New York magazine on Tuesday spoke with a dozen “young people,” ranging in age from 21 years old to 29, all of whom admitted they don’t intend to vote in next week’s midterm elections; some of them said they don’t plan to vote in any elections further down the road, either.
Now, before anyone goes and decides to look down their nose at the youths, let’s acknowledge that within those 12 exist some fairly dumb responses. One person writes about how they had their “Clinton sweatshirt on all day” two years ago and then proceeds to complain that “there’s still a lot of powerful people, especially in the Democratic Party, that are centrists.” Another contends that the impending climate crisis makes voting pointless. Another says that too many young people get their news from the internet instead of turning on the trusty TV news channels their parents watch.
But! Most of these people have excellent reasons for not voting, and while their responses vary, what it boils down to is a pretty simple two-pronged issue—the people who operate in and around American politics are either 1) not doing nearly enough to convince voters that participating in national or statewide elections would fundamentally alter the course of the country or are 2) actively working to ensure that fewer members of the American public have the ability to participate in the first place.
To the latter point, several of the people interviewed point out that ever since the midterm sweeps of 2010, conservative legislatures across the nation made it as difficult as possible for non-wealthy citizens—especially minority groups—to register to vote in any election. To wit:
I’m trying to register in my hometown of Austin, Texas. It’s such a tedious process to even get registered in Texas, let alone vote as an absentee. There’s no notification service about the status of my voter registration. There’s a small, outdated website where you can enter your information and check. When I was at the post office to register, this poor girl, clearly also a college student like me, didn’t know what “postmarked” meant and had no idea how to send an important document by mail. Most people my age have zero need to go to the post office and may have never stepped into one before. Honestly, if someone had the forms printed for me and was willing to deal with the post office, I’d be much more inclined to vote.
Circling back to the first prong, scores of citizens already feel a widespread sense of detachment from the American political system, at least when it comes to national politics. For one, following this shit every day is an honest-to-God mental health hazard if you don’t know how to contextualize or compartmentalize. But even if you do, as one respondent pointed out to the magazine, grassroots organizing efforts across the nation have formed and grown exponentially since 2016 to counteract the hellworld reality that dominates every single day of national politics, and it’s in these concrete actions many folks have taken solace and devoted their efforts.
But when the prospect of participating in the midterms or presidential elections is broached, a wall appears in the minds of many citizens. There are plenty of reasons for this, especially for those who have been disenchanted by the stagnant reality of top-down change in American politics. The explanation as given by the youngs, though, is that there are scores of citizens who feel the direction of the nation—be it forever wars abroad, healthcare, labor rights, etc.—is largely on autopilot, with the variances between parties largely boiling down to how racist, xenophobic, or sexist an individual candidate is. The assessment may not be wholly correct, but that’s not the important part; the important part is that it’s how people still feel, even after two years of Trump. Thomas, a 28-year-old New Yorker, told the magazine:
If we get to a blue wave in the midterms and then things just continue on, people will feel deflated and check out. Which is why I think you’ve got to have something besides just strategic voting, or people resigning themselves to a candidate they don’t love but who is at least a Democrat.
In 2008, I was extremely enthusiastic to vote for Barack Obama. But over the years, I started to understand the electoral system as exactly how I’ve characterized it. For a while, I thought it was an immoral act to vote. It means that we’re giving our approval to a system that I totally do not want to validate. Over the years, I’ve started to think maybe we don’t have to frame this so much as an individual act with these moral consequences and that I need to stop being so dramatic about it. So, for instance, I voted for Cynthia Nixon in the primary recently. I teach at CUNY. Insofar as she was in a position where she could have been elected and made a difference in this, yes, I’ll take the five minutes out of my day to go vote. But it’s not something that we should, as a society, be making the horizon of our political organizing.
And then there’s the smarm factor, one I will speak to briefly: On the day of the 2016 election, the site I worked at at the time, Deadspin, published this blog—How The Deadspin Staff Is Voting. Participation was optional, so I opted out; most of the staff opted in, and several admitted they wouldn’t vote for Clinton or Trump. To put it lightly, the fallout within the company was a shitshow, one that not even milkshakes a buddy and I bought for our staff could smooth over. There was lots of furious DM-ing, lots of incredulous Tweets, and even one interaction in which a friend of mine and former co-worker approached me, didn’t say hello, but instead aggressively asked me, stone-faced, “How did you vote? How did you vote?” This experience was not unique to our lefty media organization. Tim, a 27-tear-old from Texas who told New York he’s never voted, said:
The amount of work logically isn’t that much: Fill out a form, mail it, go to a specific place on a specific day. But those kind of tasks can be hard for me to do if I’m not enthusiastic about it. That’s kind of a problem with social attitudes around, you know, ‘It’s your civic duty to vote.’ I once told a co-worker I didn’t vote, and she said, ‘That’s really irresponsible,’ in this judgmental voice. You can’t build a policy around calling people irresponsible. You need to make people enthusiastic and engaged.
So, you can scream about how naive and short-sighted the “young people” are being, or you can take a moment to consider their reality through a historical lens that should explain fairly simply how a group of people brought up in a milieu of faux-meritocratic ideology and inane foreign and domestic policy could be so disaffected by the prospect of participating in such a system that they focus their efforts locally or tune out altogether.
Either way, they ain’t voting.