Courtney Martin, a fellow NYC young progressive, wrote an article earlier this week on the youth vote in The American Prospect. In it she suggests that “Instead of drawing inspiration from political candidates, young people must be motivated by the promise of a country that reflects our deeply held values:”
Chalk it up to my old age (I’m staring down 31 next month), but it seems to me that counting on candidates to provide incentives for voting is a little bit like paying a kid for earning good grades. It breeds reward seekers, not responsible citizens. Of course, having a leader who speaks directly to the issues we care most about — education, the economy, immigration — and can quote Jay-Z to boot is pretty inspiring. But it would be unwise for us to grow accustomed to the luxury of external inspiration when it comes to electoral politics. There won’t likely be another Barack Obama in our lifetime.
Instead, we must be motivated by the promise of something less sparkly but more sacred: a country that reflects our deeply held values. That might sound like a pipe dream at a time when we can’t even get basic climate legislation passed, but one of the gifts of youth is a bit of naive idealism. In a recent survey, Rock the Vote found that 83 percent of young people believe that their generation has the power to change the world.
Although I think her narrative about hand-holding values is a little naive, I think she is tangentially speaking to a point I have been thinking about for awhile. Young people should not be enthusiastic about candidates; they should be enthusiastic about issues that candidates should be forced to agree with if they want the youth vote. I am tired of politicians thinking of young people (and particularly the Young Democrats) as a glorified field operation (my opinion, not MYD’s). Instead, they should be thought of a constituency that needs to be wooed and bargained with, just like any other.
But for that to happen, we have to assert ourselves. We have to stand up, collectively in some large group, and say this is what we’re for and this is what we’re against. Young people should vote in masses, and it shouldn’t be that there is candidate that motives people to vote, it should be that young people demanding their interests get represented. We should be enthusiastic for candidates who agree with us, and refuse to work for candidates who do not. And young people should be running for office to move parts of those debates forward.
Young people I know often complain that their vote doesn’t matter, and to a large extent it doesn’t’. But that could change. It could change if we organized in to a group and voted as a bloc. With friends over this last weekend, but also before, I’ve mentioned that we should form an “AAYP,” the American Association for Young People. There is the League of Youth Voters, but their mission is slightly less holistic (although no less important) as they “focus on non-college youth and youth from low-income communities and communities of color.” There is also the United States Student Association, but again, instead of trying to form a lobbying and benefits organization for all young people, their community is more specific. Until such a comprehensive, well-run organization exists, until young people both vote and demand something for their votes, we’ll be ignored.
Because, in truth, I think a lot of politicians prefer we did not vote (certainly a lot of older people prefer that). They like us when we make phone calls, but if we have a policy idea than it is assumed we don’t know what we’re talking about. It is true that sometimes we don’t know what we’re talking about, but neither do most Congressmen. We should be organized as a collective force. Our vote should be more than something to be courted, it should be won.