Don’t Call Us Apathetic

I've had it up to here with these danged rumors. 'Young people don't vote,' 'Youth don't care about politics.' Here's the truth: Young people turned out in greater numbers than they ever have before in the 2004 elections. In fact, according to the Center for Information and Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE), youth voting surged by 11 percentage points and 47 percent of 18- to 24-year-old citizens voted. This means young people raised turnout twice more than any other age group.

As a youth organizer in the youth voting movement, people are always telling me these rumors. The most common one that I'm sick of hearing, "Aren't young people apathetic?" I find myself constantly challenging these folks with all the accomplishments that the youth movement has achieved as a result of the 2004 elections.

I think that we can finally prove these rumors wrong with the incredible turnout in 2004. According to the Youth Vote 2004 Fact Sheet released by CIRCLE, no other age group increased turnout by more than 5 percentage points. The 2004 campaign brought out the largest percentage of young voters in 32 years. Studies suggest that once a young person is involved in the political process, they are more likely to continue to be involved in it. 35.5 percent of 18- to 25-year-old Asian American citizens turned out to vote in 2004, the largest percentage since data started being collected in 1972.

But these are just numbers and statistics that I've learned to prattle in a nanny nana kind of way. What does this all really mean? It means that all the hours we spent organizing campus campaigns, getting people to talk to students, time spent going dorm to dorm, worked.

It means that we have successfully shifted the political paradigm of the youth movement, and though some may have said that we "lost" the election in 2004, well, in my eyes, we won. We were successful in creating a new political generation. (I would even argue that we, as a youth movement, are more successful than the numbers prove, because these stats don't take into consideration youth lifestyle, i.e., the high relocation rate and the lapse in re-registration when attending an out-of-state school.)

Can We Keep It Up?

But as we turn the corner and 2005 has passed us by, now what? Are the youth still excited, still involved? Will they be too jaded to partake in the 2006 elections of this year? As a poorly funded movement, the youth voting groups were hardly able to sustain after 2004. Of course, another problem with the arrival of a new year is the constant influx of people turning 18 who have never registered to vote. Can we keep it up?

According to a survey taken by the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government this year, my feelings are justified. There was a drop in political interest from 2004 to now. Out of a pool of 5.1 million, 1,204 students were surveyed for the study, which states that "while 90 percent of college students said political engagement is an effective way to solve problems facing the country in the fall of 2004, only 82 percent feel the same way today." The same survey also shows that 87 percent of students say they need more information before they can get involved, which is an increase of 22 percentage points from last fall. OK, so the youth are more jaded and more hesitant about politics than they were from last fall. But contrary to popular belief, young people are not apathetic -- they are just skeptical of the current political process.

What is political involvement to a youth these days? Back in our grandparents' generation, being "political" meant you had to go to a rally or a protest, or join a union. Today's youth has a whole new definition, according to this survey; 22 percent have worn a wristband, 36 percent have signed an online petition, and 30 percent have written an email or letter advocating a position. Eighteen percent have contributed to a political blog. i.e., 918,000 young people are "political bloggers," which is fascinating since the blogs are a product of only the past few years. How is it possible that people can say there is a generation of apathetic youth? College students are, in fact, on top of national politics. (68 percent follow the news closely, with 79 percent reporting they get their news from national TV networks, and 34 percent saying they turn to blogs.)

Despite Being Skeptical, Young People are More Engaged

As a returning student, I am back to being a part of the "college student youth" demographic, which I've had a hand in politically organizing for the past eight years. On the days when I take my headphones off and listen in on the conversations that my peers are having, there is a 50 percent chance (un-statistically speaking, of course) that someone is talking about some version of politics. I know my eavesdropping is no Harvard survey, but I do feel there is a big difference in the college youth today and their political interests compared to those of eight years ago.

Finally, the last myth to bust, "Aren't all young people democrats?" No. According to the study from Harvard, youth are the most skeptical of party politics, and 72 percent of college students believe politics today has become too partisan, and 64 percent believe that the political tone in D.C. is too negative. Only 41 percent of college students approve of the job George W. Bush is doing as president, and even worse, only 11 percent trust the president to do the right thing at all times, down from 22 percent in 2001.

Young people are political, but they are skeptical of partisan politics, skeptical of the politicians in charge and skeptical of the process. In my eyes, this is not a bad thing. It means parties will have to work harder on the issues that are important to young people, or we hope that the politicians in power get that message. It means that young people are more likely to make an educated decision about their engagement in the political process. And it is our job as citizens and organizers to bring accurate and helpful political information into the daily lives of young people.

We are not a generation of the apathetic youth. We are a generation of politically charged, educated, skeptical, involved and civically engaged youth. Recognize.


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