The Silence of the Youth

James Sasso, Associate Editor

Exactly as they had done in the Presidential election of 2008, the youth (18-29 year olds, or all eligible voters of Generation Y) made their opinions matter. On Tuesday, as they had in November 2008, Generation Y swayed the outcome of the election. Unfortunately, though, they did so this time with silence.

In 2008 the youth vote made up 18 percent of the entire voting demographic, but in 2010 this number dropped to somewhere around 10 percent according to the first exit polls done by CBS. And, unlike in 2008 when 66 percent of the youth vote went to President Obama, carrying him handily into the white house with a 34 point advantage in Generation Y’s demographic, Democrats could not claim such a strong hold on the minds of the youth. While the Democrats still retained their point advantage in the youth vote (56 percent voted for Democrats compared to 40 percent for the Republicans) this is not even half of the margin of difference in 2008. Also, the fact that about half as many members of Generation Y voted in this year’s midterms than had in 2008 certainly did not help Democratic chances of winning. One could even say that the youth vote was marginal in its effect on the outcome this year.

One could explain this disparity, and the usual low turnout of youth voters, with the normal talk of youth apathy, but in this year the reasoning for the silence comes more from disillusion than from apathy. In 2008 President Obama ignited the politician in youths across America, whether they voted for him or not, as record numbers of Generation Y found themselves casting ballots either at polling places or through the mail. This year, though, the political energy of 2008 has faded into almost oblivion.

For example, “meetings of the College Democrats that attracted 200 people in 2008 now pull in a dozen,” Damien Cave reported in Monday’s New York Times. The youth seem to have turned themselves off from politics. “It’s not a fad anymore,” says Jessica Kirsner 21 of the University of Miami. Again, this appears to be the classical definition of apathy, but in this case Generation Y showed its opinion without voting for several reasons.

First, Generation Y is still comprised of liberals. “Voters under 30 are still the single best group for Obama,” reports NPR. They are consistently more likely to acknowledge the truth of global warming, support social progress with homosexuality and immigration and support abortion rights and other liberal ideals, which would make one think that they, of all people, would understand the importance of the election and come out in strong numbers to vote for leaders who will push their agenda. As such, it seems that their lack of a vote was not a matter of ambivalence towards the political situation, but a reaction against the current political situation.

Second, and intertwined with the first reason for the lack of a youth vote, is dissolutionment; “Young people [were] not going to vote in anything near the numbers they did in 2008 [because] they’re very disillusioned.” Generation Y felt a strong emotional connection to the 2008 presidential election. They felt they finally had found a politician who would address the issues facing their generation. Instead, they found politics as usual and their initial “personal connection” with President Obama dimmed as the “shine has worn off somewhat among young voters.”

“Younger voters said that older voters seemed to become the priority,” Cave writes. Instead of playing a large role in the government, as many had hoped, the government retreated from the youth agenda in attacking the health care debate, which, at least in the media, centered around cuts in Medicare and effects on the health care of the elderly. This deflated many once-intrigued young politicians, as they began to see that the government once again only would focus on the “adults.” Obama supporters became dismayed and despondent.

And as the policy debates continued to circle around issues that pertained little, or indirectly, to Generation Y, the political energy dwindled into yawns. Where were the issues that had enthralled masses of college students to swarm the polls? Where was the focus on Generation Y that grasped the attention of an ADD generation? Where was the Change or the Hope? It’s not that Generation Y’s political attitudes began to shift tremendously, but rather that they began to disbelieve that the government has the capability or the desire to attack youth issues actively. In 2008 they had gambled that the government would care about their issues, but it turned out to not be true. Instead of making the same mistake in 2010, the hurt, the disillusioned, the angry youth decided to stay home, not believing Washington would concern itself with the problems of the youth in any regard.

So they cast their votes, their votes of silence, in protest of the lack of action of Washington. They chose to not support the other party, but rather to watch the party in power suffer as a response to its supposed amnesia concerning Generation Y.

The problem, though, is that the Obama Administration did not ignore Generation Y. In fact, the most meaningful, if not only meaningful, aspect of the health care overhaul is the stipulation that children be allowed to remain on their parents’ health insurance until the age of 26. Also, Obama successfully changed the system of student loans and the payment of student loans, making it easier to obtain them and pay them back over time. These are two extraordinarily significant policy changes that benefit Generation Y, but two that were drowned out in the swarm of economic disasters and Republican rhetoric.

Regardless of why, or the intelligence of it, the resonant silence of the youth helped sway the hold of power in Washington.

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