties seem mired in ideological disputes, forcing young people to take sides on issues without honest dialogue or collaboration. Political debate seems to rarely produce compromise and consensus, but sectarian divide. Democracy is less effective in an unyielding political climate.