President Obama was supposed to be the president who finally broke through young adults’ cynicism and political apathy. His positive message about eschewing “politics as usual” in favor of an inclusive government that tears down political barriers and seeks consensus on how to move forward, was a breath of fresh air that youth voters hadn’t experienced since the early 1980s.
And Obama was different. Never before had a president slow jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon, or go mano-a-mano with comedian Zach Galifianakis on “Between Two Ferns,” or opted for interviews in People Magazine and Rolling Stone rather than The New Republic.
But when the excitement of the campaigns was worn away by so-called “political realities”, when young adults’ votes were no longer needed to remain in office, President Obama reverted to the same old style of politician that made young adults shy away from the process. A generation of voters, many of whom had given their time and effort, not only to vote, but to volunteer knocking on doors and making phone calls on behalf of this new, fresh-faced junior senator from Illinois, were left feeling used.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that a new report from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University finds that the percentage of 18- to 29-year olds who voted in 2014 fell to the lowest rate on record. Just 19.9 percent of those voters cast ballots, well below the average of 26.6 percent over the last 40 years, and a steep drop from 2006 when about 26 percent of youth voters turned out to the polls. The research shows the proportion of young people who said they were registered to vote also hit historic lows, falling to 46.7 percent in 2014.
What on earth accounts for the tremendous fall off in youth voting and registration patterns, especially during the tenure of a president who was supposed to be especially attuned to this generation? As with almost anything in politics the answer is likely a complex mix of factors ranging from the mundane (young adults don’t have landline phones) to the provocative (young adults are expressing their civic activism through social media rather than voting), but one explanation stands out. Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell opines:
One common narrative is that in 2008, young people got overly psyched about the potential for Hope and Change. Then, when they inevitably became disillusioned by hopeless and changeless Washington, disgusted millennials checked out of America’s political system.
This oversimplifies things, but it is true that over time young people have withdrawn from traditional social and political institutions, including everything from political parties to churches. In polls, millennials say they trust almost no authority figure to do the right thing most or all of the time: not Congress, not the president, not the Supreme Court, not the media, not Wall Street and definitely not federal, state or local government. Mired in debt, with scant job prospects, young people feel abandoned by the organizations that once claimed to represent their interests. Perhaps as a result, millennials have elected not to participate in the elections that grant such figures their authority. Only a third of young people say their vote will “make a difference” anyway, according to the latest Harvard Institute of Politics youth poll.
In short, we’ve lost faith cynical in the government’s ability to improve our lives for the better. It’s so often mired in gridlock, so often tainted by scandal and so often focused on political priorities that are far removed from the daily challenges of Americans, that it has grown difficult to care.
“Millennials are on a completely different page than most politicians in Washington, D.C.,” says Harvard Institute of Politics polling director John Della Volpe. “This is a more cynical generation when it comes to political institutions.”
That cynicism comes with tangible results, namely a decline in the desire to vote.
“It’s been clear for some time now that young people are growing more disillusioned and disconnected from Washington,” Della Volpe ishs. “There’s an erosion of trust in the individuals and institutions that make government work — and now we see the lowest level of interest in any election we’ve measured since 2000.”
Fortunately, Republicans in Congress are taking the issue to heart. They’re beginning to get the legislative process moving again and eschewing many of the procedural checks that Democrats used to shut out the voice of the minority. Yes, it will take a long time to build back the trust that was lost following President Obama’s busted promises, but putting an honest, noble, and wise person in the White House would be a tremendous start.