By watching the news today, one would expect the presidential election to be right around the corner.
Anchors and political analysts constantly battle with the hot questions: What happened to Democratic candidate Howard Dean in Iowa? How will the results of the New Hampshire primary affect the polls? Which candidate will be able to beat George W. Bush out of the White House?
Yet they are not the only ones who seem to be obsessed with this campaigning year. A vast group of Americans who usually bask in political apathy are coming alive in support of their favored candidates. While some have sacrificed their nights and weekends to help with telephone and door-to-door campaigning, others have spent days crammed into a makeshift headquarters (really a backwoods cabin with no indoor plumbing) with 100 other volunteers, as did Dean’s followers in Iowa.
Yet who are the people that are making these incredible sacrifices in the name of politics? Strangely, it is not enough of those who could constitute one of the largest and most powerful voting demographics — citizens between 18 and 25 years of age. While more and more of America’s youth are registering to vote and expressing an interest in shaping the country’s political future, the majority are still left at the wayside, not knowing how to participate and even doubting their own political strength.
The right to vote — the right to decide who will lead the nation — is one of the most important privileges guaranteed to American citizens, yet few young adults take advantage of it. The last time young people flocked to the polls and demanded that their voices be heard was over 40 years ago during the Vietnam War. Back then, university students and young professionals were aware of their political rights and used them. Many people blame the political apathy of today’s youth on the absence of an issue. They say that the younger generation was more active during the late 1960s because it was able to unite against a common enemy — the Vietnam War. However, today the United States entered into a similar controversial war in Iraq, and still the youth watches from the sidelines, letting adults call all the shots. This election year they will be given a chance to speak-up by putting into action their right to vote. The question is: will they do it?
According to IWF’s recent survey of college undergraduates, 51 percent of young people said they would “definitely be voting” in 2004, with an additional 33 percent saying they will “probably be voting.” Groups like MTV’s Rock the Vote are not taking any chances with those who fall under the “probably” category. Founded in 1990 by members of the record industry in response to attacks on freedom of speech and artistic expression, Rock the Vote helps young people defend their political interests. In 1992, it concentrated its efforts on bringing youth to the polls and registered over 350,000 young people. Last year, Rock the Vote?s Community Street Teams used the motto “Register, make a stink, change minds, and stand up for what you believe in,” and helped 150,000 people register.
Rock the Vote’s numbers are impressive, but getting people to register is only half the challenge. Getting them to the polls is the other. In this arena, there is still a long way to go. While many young people have strong opinions about what’s happening in their country, they do not feel powerful enough to enact change. Ironically, it seems that this negative resistance comes from the political world itself. Meghann Dotson, a senior in the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, explains, “We are not made aware of the issues.”
Political candidates do not reach out to young voters both in their campaigning techniques and their ideologies. Chris Wooley, a 19-year old government major at Georgetown University, provides an explanation: “There is nothing [in politics] that appeals to the youth in particular.”
Mike Griffin elaborates: “Young people are not going to care about Medicare and prescription drugs.”
Wooley and Griffin have been trying relentlessly to get undergraduate Georgetown students involved in politics. Yet out of 6,500 students at one of the most prestigious universities in the country, only six people attended their amply publicized politics meeting.
Another reason for the political apathy of today’s youth stems from the media, which downplays the political power of the young generation. Emily Baum, a French major at Georgetown, describes her frustration after attending three massive anti-war protests last spring in Washington, which she says the New York Times reported as attracting only “a couple thousand” people. Baum believes that this inaccurate reporting “sends a message to young voters that they can’t enact change.”
Young people need a wake-up call — they need to see their peers in action — on television and in the newspapers representing their interests. Only then will they realize their political capacity and be able to create a unified constituency. Yet, the facts still speak for themselves, and, according to MTV’s Rock the Vote only 16 percent of Americans under 30 actually get out and vote. Are young Americans starting to believe in their political power? We will have to wait until November to see.