VOTING: A LESSON WELL WORTH TEACHING
On June 24, Britain and the world woke up to the news that the Leave side had won the vote to keep or sever Britain’s membership in the European Union. Millennials—the generation aged roughly 18-35–were especially enraged by Britain’s vote to leave. They took to social media to tweet their discontent at Baby Boomers whom they felt had betrayed them. “So all the old people gave us a future we didn’t want. You’ve all had your careers, why screw it up for us” tweeted one disgruntled young Briton. Another chagrined millennial writes, “We’ve grown up believing in a future that transcends national borders because we experience that world in our work, interests and social lives online. Today, the future we imagined was stolen from us.” The rage of British millennials is easy to understand. Nurtured in the globalized, post-national world of the Internet, their identities transgress political boundaries. The open border employment policies of the European Union allowed them jobs in dozens of member nations. The EU gave them both real and symbolic affiliation with peers sharing cultural and political passions. And the millennials, not the Boomers, will have many more decades to suffer whatever the consequences of Brexit will be.
Millennials framed their rage as generational betrayal. Old folks protecting their pensions, their white identities, and their nostalgic hankering for a Britain that could be “great again” vetoed the dreams of the younger generation. Baby Boomers, feeling the stresses of globalization—refugee crises, fierce competition for jobs, rapidly changing racial demographics—and swayed by Fox News style propaganda voted out of fear. But voting patterns suggest that millennials also betrayed themselves. Even though roughly 75% of young people supported Remain, only 36% of eligible millennials voted in the referendum (a rough percentage based on polls taken in millennial-rich municipalities). This compares to an 80% voting rate for people over 45. So their rage, however earnest, rings hollow. Millennial disaffection with democratic institutions—this group did suffer enormously as did our own from the Great Recession of 2008—was expressed in their failure to show up to vote. And this is what should worry us in the U.S. Will our millennials show up to vote?
Britain’s problem is ours. American millennials stay home, too. Some numbers: in the 2014 midterm elections turnout for those 18-29 years old was 19.9%, the lowest percentage on record. Derek Thompson writes, “Young people just don’t vote. Between 1964 and 2012 youth voter turnout has fallen below 50 percent, and Baby Boomers now outvote their children’s generation by a stunning 30 percentage points. Millennials might make a lot of noise between presidential elections, but in November, politicians remember what young people are: All throat and no vote.” It’s easy to say the low political participation by today’s young people is simply a matter of apathy, a kind of generational laziness endemic in a group that thinks a tweet counts the same as a vote. But the social media explanation neglects a crucial demographic reality: young people suffered more than any other group from a Great Recession. Here is Thompson again: “Young people were uniquely punished by the recession and are rightfully angry. They suffered higher unemployment than any other group during the downturn, and their wages fell more than any other group after it concluded.” Our generation of young people has faced a perfect storm of economic oppression: low wages and record high student debt have made it extraordinarily difficult for today’s young people to achieve anything close to the American Dream enjoyed by their parents. Is it any wonder millennials have lost faith in government and have sought non-governmental forms of expression to voice their rage for change?: hence the Occupy Movement, social media, and Black Lives Matter, other outlets for political protest are embraced.
If participation in national elections by millennials is depressing, it is even worse in local elections. Here are more numbers: “The odds of a voter aged 65 or older casting a ballot in a mayoral election compared to a voter aged 18-34 were as high as 19 to 1 in the primary and 13.8 to 1 in the general election.” A study by the Knight Foundation found that “Sixty percent of people say they trust local government a good deal or a fair amount compared with only 33 percent of millennial voters.” The study also found “that only 29 percent of millennials believe that political involvement of any kind rarely has any tangible results.” The Knight study found several inhibitors to millennial political participation, including less local media coverage (due partly to cutbacks in local and state journalism), high mobility among millennials, and low rates of home ownership by millennials. More focused analysis by the Knight study of millennial attitudes toward local elections revealed: 1. This group had very little information about issues and candidates in local elections. 2. They do not seek out the information that is available. 3. They do not trust media sources: there is to them a complete absence of unfiltered, real information. 4. Local government is viewed by millennials as distant, anonymous, and not relevant to issues they care about. 5. Dwelling in social media bubbles populated by their peers, the millennials lack a connection to communities of interest that might generate political participation. Finally, this same study examined what does motivate millennials to vote: 1. Millennials are most motivated by “messages that were positive, elicited pride in their city and framed how voting could tangibly impact issues they find important.” 2. In contrast, millennials were “less motivated by messages that were negative and cynical, and are especially tired of hearing that that the system is ‘broken.’”
The Knight study offers a few suggestions for activating youth political turnout: make information available to young people where they hang out; give new residents welcome packets about who the local politicians are and where to vote; create a voting app to supply information on candidates and issues; recruit celebrities to engage them. These recommendations seem sensible. Outreach is indeed necessary. But just as crucial is the responsibility of us dwelling in the more senior demographics of this divided nation to persuade our peers—family and friends, colleagues and neighbors—that the generation we parent, the generation we teach, the generation that feels betrayed and lost, needs our help and hope. Vote for them.
Please note: On September 14th, Constitution Day, NYPIRG will be outside CCB 252/253 registering students to vote from at 9: 00- 10:30 am. Please encourage your students who are not registered to take a few minutes to stop by to register to vote in order. It is an important civic obligation.
-Timothy Strode, NCC AAUP Executive Committee