The first time I “got involved” in politics, I was eight. Somehow, from watching the news or hearing snippets of adult conversations, I had decided I was against the Iraq War. In the weeks before the election of 2004, I stomped around the playground belting, “If you’re smart and not a tush, vote for Kerry, not for Bush!” Not the most developed political argument, but hey, I was in third grade.
I remember the overwhelming sense of empowerment—that what I was doing transcended the buzz of elementary school gossip, and that my poorly rhymed attempt at political protest actually mattered. I was about four feet tall, still hadn’t lost my baby teeth, and had chipmunk cheeks the size of small balloons, but even in my eight-year-old shell, I felt important. I cared about politics. And I thought that was enough.
I’d like to say that a lot has changed. But even though I check BBC more than I check Facebook, I rant about military interventionism to anyone who will listen, and I cite members of Congress as my celebrity crushes; thus far, my only contribution to our representative democracy has been voicing my opinion. I just add to the white noise of our generation. I don’t say this to look down upon myself, or to wave a finger at my fellow Daily Show-idolizing policy geeks. What I’m saying is that this needs to change; we need to change.
While youth voter turnout for presidential elections has increased over time, according to the US Census Bureau, only 45% of voters ages 18-29 showed up at the polls. That’s down from a high of 51% in 2008—which is great, compared to previous years, but still barely a majority. What’s worse, the Census recorded that only 24% of this age group voted in the 2010 midterm elections, down from 31% in 1982. To have less than a quarter of young Americans vote not only contradicts the basis of a representative democracy, but also serves as a pretty chilling reminder of the changes our generation must make. We need to do better. It’s that simple.
But even outside election season, college-aged students—myself included—forget a key aspect of political participation. We usually miss the direct link between the people and our government: reaching out to our representatives themselves. In the spring of my sophomore year of high school, I participated in a Day of Silence protest against LGBTQ bullying. I wore a homemade shirt, on which I had scrawled things like “Love is love!” and “Equality 4 all!” I was feeling pretty proud of myself when a friend turned to me, raised his eyebrows, and said, “See, I just wrote to our Congressman about overturning the Defense of Marriage Act. That’s more important than staying quiet all day.” I was annoyed at the time, but I should have acknowledged how right he was.
The truth is, labeling ourselves as “politically conscious” breeds a culture of snobbishness. I tend to wear my attempts at political activism like badges of honor—look everyone, I’m informed enough to care about Syria! It’s a way of letting ourselves look down on others, to mock-gasp when a friend says he doesn’t know about urban inequality or the NSA’s latest privacy braches. But we need to resist the urge to pat ourselves on the back for giving a damn. We should invest the energy it takes to post “39 Reasons Why We Still Need Feminism!!!” into emailing our representatives about equal pay legislation. We should barrage Senators’ Twitters when we get fed up with partisan gridlock, not tweet about how we’re “so freakin’ stoked for #Hillary2016.”
This is not to say that we should stop being vocal. We have the incredible privilege of free speech, and we’re obligated to take advantage of that. But we also have the power to get results—to channel our voices to the men and women who enact legislation.
In his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama electrified the masses by proclaiming, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” I was twelve years old when I watched that speech, computer propped against my bed, fuzzy pajamas nudging my quilt. That message continues to stick with me. We don’t have to be the age group who repeats history. In our technology-overloaded era, there’s no excuse for being uninformed; we can keep our fingers on the country’s pulse and demand justice when our government falters. We need, in essence, to redefine what it means to be “politically conscious.”
And it will not be easy. I have a lot of work to do: handfuls of habits I need to correct and a boat-sized ego I need to ignore in order to actually get on with political participation. But I think we all can agree that catalyzing change in Washington is a worthy goal—and that, if anything, sounds to me like the perfect first step.
U.S. Census Bureau, Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2012 – Detailed Tables
Table 1 – Reported Voting and Registration, by Sex and Single Years of Age
U.S. Census 2010 Current Population Survey, Table 1