I remember standing in a Virginia bar on the night of November 4th, 2008. As Karl Rove and Fox News called Ohio for Obama, it became crystalized that America had elected its first African American president. I was elated, inspired, and hopeful. As the president-elect spoke that night at Chicago’s Grant Park, I remember committing myself to do whatever I could to serve this country, and get it back on track.
Regardless of political affiliation, the night of the 2008 election provided hope for the vast majority of the American people. After a historic election, which provided us the first viable female presidential candidate in American history, a Republican candidate with his own inspirational prisoner of war story, and then the election of the first African American president, we could feel good about ourselves as a country. The country on the whole looked to turn the page on eight years of the Bush Administration, as evidenced by Obama’s post-inauguration approval rating of 68%. Feelings of hope were bi-partisan.
This time around, the story has been completely reversed. Regardless of whether Obama or Romney wins on November 6th, the majority of the American people will probably exhibit one of two feelings: relief (if their candidate wins…or just that the election is finally over) or anger (if he does not). These are a far cry from the optimism felt by all of us four years ago. I can guarantee you that regardless of who wins, their approval rating will not be close to 68% when they take office. Whereas we could not get enough of the 2008 campaign (as evidenced by the myriad of books and movies that captured it), we can all relate to four year old Abigael Evans, whose distaste with the campaign recently brought her to tears.
There is a lot of blame to go around. President Obama’s supporters accuse him of not delivering on his promises, while his detractors argue that he has created a Washington environment more toxic than the one he found. Even Mitt Romney’s most ardent supporters see him as a mediocre candidate, while his opponents have tired of his cynical attacks and blatant political opportunism.
But a lot of the blame lies with us, the American people. The night of the 2008 election, the president-elect promised to engage with the American people asking us to “join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years – block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.” There’s an argument to be made about whether the president actually engaged the American people throughout the four years, and I would venture to say that he could have done a much better job of doing this authentically.
But at the same time, after the vigor and excitement of the ’08 election, the American people stepped down. The president’s ardent supporters assumed that he would take ever of everything, while his opponents claimed, immediately, that he could take care of nothing.
Young people, my generation, are one of the biggest culprits of this political disengagement. After engaging in the 2008 election in unprecedented ways, we now seem disillusioned, tired of politics, and let down by faulty promises. Indeed, a recent study conducted by the Harvard Institute of Politics (IOP) found that the percentage of young people who consider themselves to be politically active has decreased from 43% to 22%.
The problem is that young people reacted to the political challenges of the last four years by actually getting less political. That same IOP sutdy revealed that less than one-in-five 18-29 year olds views political engagement as an effective way to solve important issues facing the nation, while 31% chose community volunteerism. Put bluntly, young Americans think that it’s more effective to serve at a soup kitchen than to take political action on the root causes that hunger occurs in this country.
But as ugly as the political process may seem right now, the only way that the difficult problems in this country will be solved is through politics. Substantive action on climate change, completely needed as the devastation of Sandy continues, will not occur through changing light bulbs- we need big political action. Ensuring that young people have the jobs they need to support their families might be aided through teen jobs fairs, but comprehensive jobs legislation is a must. Tutoring young people to help them achieve their college dreams is a good thing, but improving our schools in a systemic way is inherently political.
I, like many Americans, will probably not be incredibly motivated or hopeful on November 7th, the day after the election. But it’s more important than ever that we all re-engage in the political process, as disgusted as we are with the current election. In order to save our political system, we must get political.
Scott Warren is a 2012 Echoing Green Fellow and co-founder and Executive Director of Generation Citizen, an organization focused on empowering historically under-represented youth to participate in the political process through an action-based student-led curriculum in our nation’s high schools. These opinions are his own.