During the 2008 presidential election, one of the prevailing stories was that young voters were motivated to participate in historic numbers. Largely buoyed by an enthusiasm for a candidate in Barack Obama who seemingly represented the new millennial generation, young people mobilized, organized, and actually voted. This energy was seen as one of the main reasons behind Obama’s victory over John McCain.
This time around, young people seem to be withdrawing, jaded by the apparent lack of progress over the last four years, and unwilling to immerse themselves in politics. While some of this frustration is merited, young people carry some of the blame themselves: while they were excited about a candidate, they weren’t fully appreciative of the complexities of the political process. They seemingly expected Obama to come in on a white horse, save the economy, stop the wars, and provide every citizen with effective health care. If we’re serious about engaging young people in every election, and not just when an exciting candidate comes around, we need to deepen their understanding of the civic process.
Firstly, it’s important to note that while 2008 marked a significant upsurge in the youth vote compared to recent history, it was not exactly historical. Approximately 23 million young Americans (between the ages of 18-30) voted in the 2008 presidential election, an increase of 3.4 million voters from 2004, or 5 percentage points. But if we look at the last 40 years, or 10 elections, 2008 marked only the third highest share of the youth vote: 55.4% voted in 1972, and 52% voted in 1992 (compared to 51% in 2008). So we shouldn’t pretend that Obama motivated young people to participate in unheard of numbers. We also shouldn’t allow ourselves to be complacent and excited when 49% of eligible young voters still stayed home in 2008.
That said, young people are even less engaged this time around. A report just released by Pew Research Center confirms these sentiments. Young people are following the election at half the rate they were in 2008, their intention to vote is down nine points, and only 50% of young people are certain that they are actually registered to vote.
Part of this is due to the actual policies of the last four years. Young people have not exactly seen the fruits of Obama’s economic recovery work. While overall unemployment is now at about 8%, one out of every two recent college grads was either jobless or underemployed in 2011. It’s much worse for non-college students: only 16% of young people who graduated high school between 2009-2011 (and did not attend college) now have steady employment. Indeed, while much of vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s speech was misleading, to be kind, he had one of the more memorable lines of both debates when he stated, “College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life.”
So if you are one of those young people that voted for Obama, excitedly anticipating a brighter day in America, you might be disappointed that it has not led to brighter employment prospects for young people. This is valid.
But, at the same time, I get the sense that when young people cast their vote in 2008, they didn’t entirely understand how difficult it would be for Obama to fix the country. Not only was the economic collapse the worst since the Great Depression, meaning it couldn’t be fixed immediately, but a resistant Congress has made the President’s job that much harder. This country cannot be fixed by one administration: it takes the three branches of government, fifty states, and innumerable municipalities working together to revive the economy.
There seems to be two prevailing perspectives when it comes to young people’s activism. One is that they are selfish, disengaged, and that they spend their entire days online (this is mostly from older people). Another is that they are ambitious and idealistic, but prefer to change the world in non-political ways, getting involved in endeavors such as national service or international development.
There is some truth to both of these arguments. But as a young person, I do hope that we can channel this idealism (which does exist) into politics. We cannot choose to participate only when an inspired candidate comes along. We do need to change politics, but the only way to change it is to actually get political. The more young people that vote, the more influence we can actually have.
The truth is that Obama probably has not been as good to young people as he should have been. But our expectations were also too high. The answer is not to disengage; it is to re-engage. Unfortunately, it seems that young people will become a footnote in this election, rather than an instrument for change. Let’s hope that’s not the case.