“No, I don’t vote.” My classmate said it plainly and frankly, unabashed at her lack of participation in the democratic process. For an assignment, we were put into groups to determine the most effective forms of civic engagement; voting, which held the highest ranking on my list, was deemed the least effective method on everyone else’s. As we tried to develop a central list as a group, I made the usual arguments half-heartedly, until it became clear that my words were falling on deaf ears and closed minds: My peers saw the practice of voting as antiquated, a timeworn tradition devoid of influence.
Listening to their arguments in favor of donating money to a charity or volunteering for awareness campaigns, it was clear that so many Millennials had either outgrown or lost faith in the political process; for many people my age, politics are no longer the most effective way to affect change.
And, in many cases, why would it be? First, the facts: According to an NBC News report, we’re currently being governed by the most elderly Congress in history, whose oldest member is nearing 100. The Supreme Court is either currently debating or set to debate issues like gay marriage and medical marijuana, issues that our generation has developed a largely ubiquitous stance on. The Obama administration — which received near universal support by young American voters — according to the Pew Research Center, 66 percent of voters under 30 in 2008 and 60 percent of this same demographic by an estimate of NPR— has faced unprecedented partisanship, stagnating its legislative agenda. At every turn, young voters have either been rebuked by a democratic process that seems to stifle their liberal agenda, or developed an aversion to an antiquated, fundamentalist Republican Party.
We don’t email senators to buy shoes for underprivileged children, we buy TOMS. We don’t start rallies to protest California’s Proposition 8; we make our Facebook profile pictures equal signs. We don’t press President Obama to implement a cap-and-trade system of emissions regulation; we recycle and observe Earth Hour, finding ways to live sustainably in our private lives. We no longer air grievances at the statehouse or the ballot box — we take them to non-profits and eventually social media.
It’s unfortunate that the best examples of youthful democratic engagement and civic responsibility no longer come to fruition in a voting booth or on the Senate floor. Still, it’s unwise to equate this lack of statistical participation with manic declarations of legislative indifference. Perhaps it’s that members of Generation Y take bureaucratic or are too drunk on the powers of instant gratification that we’re not able to undergo the tedious and elaborate process it takes to enact real change in Washington. It’s a shame that our action is limited to the internet, vaguely effective awareness campaigns, and often shady nonprofits; but until there is another way to engage with the federal government with not one Senate member less than twice our age, it might be as good as it gets.
I won’t mince words: I’m a voter, and until recently I’ve always been baffled by my peers that don’t exercise this same right. There’s both a literal and abstract mundanity to this practice (I waited in line for over three hours to vote and still haven’t seen an effective stimulus package passed or investment bankers guilty of the 2008 economic collapse jailed), but I’ve never doubted its worth. Our democracy is imperfect and often ineffective, but it’s one built to last, a permanence I don’t get from the fraying soles of my TOMs or that plot to catch Joseph Kony that was never longsighted enough to be realistic. Though one vote may not build a bridge or stop a war, it’s a time-tested investment in all of our futures, something all generations are the better for.
Throughout my days, as I discuss environmental ethics with friends who are vegan or debate same-sex marriage with religious conservatives, it’s clear that the civic engagement most people lament still exists, we just need to look a little closer to find it.