Young, Restless, and Not Voting

This week, as the general election campaign “ramps up” for the umpteenth time, President Barack Obama has been conspicuous about talking to the young folks of America. He’s gone where they congregate—college campuses to talk about student loans and on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon to slow jam the news and stand next to “The Roots,” absorbing their cool by osmosis. 

In the last presidential election, young Americans ate up the heaping spoonfuls of hope served to them by the Obama campaign—66 percent of 18-29 year olds voted for him, while John McCain got only 32 percent of the same demographic. By comparison, in 2004, 54 percent of the same age group went for John Kerry, 45 percent for George W. Bush. 

But the youth of 2012 are a bit more pessimistic than they were in 2008. According to a poll released late last week, 61 percent of college-age Millennials (the futuristic-sounding name given to the generation born in the late 1980s and early 1990s) are registered to vote, but only 46 percent say that they will likely do so in November. By way of comparison, in 2008, 58.5 percent of the same age group was registered to vote, and 48 percent of them actually did. 

All of this begs the question: Why are young people less amped about this election than the last one? Four years ago, the kids were running around in Shepard Fairey shirts, taking semesters off college to live in the sticks and work at campaign offices in battleground states. Everyone was talking politics, but most especially the “apathetic youth,” as the high-waisted pants-wearing crowd might call them. It wasn’t necessarily high-level policy talk that dominated conversation as $2 beer tabs popped, but rather discussions of the emotional ephemera of politics, the kind of stuff that really makes elections go round. In the fall of 2008, the known world was crashing in around our heads and the national authority figures who could usually muster a comforting lie were alarmingly honest about the dire state of affairs. Is it any wonder that younger voters clung to the easy mythology of Obama? He swaggered onto stages and gave such soaring speeches that one half expected him to announce that Earth had just been saved from an annihilating asteroid. Plus, he was genuinely smart—a quality that comforted people at a time when most stood confounded by the bleak web of financial ruin ensnaring the country. He was the president Millennials grew up watching in movies.

But 2012 is an election with entirely different DNA. A candidate who waxed hopeful on the stump this year would be ridiculed as woefully out of touch, and American youth don’t have quite as many stars in their eyes this year. A survey of Millennials released yesterday by the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics shows that only one in five 18- to 29-year-olds think that the country is headed in the right direction. If the end of the Bush era in 2008 felt like a new chapter in the chronicle of American history, then the 2012 election is a mere paragraph break, a battle fought by two establishment candidates in a country that feels about as good about itself as Joan Rivers sans makeup. 

As if to italicize our lack of progress over the last four years, the issues that have dominated the race thus far are ones that younger voters assumed had already been dealt with. Turns out that we’re not beyond attempts at fear mongering and shaming when it comes to basic issues of women’s health and sexuality, and Trayvon Martin is yet another reminder that we are far from being a post-racial society. But it’s class and economic disappointment that sticks most in the craw. The promised reform of the financial sector hasn’t come to fruition, and while talking about gross income disparity is a start, it remains a basic fact of American life—one that doesn’t seem like it’s heading anywhere any time soon.

If there is any single factor to explain the apathetic feelings towards voting held by American young people, it is the Occupy Wall Street Movement, that amoeba of direct democracy that enraptured the country. This assertion of agency by ordinary Americans is what inspires most right now—a motley crew comprising everyone from union workers to hippies. If Obama occupied the hopeful zeitgeist of four years ago, then it is Occupy that is doing so this year. We certainly didn’t tune in for the cohesive political message. Sloganeering—even of the hopeful, innovative variety—isn’t what people seem to be looking for this year. Turns out, if you camp out and break laws (peacefully), people actually listen to what you have to say—the number of times income inequality issues were mentioned in media stories skyrocketed following the Occupy protests, and politicians scrambled to overhaul their rhetoric. 

The institution-less nature of the Occupy beast has something to do with the likely voting numbers of young people. Millennials don’t necessarily see institutions—government, financial or otherwise—as the best or most reliable vehicles for change, so why get all hot and bothered about a candidate or even an election? We’re witnessing a rise in cynicism—the earnestness that was so in vogue among American youth four years ago has calcified. The politicians aren’t messianic figures of change this time around. They’re just politicians, some good, some bad, all a little pre-packaged, a little sanitized. 

Don’t call it apathy; the kids are just growing up.

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