The Long Arc of the Youth Vote

Expectations weren't high for young-voter turnout in the midterm election. Indeed, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement reports that youth turnout was pretty paltry -- only about 20 percent of voters were under 30 years old. The news that only 9 million young people cast a ballot sobered youth organizers and inflamed middle-aged columnists. In his "Letter to a whiny young Democrat," Mark Moford of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "Politics is corrosive and infuriating, de facto and by definition, even with someone as thoughtful as Obama in the Big Chair. Understand it. Deal with it. Get back in the game. If you don't, we all lose. Your choice, kiddo."

Moford's patronizing approach seemed designed to alienate rather than motivate, but underneath his tantrum (ironic, indeed) lie a couple of very sophisticated questions that we must consider as we reflect on this month's election results. How can young people reimagine engaged citizenship in a way that transcends charismatic figures and once-every-four-year blowout parties? How can we be young and duly outraged at the state of things, while still taking the long view on social change?

Before the midterms, youth organizers argued that it was the Democratic Party's job to lure young people to the polls with inspiring candidates. Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, wrote in The Washington Post, "The 22.5 million young voters who headed to the polls in 2008 want to show up again for something -- they just need a candidate to give them something to show up for."

Chalk it up to my old age (I'm staring down 31 next month), but it seems to me that counting on candidates to provide incentives for voting is a little bit like paying a kid for earning good grades. It breeds reward seekers, not responsible citizens. Of course, having a leader who speaks directly to the issues we care most about -- education, the economy, immigration -- and can quote Jay-Z to boot is pretty inspiring. But it would be unwise for us to grow accustomed to the luxury of external inspiration when it comes to electoral politics. There won't likely be another Barack Obama in our lifetime.

Instead, we must be motivated by the promise of something less sparkly but more sacred: a country that reflects our deeply held values. That might sound like a pipe dream at a time when we can't even get basic climate legislation passed, but one of the gifts of youth is a bit of naive idealism. In a recent survey, Rock the Vote found that 83 percent of young people believe that their generation has the power to change the world.

But it's not going to happen overnight. Or in two years. Or, let's face it, in 20. Echoing what many a social scientist has already declared about the millenial generation, Moford wrote, "We're an instant gratification culture, and you're an ADHD generation."

Indeed, we are sometimes swept up in the social-media trends of our time. But we're also service-oriented and the most educated generation in history. If knowledge is power, we've got an obscene amount -- and we're looking to do more than just hoard it. We're sober about the ways in which an unequal world is also an unsafe one. To the children of 9/11 and Katrina, redistributing power and reasserting our interdependence isn't just noble; it's necessary. Like our grandmothers and grandfathers, we've got change on the brain, and we're not likely to forget that -- like, ahem, the boomers -- as we grow up, get mortgages, and make babies.

Sociologist Elise Boulding suggested that we all live in a 200-year present -- calculated by subtracting the date of birth of the oldest person we have known from the projected death date of the youngest person in our family. My great-grandfather Bernard, born in 1887, loved macadamia nuts and witnessed the Wounded Knee incident firsthand. I remember his bulbous knuckles and bald head surprisingly well. My goddaughter, adopted from Guatemala, has just started kindergarten and loves to bury her face in half a giant tomato and come up grinning with seeds on her cheeks. She will most likely see 2095.

I voted in the midterm election in honor of both of them. I will keep voting, whether the candidates get my pulse racing or not, because I am grateful to live in a country where my liberties were created by people I've never known, people who died decades before I was born.

The arc of citizenship is long. Some may think my generation is incapable of adopting this view, but I disagree. In our first heady experiences of participating in and contributing to a truly unique presidential campaign, we may have been unable to recognize it as an anomaly in electoral politics. My guess is that our anemic presence in the most recent polls is a product of letdown from all that hoopla.

But it doesn't mean we're destined for it. As Martin Luther King Jr. said on March 31, 1968, only four days before he was assassinated, "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice." On the 40th anniversary of King's death, President Obama quoted him and added, "It bends towards justice, but here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice."

My generation is not, as some have tried to claim, made up of bandwagon neophytes and apathetic brats. We are pragmatic idealists with the curse and luck of having some of our first experiences of citizenship coincide with one of the most historic elections in history. Now we're floating back down to earth and taking stock of what it means to make change for a lifetime (or a few lifetimes, in Boulding's view). I have faith that this midterm election will be a wake-up call. Now, we must put our hands back on the arc and keep bending, just as our grandparents did, just as our grandchildren will do one day, too.