When I first began to write for Next Generation Politics, my goal was to inspire other people my age to become involved in politics. My first article decried young people who didn’t participate—and especially young people who didn’t vote.
Now, I look back on that article with both embarrassment and clarity. After over a year of political writing, organizing, interning, and trying to mobilize young people in our current politics, I’ve learned quite a few lessons about the real reasons most people my age aren’t jostling to get involved. Plus, I now know that when people do get involved, it’s almost always a long, exhausting path to change, if anything changes at all. But that’s not young people’s fault.
The establishment of both parties in power is incredibly unyielding to transformative change. It’s taken significant political capital to elect a more representative and diverse Congress over the years. Our current Congress is the most diverse we’ve ever had, with 22% of members identifying as nonwhite. Still, the nonwhite percentage in the Senate rests at about 9%, while actual American demographics place nonwhite residents at 39% of our population. The current representation in Congress has been an uphill battle for political organizers for decades yet that work has barely managed to approach what our present and future will look like. Persistent gerrymandering in states like mine, Ohio, has caused young liberals especially to view voting as a lost cause, and maybe they’re right— as long as a single party or institution has the ability to determine the power of a person’s vote by geography or race, there is no guarantee of accountability and democracy.
Candidates like Morgan Harper in Ohio’s 3rd district— much younger, more progressive, and more in touch with their communities— find not only the opposing party against them but the Democratic establishment itself. She said in an interview with The Young Turks, “We are up against a machine. When I first launched, I heard people trying to convince people locally that I’m not really from here…these are tactics of people who are scared because they know if you actually get real people to care about politics, then the machine will start to crumble.” As parties have adapted to a streamlined capitalist system of private donations, advertisements, and mass voter outreach, their resistance to direct democracy has grown. How are young people expected to rely on elected officials to represent their interests if even young, progressive candidates are explicitly or tacitly opposed by the establishment?
The result is many young people expending energy on campaigns just to get someone elected who won’t hurt them as much— even if that candidate is unlikely to advocate for their pressing needs. Even worse, some ambitious young people spend thousands of dollars and hours of time running their own campaigns, mostly adhering to typical party-line messages and attempting to gain a seat at the table. In the worst-case scenario, they fail and spend their political capital on nothing. In the best, they are elected to a position in which the older, whiter establishment effectively swallows them up.
Despite frustrations with the establishment, young people and “non-traditional” voters did come out in huge numbers in 2018. The midterm turnout for 18 to 29-year-olds jumped by 79% and the non-white turnout rose by an average of a dozen points. This increase didn’t come cheap: compared to about $767 million spent by Congressional candidates in 2014, 2018 saw candidates raise $1.7 billion and spend $1.1 billion. The American people, especially progressive young people, rallied by raising massive amounts of fundraising money, volunteering, and canvassing and yet electing an incoming class of younger, more progressive policymakers has yet to affect substantial change in struggling communities. Democrats and Republicans alike boast of their impressive record of productivity in the House of Representatives, hampered only by an ineffective Senate. However, the reality is that Congress’ productivity has been declining per decades as more and more legislation is purely ceremonial.
Even when proposed bills do address concrete policy, they hit a well-known roadblock in the Senate: Mitch McConnell. But as Democrats tweet pictures of the gigantic stack of bills sitting on the House Majority Leader’s desk, they decline to acknowledge that the party system and electoral politics have led to this outcome. Some of the party establishment seems to be under the impression that simply removing McConnell and a select few Republicans from their seats in the Senate would clear the airways of the legislature and allow effective legislation to pass through indefinitely. Others blame “hyper-partisanship” for unending gridlock. Barely any acknowledge that the entrenchment of two major parties in the way district lines are drawn, campaign finances are managed, and new candidates are allowed to enter races plays an inherent role in why our legislative system has stalled. It is difficult to inspire young people to become part of a system that has quickly been revealed to be intrinsically reactive and slow to respond to the people’s wishes.
