2012 Popular Vote: Young Voter Turnout, Feminist Gains this Election Were No Mistake


After the historic 2012 election, it became abundantly clear that GOP policies that assume the wealthy are the only demographic deserving of financial support weren’t resonating with large swathes of the American public. Immediately, mainstream media rang the death knell for white men as the default demographic to rely on to carry votes in presidential, state, and local elections. Perhaps more importantly, this election signals that we’re seeing important political change take place not only because traditionally disadvantaged groups are exercising their right to vote, but also because we’re using the Internet as a site to agitate for change on a daily basis.

Despite the narrative that’s resurrected every couple of months about young people being apathetic, or a popular variant that insists, once again, that feminism is dead, the extraordinary turnout among young people, both in 2012 and in 2008, is consistently proving that these tired narratives can be put to rest. Voting is one of the most direct means of political engagement, but it also has to be part of a continued process of political involvement.

Voting is an active process, and one that Republicans find frightening that all these groups are exercising – hence the rash of redistricting laws and voter suppression initiatives, especially in swing states. However, for those who only see politics as government and the White House as opposed to a system of power that moves across the surface of all our lives, it can be easy to see voting as where the political process ends, at least until the next election.

This perspective, admittedly, has diminished somewhat as political engagement continues to bleed through our lives, as loci of new and traditional activism, including Change.org and other establishment organizations such as NARAL and Planned Parenthood reach out to feminists and other progressives through their various online presences. In mainstream discourses, too often the discussion about young people organizing can end here, ignoring the unsexy but still significant work activists do daily to bring gross injustices to light and hold politicians accountable.

In a recent article for The Nation, Jessica Valenti notes that organizing by youth activists via Twitter and the feminist blogosphere was a huge reason behind why unacceptable comments like Todd Akin’s infamous “legitimate rape” became viral hashtags, gained mainstream media coverage, and ultimately cost him his challenge to Claire McCaskill’s Senate seat in Missouri. As Valenti notes, feminist mobilization leading up to and after the election is such a sea change because we are growing more successful at holding those in power accountable and shifting discourses around public policy that too often assume legislation that oppresses women will pass unchallenged.  

Feminist and progressive participation in the political sphere is profoundly altering our perception about what the role of the public in a representative democracy should be in the post-millennial U.S., especially as we’ve seen the continued consolidation of financial power in the past decade. Beyond remaining informed, it’s been challenging to define and envision what role citizens should play between election cycles. Through their use of both traditional and new ways of organizing, feminists have helped to carve a path through which people can remain engaged in the political process past Election Day and reap results.

By framing activism as a process instead of an instantaneous moment that ‘just happens,’ the results of the 2012 election can be seen as the culmination of months of organizing, blogging, spreading information to moderates, and challenging media narratives around crucial Senate races. Viewing politics in this way goes a long way towards restoring agency to everyday people.

There still remains much work to be done, as GOP analyses of the election vary greatly from progressive interpretations. Despite deafening losses, Republicans still don’t see their politics as alienating; rather, they see undeserving groups as a growing threat to white privilege. The backlash has already begun. Shortly after the election, Republicans in Ohio pushed forward legislation to defund Planned Parenthood. And in an offensive analysis, Mitt Romney chalked up his loss to President Obama giving constituents “gifts” (read: entitlements). In this climate, it’s difficult to imagine the present incarnation of Republican Party exercising any kind of self-reflexiveness.

A crucial link that feminist activists have pushed to the fore of public consciousness throughout this election cycle and the continued War on Women is that regressive bills that are passed in more conservative states are increasingly used as models for legislation that would strip women of reproductive rights nationwide. Spreading this understanding of interconnectivity has been vital to promoting activism against these bills.

Going forward, not only must we continue to push for institutional change, including diverse representation in government, but we must give ourselves the agency to take on the laborious but rewarding work of monitoring the public sphere and calling out regressive legislation.