In one of my writing classes, I begin each session with a short writing prompt. Today, I asked my students to write down their thoughts on the presidential election. I asked if they have been following it at all and which issues they would like the candidates to address during tonight’s presidential debate. When I gave out the assignment, I stressed that they did not have to reveal who they are voting for, but rather, just write about their interest or lack of in the campaign.
After they finished the prompt, some volunteered to share what they had written. A majority of them confessed that they really had no interest at all in politics, voting, or the outcome of the election. Some of them said they do not see how a presidential campaign has any impact on their life.
The responses startled me some, especially since I have been extremely politically active since I was 18 and was eager to vote in my first presidential election. That said, I had a hunch that young people have tuned out the campaign season, and I suspect youth turnout is going to be low, especially compared to 2008 and even 2004.The youth vote played a major role in President Obama’s first election.
I pondered for a while why young voters are disengaged this time. Perhaps they are disillusioned with the dismal state of the economy and do not believe either candidate can fix it. Perhaps, as one student said, they don’t see how politics affects them, especially since they aren’t out of college and have yet to face real economic, bread-and-butter issues. Or maybe they just don’t want to spend a lot of their time thinking about foreign policy, the unemployment numbers, or other campaign issues.
Their responses were alarming in another sense, too. If there is a decrease in voting turnout, then it sure makes it easier for politicians to do whatever they want, if they know that a certain group of people don’t vote in large numbers. Why not slash Pell grants even more if you know a lot of young people don’t vote or won’t do anything about it? Why not slash education, which leads to tuition hikes?
By the end of the discussion, all I could say is that in the past, throughout the history of our country, change happened not because of one politician and president, but because of movements, often fueled by young people. Any great movements over the last few years that led to a politician actually doing something was driven by civic engagement. I hope we reach a point in this country again where we can have meaningful discussions about issues.