Friday, October 08, 2010

Young Voters Are Apathetic? Look Closer.

Some incumbent Democrats in danger of being voted out of office are attempting to lean heavily on the youth vote this election. I applaud anyone's effort to reach out to that particular group, though I have to say the act seems tinged with desperation rather than genuine, lasting outreach. Voting demographics must be cultivated and allowed to flourish with time, not reached for when desperately needed. Considering this attitude, I find it unsurprising that few politicians can rely on such a crucial group. Instead of throwing one's hands up or lecturing in hopes of creating guilt and shame, I argue that politicians, pundits, and columnists need to look at the subject very differently.

Many a counter-productive argument has begun with the premise that young people are fickle and irresponsible. Actively involved Young Adults like yours truly have understandably taken offense to them. There are any number of highly motivated people in the 18-29 demographic who take voting seriously. I know many personally. What I have observed in my own life is that an air of cynicism regarding the effectiveness of government is usually to blame for non-participation. What is not in force here is a kind of slothful refusal to perform one's civic duty.

There's a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy at play, too. Politicians assume young people won't vote, so they don't even try to develop strategies to get them to the polls. Bribing them with cheap hopes and promises will backfire just it does for any other voter. Sincerity is the missing quotient here, and anything that smacks of mere political posturing is often easily recognized as such. Pandering to any identity group--without first asserting a genuine desire to establish ties that last beyond November runs the same risk. Requesting a seat at the table is a reasonable request, and yet many politicians act as though it's some intolerable special favor. No one would ever question the soundness of a desire to specifically tailor a message to the African-American community or the LGBT community, and yet many think otherwise as regards the young.

I admit that I was one of the few seniors in high school who looked forward to being granted the right to vote. However, the presumed "apathy" present in my peers was merely a result of never being adequately informed by parents or by teachers as to why casting a ballot was such an essential act. The civics and government classes everyone was required to take were presented with so little conviction and interest that few students got much out of them. Is this emblematic about how we as a society feel about such a crucial process? When educators do not know how to present needed material in effective ways, perhaps the method of delivery, not those who are to learn it, should be held at fault.

In great contrast, my family was very politically active and involved. Candidates for elective office and their positions on issues were regularly discussed around the dinner table. Even as a small child, politics was a frequent topic of conversation. Some families may have talked about the weather or the anatomy of an average day at school or work, but not us. There was a strong expectation for me and my siblings to register, do research on the latest slate of names, and then be certain to show up at the polls. In my boyhood I remember the excitement felt the evening of Election Day, watching wave after wave of updated election returns scroll across the bottom of a television screen. I experience the same thing today.

Using Obama 2008 as a textbook example of how to successfully appeal to Young Adults is, I fear, not terribly helpful. That was a perfect storm of charisma, message, metrics, timing, luck, showmanship, and skillful planning. Much like receiving two blizzards back to back, as was true last winter here in DC, I doubt we'll experience another such election for a long time. The hard work in getting votes is much less compelling, often drab, but no less important. An exercise in building bridges is what is needed to attract and reach those whose voting participation has been sporadic for the past several years. Let us also not forget also that the fear of being drafted against one's will and sent off to die could motivate almost anyone of any age. Times have changed, as have the concerns of the youngest voters.

Much as we ought to do our own homework regarding those who we might place in positions of authority, they ought to do the same amount of homework to reach us. I hardly find this a selfish demand. The irony is that we are surrounded by diversity of all sorts on a daily basis, particularly those of us who live in large cities, yet we keep to ourselves and those like us. I often feel that way while out walking by myself in New York City. It seems strange how alone I feel when I am surrounded by twenty million people. Those who enjoy needling the younger generation for its perceived flaws, regardless of the group or context fall into the same category. Marginalized people of any persuasion have no obligation to explain themselves to those who benefit from privilege, but getting to know one's neighbors ought not be a chore. Being diverse is not a punishment or a chore, rather, it should be a pleasure. But so long as we see it as the former, and not the latter, expect more articles about lazy young people and low voter turnout.

2 comments:

Natalie said...

I found you through your post at feministe and I have to agree 100%. I feel really undervalued every time someone important talks about how apathetic, irresponsible, and impossible to count on my generation is. Then when we don't show up they wonder why not and deride us for not doing so at the same time.

Good call.

Comrade Kevin said...

Thank you for your comment, Natalie!