Whatever the cause of the lack of legislative outcomes, it is clear that the current Congress has not effectively impacted the lives of struggling Americans. It has, however, passed 109 resolutions renaming post offices and courthouses. It must be mentioned that the type of back-scratching and party politics that occurs in both camps allowed Democrats to quietly unite behind an even greater imperialist expansion of the U.S. military: a budget of $733 billion, including a shiny new Space Force. To those members young people fought so hard to elect in 2018, where are the outcomes on student loan debt? Where are the outcomes on lowering drug prices?
Even young people who look to Trump and the Republican Party for policy changes should feel disillusioned. This analysis of Trump’s campaign promises shows just how ineffective his own agenda was even with full control of the legislature for the first two years of his presidency. Virtually none of his promises were met— and those he was able to shunt through on executive orders mainly included deregulation and harsh immigration bans questioned in federal courts. It’s difficult for any politician to continue making promises to those working three jobs, trying to pay off student loan debts, struggling with a chronic illness, or experiencing workplace discrimination without seeming disingenuous. No wonder young people, especially those who are struggling in a broken economy, are less than invested in electoral politics.
However, this is not a cause for outright cynicism. While those who follow mainstream politics loyally, as I used to, may be under the impression that campaigning, voting, electing, and protesting are the only vehicles for political change, I now know that is far from the case. It is clear now to me that following the electoral script when it comes to helping our communities has done little to nothing for them in the long-run, but that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done.
Well-known are the Civil Rights Act and the famous black politicians who broke through the veil of electoral racism in the 1960s and 1970s. But to understand how real change is made for marginalized groups and struggling communities, analyzing election results is often not the answer. While an Equal Rights Amendment has yet to pass in Congress, the fundamental social shift toward tolerance of those outside colonial sex, gender, and sexuality binaries began with a militant leftist organization in New York City, the Gay Liberation Front, sparked by anti-police rioting in the Stonewall uprising. Not only was this incredible social and eventually legislative shift not spawned in the electoral system, it vehemently opposed the establishment and law enforcement itself. So began one of the fastest and most drastic shifts in American public “morals” in history.
The most major steps toward uncovering and stamping out racism, ableism, discrimination, and oppression have come from people rising up outside of and against the system. As more and more young people realize they learn more politics in their GSA meetings and community kitchens than local political party meetings, these facts become apparent. Staples of American political history like the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Environmental Protection Agency would not exist without huge grassroots movements opposing the actions of the U.S. government.
When we examine who the people are who are fighting on the ground in unions, circles of mutual aid, and interdependent communities, we see that the burden of direct political action often rests on those more pressed to immediately help themselves and those around them. Non-privileged and especially non-white young people are exhausted. To live in a society where a high degree of career and academic success is expected of you, but proper healthcare, societal respect, and equal opportunity are denied, is tiring. The path many young people are expected to trek, working day in and day out in school to maintain high grades to gain access to higher education is distracting. The floods of cheap products and entertainment mass-produced by gigantic corporations are intentionally addictive. We have a fire lit under us by the problems previous generations created for us but a thick fog of fatigue and constant distraction to work through in order to achieve those goals.
Young people are tired. We are frustrated. Many of us have lives full of things to do and places to be that alienate us from politics. The reason many of us don’t participate is not that we don’t want our friends to have good healthcare or that we don’t want our trans neighbors to feel safe. It’s because we haven’t felt the real political impacts from decisions like voting and protesting— and when we do try to make change, the world demands so much more from us than we can give on our own. Adults cannot keep saying that young people will change the world and at the same time funnel them into unpaid party organization positions and only applaud protests that peacefully “raise awareness.”
I think it’s time we stop looking to the establishment to tell us how to get involved. Sure, vote because your family and your friends need to live and thrive in the short term. But you should decide for yourself how you will spend your energy. If party politics isn’t for you, that’s fine. If resume-building youth organizing isn’t for you, that’s valid. Concentrating on the problems you see around you and doing your best to change them however you can is not giving up; it’s more courageous than the actions of many of the politicians who claim to represent us. Sometimes, your energy is better spent building relationships of trust and exchange with your friends, reading and researching to examine your beliefs, or simply letting your body and mind have a break from our exhausting world. That in itself is political.
For more information comparing the practices of voting and direct action, check out this zine: https://cloudfront.crimethinc.com/assets/zines/voting-vs-direct-action/voting-vs-direct-action_print_black_and_white.pdf