An American Angst: What Keeps Young Voters From Traditional Political Participation?  

In May of 2016, a week after listening to former Democratic presidential candidate and Senator Bernie Sanders at a rally on the Great Lawn in Louisville, I walked down to my polling station to cast my first-ever vote in the Democratic primary election. A few weeks later, Senator Sanders would go on to lose the nomination in a contested race that left many supporters heartbroken and even more frustrated with what they viewed as a broken political system. 

His promise of tuition-free college spoke volumes to someone like me who was in his senior year of high school, accepted into a university, and wondering how the hell he was going to pay for it all. His promise of universal health care greatly appealed to someone like me who had attended almost every doctor appointment with his mother and saw how much insulin cost and how little was covered under a Medicaid insurance plan. As someone coming of age, searching for a political identity, and living in a one-bedroom apartment with an infirm mother, his promises spoke to me. The idea that the government could provide me and my family with basic human necessities, and allow me and many other Americans the opportunity to pave a path for success truly inspired me. It gave me something to struggle for. 

Nearly five years later, with college tuition prices at an all-time high, a pandemic that has upended life as we know it, widespread political unrest, complexities, and injustices within this nation have become front and center, more so than at any other point in our lifetimes. Despite this, only 50% of eligible youth voters across the United States voted in the last presidential election. While that represents a notable increase in participation from the previous election, that is still a low turnout relative to other age groups. Sadly, in most elections youth turnout is regularly low. The most recent gubernatorial election in Virginia saw only 25% of eligible young voters come out and vote. 

One might ask themselves, what is it that keeps young people from getting out and voting? What are the driving factors behind disengagement with the political process? Some argue that it is a messaging problem. Others assert that there is a lack of concrete policy that benefits us: policy that could capture a generation, much like the New Deal, the Great Society, or even the Affordable Care Act. The problem is not just one particular fault. It is a toxic concoction of both government inaction and poor messaging. Young Americans deserve more than just empty promises and neglect from our political processes.

What Are Our Issues?

Among the issues that younger voters care about the most is climate change. Over the past five years, there have been massive demonstrations across the world calling for action by governments in stemming the rapid rise in global temperatures fueled by carbon emissions. More than a third of young voters sampled by Pew Research Center in a May 2021 poll identified climate change as a top concern, with more than 40% identifying it as one of many concerns. And though the infrastructure bill passed in Congress will address issues surrounding climate change, there are those who feel that it isn’t enough to meet the severity of the crisis. A report released by Princeton University found that what was passed by Congress would only result in a 1% drop in emissions over the next decade. 

On top of a failure to make transformational investments in climate change, Congress has failed to take any serious action on issues of police brutality. After millions made it clear they would not stand for state-sanctioned abuse and brutality, there were politicians making rounds on cable television– in stump speeches and in every medium possible– promising that something would change. And nothing happened. A failure to reach an agreement on qualified immunity as part of a larger congressional bill on policing resulted in the stalling of any effective legislation on police reform, and yet another promise broken. 

Simultaneously, efforts to cancel or otherwise drive down the rising cost of student debt have seemingly disappeared. During the 2020 campaign, then-candidate Joe Biden had promised to cancel up to $10,000 in student debt. Once elected, the administration went through a series of reviews to see if the President even had the legal authority to cancel student loans. It was revealed last month that a memo on the subject had actually been produced as early as February. The administration has not released the memo or even elaborated on its contents, and millions of young Americans are still saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. This, coupled with rising food, utility, and property prices only adds to the economic burden shouldered by the millions of current and former students trying to scratch out a living and an education at the same time. 

What Kind of Change? 

Without substantive change, young people won’t vote. All the outreach strategies in the world can’t make up for a static government that doesn’t address their issues and chooses to do nothing. The value of a slow process is derived from the ability for all members to have their input and for the minority to have adequate representation in making and passing laws. However, even the word “slow” implies some sort of speed. On the most serious issues, the government has effectively stalled. 

So how do we change this? It starts with voting. It starts with getting out there and showing those who are most resistant to change that we are tired of the way things are. Showing them that we want something done. It doesn’t just involve voting, however, it also involves community organizing, talking to people, and changing the narrative around issues. Fundamentally, the system has to adapt to counter growing problems in a more efficient manner. 

That starts with major corporate money being removed from the system. The billions of dollars that come from billionaires and corporate donors effectively prevent the government from doing its job. During the battle for the Build Back Better bill, lobbyists from across the political spectrum and various industries lobbied extensively to strike provisions from the bill. Dental industry lobbyists, for example, fought and succeeded so far in preventing an expansion of dental coverage for millions of Americans, despite the fact that voters consider dental coverage a top priority they want to see out of this bill.  This kind of money and influence thrives in a vacuum of civic engagement, particularly in districts where the officeholder is usually considered safe. The reason someone like Mitch Mcconnell might not think twice about taking donations from the American Petroleum Institute or Occidental Petroleum Group or the American Dental Association is that he isn’t concerned that voters will turn against him because of those donations.

In order to change that kind of thinking, we need to elect candidates that resist corporate influence and truly stand with the people. It’s no easy task, especially in a state like Kentucky, where oil, coal, gas, dental associations, and major healthcare companies are entrenched industries that still employ thousands of people and wield deep influence within the state political system. And while one candidate might not immediately solve the problems facing us, that transformative change could pave the road for the kind of action we want to see from our leaders. There’s no greater threat than seeing a “safe” candidate lose their seat. 

At the end of the day, however precious young voters may be, if the issues facing us aren’t addressed in a meaningful manner, the votes just won’t be there. People don’t vote if they’re not encouraged and activated. The omnipotent presence of money and power and their intersection must be challenged. Candidates, Democratic or Republican, can’t continue to simply paint one side as fascist or socialist and pray that the votes come around. Democrats in particular can’t completely rely on just the threat of authoritarianism. 

They have to take the fight to it. They have to challenge the system and present an alternative to their voters. At a time where economic conditions are tightening, and major companies are posting record earnings, we need something more than the status quo. We need fighters. We need people who will fight tooth and nail for the kind of changes we need to our political system and our society, in order to adapt to the new world on our horizon. We need to vote. Because when we vote, we hold our politicians accountable.

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