April 4, 2018 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Parkland Teens Are Inspiring a Return to Civic Action
To them, Obama is the norm, and the former president said that to defend democracy, citizens must “show up, dive in, stay at it.”
The conventional wisdom now is that the Parkland teens have rewritten the script on gun politics. But will passion translate into votes in November? The Democrats won’t like the answer. Maybe, maybe not.
Nearly a million people marched in Washington last month demanding immediate action on gun violence. But young Americans have a horrible track record when it comes to voting. The Democrats should hope for the best but stay realistic.
It would be different if cultural forces created a feeling of duty around voting, and we may be seeing the makings of such a culture (more on that in a minute). So far, however, voting for most young people isn’t an obligation of citizenship. That means Democrats can’t depend on them showing up. Older Americans, meanwhile, turn out like clockwork, and most of them vote for the Republican Party.
Democrats have been predicting the rise of the youth vote for decades. After the voting age was lowered from 21, pundits predicted that young people opposed to Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War would turn out in droves for Democrat George McGovern in 1972. They didn’t.
Even when the youth vote mattered, as it did for Barack Obama, it didn’t matter as much as people said it did. During the 2008, Washington was abuzz with stories about young Americans taking us into a new post-racial era. Time magazine said Obama was “both catalyst and beneficiary” in a piece titled “The Year of the Youth Vote.”
But fact is, Obama didn’t depend on the youth vote. According to voting data compiled by the University of Michigan, the Obama campaign made contact with 94 out of every 100 senior citizens. How many people out of every 100 under 30? Twenty-three.
Youth voting did rise in response to the Iraq War, the financial collapse, and Obama’s message of hope, but only enough to put the former president over the top. Michael P. Wattenberg, a professor at the University of California Irvine, calculated that voting among white Americans rose by only 2 percent between 2004 and 2008.
Then everything changed.
The youth vote vanished. For the 2010 midterms, 18 percent of 18- to 30-year-olds participated. It got worse for Obama’s second midterm: 15 percent. It was as if young voters believed that after electing the country’s first African-American president their work was done. It wasn’t.
That, unfortunately, is the reason the Republicans are far from panicking about the impact in November of the many thousands of young Americans calling now for common sense gun control. “Motivation is fleeting,” said a GOP strategist told the Associated Press.
“This energy we’re seeing right now is in March. The election is seven months away. It takes a lot to keep up this enthusiasm,” added Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Tufts Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
But the Parkland teens may be doing something more important. They may be inspiring a return to civic engagement, something that may evolve into a culture of duty. That should not be that surprising. For these teens, Obama and his appeal to hope is the norm just as Ronald Reagan was the norm for the generation before.
Americans, Obama said in his final speech, must take responsibility for democracy. “Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime.” A hallmark of citizenship, Obama said, was to “show up, dive in, stay at it.”
I think that’s what’s happening with the women’s march, the #MeToo movement and now the Parkland teens. Donald Trump’s election sparked something like an awakening. The youth vote may not congeal by November, but it will over time.
That much we can hope for.
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