As of 2012, the estimated population of Americans belonging to the so-called “millennial” or Generation Y numbered around 80 million, making those born between the mid-1980’s and late 1990’s approach one-third of the total population. Of these 80 million, only 41.2 percent that were of voting age bothered to cast a ballot in the 2012 national elections, according to the Census Bureau’s 2012 Voting Report. As a member of this generation and a friend or colleague of many who abstained, I can hardly blame them.
I am extremely doubtful that anyone of my age could view a Congress comprised almost entirely of rich old white men (and one that is seemingly incapable of functioning as a legitimate governmental organ, no less) and genuinely believe that they understand our interests, let alone have them at mind. The fact of the matter is that these Exxon-bankrolled octogenarians will not for long continue to inhabit the nation that they are currently (mis)shaping — sometimes I wonder if Dick Cheney was even alive in the first place. However, while our deceased lawmakers sip celestial piña coladas and gaze down at us from that Great Big Corporate Consulting Agency in the Sky, we millennials will be frantically attempting to pick up the pieces of the Republic for which they supposedly stood.
Or at least we would, if any of us could be bothered to do anything beyond the occasional agitated Facebook post or impassioned student newspaper article. No one should care more about the precarious state of the Earth’s environmental, political and economic systems, yet most of us are content to conveniently ignore all of them. And why not? Unmitigated consumer capitalism, a gargantuan national security apparatus and climate change are all terrifyingly large and difficult problems ideally solved by someone else.
This collective political shrug is reflected in our voting patterns mentioned above. Although polarization between Democrats and Republicans has never been higher, they are far from representing the entirety of political opinion in America; other than a few new pieces of large legislation (e.g the Affordable Care Act and 2009 stimulus), Democrats spend much of their time attempting to protect what’s left of government regulatory systems and the social safety net while Republicans try to eviscerate them in a bloody, Randian fervor. What’s more, both parties are nearly unanimous in their support for hundreds of billions of dollars in annual military spending, fossil fuel subsidies and other means of corporate welfare. Coupled with district gerrymandering, suppressive voter ID laws and continuous wars under both Republican and Democratic administrations, it’s really no wonder that so many have become jaded.
All this being said, I remain quite hopeful. Generation Y was not born with an inherent sense of political apathy; rather, the main channels through which we can express our opinions and sentiments have become terribly inefficient and uninspiring. There has been a pervasive sense of smallness that causes many (including myself) to believe that even if we did attempt to mitigate our nation’s ills, it would be to little or no effect. However consider this: only 126 million out of nearly 206 million eligible Americans voted in the last national election, meaning a block of 80 million millennials carries incredibly significant and underutilized electoral weight.
Millennials have an energetic and better-suited approach to a world that is now considerably different from when our parents came of age — in only two decades, our tastes, habits and innovations have largely reshaped how the world communicates. Our exposure to world cultures, knowledge and beliefs through global connectivity has produced one of the least insular and open-minded groups of people to ever exist. Regardless of the myriad complaints and analyses written by most news/culture outlets, I remain truly inspired by what I’ve witnessed my peers being capable of. We have been unfairly dropped into a flawed system not of our making, but have the opportunity to change it, through both national and local actions.
Consider the impact of 80 million voters on progressive third parties — 60 percent of my generation didn’t vote because they believed the act futile, their views unrepresented. 2,500 ballots from the Middlebury student body may seem like a pittance nationally, but oftentimes local election margins are in the hundreds of votes. Research your state’s elections; request an absentee ballot; attend meetings or contact campaigns. The aforementioned establishment politicians continue to win because they count on our disillusionment. Yet however cynical we may be about the seemingly rigged nature of US politics, it is still a democracy and can be shaped by the actions of voters. The Populist and Progressive movements of the early 20th century began as largely a localized movement, one that came about from a similarly disenchanted base yet went on to completely revolutionize the country. We are now overdue for a new wave of organized change, one that is in tune with the real existential threats our society faces and led by those with the unique mindset and emotional investment necessary to see it out.