“The greatest danger to our future is apathy.” -Jane Goodall
I find it amazing how powerful a discouragement is. But I use that word carefully, I mean in the way of trying over and over again. Displaced optimism. Futility. At what point does one give up? Why give up? Why try in the first place? Those are things I’ve been thinking about a great deal mostly in regards to an issue close to my heart: young people and voter turnout.
I’m branded as a millennial so I fit into that group of Gen Y but specifically I was born in 1990. I make that designation because as someone born in the early 90s, I was old enough to witness and see something in the political process that I understood: the 2000 Presidential Election that pitted Al Gore against George W. Bush. I was just old enough to understand the dissonance of that night, I went to bed with Al Gore in the lead, I had stayed up to watch the election results with my parents but had to go to bed at a somewhat decent hour because I had school in the morning. When I woke up, the headlines said that George Bush had won. I didn’t understand how. But I was only 10 and had a very limited view of the political process. But what I did understand was something that “I” (I use this version of I because again, I was 10. I wanted what my family wanted and that was for Gore to win. I couldn’t argue any real political points at that age but I did understand some basic politics. I wanted things to be better, whatever and whoever that meant.) didn’t get what I wanted and regardless of what I did, that just didn’t matter. The candidate I “chose” didn’t win. The public’s vote didn’t matter, it was up to the electoral college. Many of my friends of the same age or close to it mark this as the beginning of our generation’s collective disenchantment with the political process and our country as a whole.
It’s worth noting that the collective I call my friends and our school and our parents did raise a group of politically precocious children. We had mock elections even at elementary school age in which I remember not voting for Bill Clinton for I have no idea why and we could already relate political parties to certain aspects of history like some Democrats being pro-slavery during the Civil War and Reconstruction or the era of the Whig party. This fervor for politically aware and engaged children was fostered by outspoken private school teachers and parents that were absolutely dedicated to their children’s whims and questions. There was always an answer to a question: even when it was a question that we didn’t understand despite asking.
As a high school student I channeled my dissatisfaction and desire to “save the world” into a short stint on the debate team and an attempt at greater political awareness. I read the news not just to keep up with my briefs and cases but I wanted to learn more so I could be informed when I could vote. I had faith in the electoral process and knew that my vote mattered. I was born in the 90s, we all thought and were taught that as individuals we could save the world, get together with a bunch of friends and you save the entire galaxy a la Captain Planet or Static Shock. There was power in the masses yes, but a single person: one shining individual could change everything.
When I turned 18 and could legally vote in the 2008 presidential election I was so excited! I was an idealistic college student and wanted to be a part of Obama’s plan for greater change and hope. I also forget that I wasn’t a Bexar county native and to vote I would have to return to my home of Tarrant county. I was foiled by county lines and didn’t cast my ballot. I was heartbroken. I felt like I failed my country. I wasn’t right for military service, so literally the least I could do was vote, right? When I went to express my heartache to my friends they didn’t quite seem to understand why I was so upset. They didn’t see the power in their vote, they still vividly remembered its irrelevancy when their parents voted in 2000: what had suddenly changed now?
I didn’t understand their apathy at the time. I felt like the only way to vocally criticize anything one had to participate. If you didn’t like the rules of a game but didn’t stand up for a change when the time was given, you had no right to fuss about the gameplay afterwards. I didn’t at that time vote, so I didn’t have much a right to voice concern. If I wanted change, I had to be an agent of change. Oh Social Justice Warrior Amanda, slow down now. Reality is much more complex than an episode of G.I. Joe.
I got much better with my voting history, voting for mayor when I returned to Tarrant county and then for the president again in 2012. I was so proud of my sticker (I now actually collect them, I have 3 or 4 “I Voted” stickers). I was excited and voting felt like I was taking an active part in the course of my country’s history. I was glad to be swept up in the watershed of those in my political party and their joy with our candidate winning. I was happy to be a part of the group that made history. Me. My vote. It did matter. Oh me of 2008 and 2012, you still have so much to learn.
The last 2 elections I participated in were for Governor of Texas and for the Mayor of San Antonio. Both times I voted for the candidate of change and new. I’m a pseudo-idealist, remember? Both times despite my vote the candidate I wanted didn’t win and for the first time I felt something that I hadn’t before when it came to the electoral process: disenchantment. I felt like a spoiled child, really. My vote suddenly didn’t seem to matter and I couldn’t separate my vote from the other countless individuals that for whatever reason didn’t agree with my choice.
But I still voted. And that means that, to me at least, by having cast a ballot I can dance on the floor of political discussion. I earned my right to stand with others that made a conscious choice to stand for their political freedom. A freedom that hasn’t been assured to many for a very long time. Women lacked the right to vote for hundreds of years, immigrants of all races the same. To me it was an insult to those who paved the way for suffrage to not vote. But the feeling of futility and disappointment I did finally understand.
Voting wasn’t a magical cure all. I didn’t suddenly feel more or less American. I just felt like it was something to do. An obligation: like paying taxes. I wasn’t going to civilly disobey in that manner. Not voting doesn’t make the issues any better, it sort of just makes them worse. Apathy is not the way to fix the nation’s problems; action is.