I'll be casting my first vote for president in 2004, because I don't know if my generation and the world we were supposed to inherit will survive another four years of the Bush regime intact. There are millions of young Americans who share my sentiments. Yet you probably won't find most 18-year olds at the polls in November. We’re tuned in--but when it comes to electoral politics, we're turned off.
It's not that we don't care about where this country is going, and it's not that we don't act on it. Reports of the youth movement's death have been greatly exaggerated; the "kids these days" commentators haven't been paying attention. This past March, high school and college students--told all their lives that it's about getting in or getting down, not setting right--went on strike nationwide by the tens of thousands against the invasion of Iraq. Countless more participate regularly in efforts to effect change and recreate democracy on a community level.
But to the Democratic pols who are wondering why we aren't Party animals, many of us would say: Why should we care about you if you've never shown you care about us? This impression--and with it, the desert landscape of American politics--will only shift when these people start to listen to what we're already saying.
How about a series of candidate forums around the country (including areas where candidates don't usually go), open to all youth who'll be of voting age in 2004? A place where we could speak out on what matters to us, question and challenge those running for office, and where the latter could simply listen and introduce the best of what they hear into their platforms? We've gone long enough without a say in this country--a decade of disenfranchisement and disillusionment between the time we develop our first political beliefs and the time we're first allowed to vaguely register them on paper. It's about time we know they're really registering. That knowledge alone could turn us out to the polls as if to hip-hop clubs or punk rock concerts, in excited throngs.
Much of what candidates would hear from us has been glaringly absent from the debate thus far. And so, pending the listening tours, I'd like to sketch a few possibilities for an agenda that could reignite young people's desire to have anything to do with the elections, and perhaps inspire those to whom young people are important.
Imagine: What if a quality education were recognized as a right for all Americans from preschool through college, with federal aid to cities and other underfunded areas destined for public schools and universities, and some serious assistance for kids going to college (financed by dropping the tax cuts for those who can afford to buy the college)? What if federal employment opportunities for young people were created and expanded, so that joining the Army and selling drugs wouldn't be the only options many have for a decent-paying job?
What if we reversed the slew of attempts to impose policies on young people that just don't work? Abstinence-only courses instead of sex education and access to reproductive health resources; high-stakes testing that holds kids back a year for filling in a couple of bubbles incorrectly; "security measures" that criminalize students and violate their civil rights in and around their own schools. If a candidate vowed to help lead America to treat its youth with dignity, for a change, its youth would respond, for a change.
And what if a commitment were made to bring foreign and environmental policy in line with the desires of those in this country who will be most affected by them, who will have to live (or die) with their lasting consequences? Surveys showed a clear majority of young people opposed the war-maybe because it's our friends and families whose blood greases the machine of empire-building, our future and our freedom left in the dust it kicks up. We'd also like to know we'll make it to the age of the politicians. What if they promised to base policy on international cooperation instead of multinational corporations? Insurance of global standards of living and working, starting here at home? Policies for the survival of our earth itself, like renewable energy? The energy of the young could be renewed immediately.
In short, allow our voices to make a difference in 2003, and that just might make all the difference in 2004.
Michael Gould-Wartofsky (MCatalyst@aol.com) is a student just out of Hunter High School in New York City, founder of citywide action coalition NY Youth Bloc, journalist on WBAI-FM, and writer just published in 'Poets Against the War'