I have never felt that my vote counted less than this year—not because my party didn’t win (though it didn’t) but because no candidate on the ballot represented my views. I want candidates who say, “Here is what I believe. But…if I study this issue with people of diverse views and find a solution that we haven’t tried, I’m willing to be persuaded to change my mind in light of new information and new ideas.”
These are not the kind of candidates who could win their parties’ nominations in the current political climate, where lobbyists have largely forced both parties to the two extremes on every issue that faces us. But these are the kind of leaders we need to ensure the continued success of our democracy—leaders who will work together to find a third way when neither extreme works, leaders who will place the common good above party loyalty.
Because no such candidates were on the ballot in this election, many of our young people stayed home. I spoke with a number of millennials this week who feel that their vote didn’t matter. And for the first time in my life, I understood just how they feel.
One young woman told me that she agonized all day on November 4th about whether to go vote. She had listened to political ads and found them unhelpful. She had searched the Web to find the candidates’ platforms. She had discussed her views with friends she trusted to find that even her African-American friends were not impressed with Maryland’s African-American candidate for governor. Ultimately, she stayed home. “I read a lot,” she said, “I really couldn’t decide…I just felt uncomfortable voting either way.”
A young man I know also decided not to vote. “The Democrats want to take your money and give it to the poor,” he said, “and the Republicans want to take your money and give it to corporations.”
Less than a day after the election results were posted, Pew Research published results of a survey showing that the same gender and age gaps that influenced the mid-term elections in 2010 were at play in yesterday’s results. Voters younger than 30 comprised only 13% of 2014 voters.
What frightens me about both the stories I’ve heard and the statistics I’ve read is that these young people are the ones who will be most affected by our country’s inability to find solutions to the problems that plague us. The results of yesterday’s election may be an irritant to me as a liberal, but they will have little effect on my life unless we have another Great Depression that would decimate my pension, my life’s savings, and my property values.
But our children have everything to lose. Just two weeks ago, the Washington Post ran an article that said, “Even poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong….It’s not quite a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose game where rich kids get better educations, yet still get ahead even if they don’t—but it’s close enough. And if it keeps up, the American Dream will be just that.”
When our young people cease to believe that this country is one where effort and hard work can make a difference, then we have lost the central tenet of our democracy. The effect on these two young people and other millenials who feel their votes don’t matter could be earth-shattering.
My father, a coal miner with a fifth grade education, stressed to me every day of my childhood that an education was my key to a better life than he had. And he was right.
But would he be right today? I’m not sure. Our young people are disillusioned. They are the first generation to fare worse in America than their parents have fared. What happens to us when the Great American Truth—that effort is the great equalizer—ceases to be? I, for one, hope that my children do not have to find out.
Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” I would pose that the opposite is also true. It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain and accept a thought, after careful study and collaboration, that one might have initially rejected.
My vote mattered little in this election. And I suspect I’m far from being the only one who feels this way. Polls have been showing for months that most of us planned to vote against someone rather than for someone.
And so, young people, you are the ones who have the most to lose. But you are also the ones who have the power to change the world. You are the only ones who can stop the wrecking ball of the party in power—the one that has no object but to tear down what the opposing party has built.
How? By starting now to make sure that your voices are heard in 2016. How? By coming together to force your party, whether Democrat or Republican, to offer you candidates who are willing to think and reason and work together for a third way—a way that calls on the best each party has to offer.
You are our only hope. You have the power. You just need to believe—to have faith that you can change the world. Yes, you can.