Is this the “most important election ever”? Most American elections have actually been low-stakes affairs. That is generally a good thing, and it is the result of a system that is designed to prevent radical change. It can be disappointing, however, through the eyes of a young person.
The first time a person is eligible to vote is a rite of passage, a mark of adulthood that almost everyone remembers. For the first time, you get to have a say in the future of your country. Adults can no longer say to you, as in the classic rock song: “I’d like to help you, son, but you’re too young to vote.”
But then reality sets in, and it turns out that elections are usually not all that interesting. Imagine being a first-time voter in 1988, when the choices were the older George Bush or Michael Dukakis. Or 1976, when the stolid Gerald Ford faced off against the unknown Jimmy Carter. Even the 2000 election, which turned out to have huge implications for our lives today, looked at the time like a boring choice between a likable “compassionate conservative” and an earnest good-government techno-nerd.
Nobody can claim that 2016 is boring. Even so, some young people have said that they are unhappy with the choices. As the headline for a recent article in The New York Times put it: “I Registered to Vote … for This?”
The central complaint is that younger voters are almost all turned off by Donald Trump, but many of them are not able to summon up much excitement about Hillary Clinton. I will discuss the second part of that later in this column, but I first want to make the case that voting against something dangerous is itself an exciting thing. Yes, Trump is that bad.
Why Young People’s Votes Matter
The simplest explanation for why young people should vote is that they will live the longest with the consequences of the election. Like it or not, if the country screws this one up, it is young people who will have the most to lose.
Therefore, even if young people view Hillary Clinton as an uninspiring choice (which I think is an unfair view of her, but I do understand that many young people feel that way), it is hard to think of anything that could be more energizing than securing one’s own future happiness.
We have one candidate who says that climate change is a scam perpetrated by China, and that we should drill and strip mine our way to the future. A young person who expects to live for the next seventy or eighty years should not want Trump to be making environmental policy.
Socially and economically, Trump wants to return us to the bad old days of the 1950s. Why would young people not want to do everything possible to avoid that fate?
The question of intergenerational justice, in fact, is actually quite deep. It focuses on this basic question: What do older generations owe to younger generations? And the fact is that older people owe younger people a lot.
The problem is that every generation inevitably fails in some important ways to do its best for the generations that follow, and the next generations are left to clean up the mess. It seems unfair, because it is.
The so-called Greatest Generation defeated fascism, for which they deserve our everlasting thanks, but it also left in place a system of institutionalized racism and sexism that the next generation had to begin to dismantle—a transformation that has not been completed and that now falls on the shoulders of the children and grandchildren of Baby Boomers. (Again, Trump wants to move in the opposite direction entirely.)
Baby Boomers began their political lives with a successful fight to end an unjust war, and we initially were instrumental in passing important future-securing environmental laws while changing social expectations about things like recycling and public responsibility.
But, wow, have we dropped the ball! There is no question that my generation owed today’s young people a lot more than we are going to be able to give them. We should be ashamed.
What we should be most ashamed of is that we allowed our political system to become so mangled that one of our major parties nominated a misogynistic, racist, thin-skinned ignoramus to be the next president. Even those of us who are not Republicans have to stop and wonder what we as a society did that allowed this to happen.
All of which means that a young voter today can look around and reasonably ask, “What, you want me to clean this up?”
But if you think about it carefully, the answer to that question is that older people—at least those older people who care only about themselves—would actually not care whether young people clean up these messes. Their cynical response would be: “Hey, I don’t care if you clean this up or not. You’re the one who is going to live in it. Curse me all you want. I’m quite literally outta here!”
Luckily, not all of us old people are so selfish, and we want to do better in the time that we have left. But enough people in the older ranks are shortsighted that their votes need to be offset by the votes of people who care about the future. A coalition of middle-aged and older people with a conscience and younger people with varying motivations needs to step forward.
The Joy of Responsibility
I have studied the question of intergenerational justice for quite a few years, and one of the most important insights that I have come across is the idea that future generations are not present to vote on questions that will deeply affect them. The choice among different sources of energy, for example, is something that people who will be born in 2100 would (if they were able to do so) dearly love to influence today.
The best proxy for those future people is today’s youngest voters. We do not even need to rely on selflessness among those voters, because their self-interest alone is the closest we can come to listening to the voice of otherwise-voiceless future generations.
That is a heavy burden. Just when millennials thought that they had been lectured enough, here I am telling them that they must do the right thing not only for themselves but for their own grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
But that responsibility, however unwelcome it might be, is unavoidable. When we say that “our children are the future,” it is not just a public service announcement. It is a statement of each generation’s serious duty.
There is no doubt that such a duty can feel onerous. A recent column in Salon (written by a non-millennial, interestingly) expressed succinctly some sentiments that are surely shared by many angry young people.
Responding to an argument along the lines of what I have laid out here, the author writes that “millennials have inherited this disaster and we have expected them to be better than us and make things right. It’s not just ironic; it’s delusional.”
What, exactly, is delusional about this? That young people would want to change things from going in a bad direction, when they are the ones who will live in that future? That sounds like the opposite of delusional.
And here is where the real issue emerges. The author writes:
Instead of getting pissed at young voters who don’t feel like cleaning up the messes caused by the boomer generation of Clinton and Trump, perhaps we should start blaming the source of the problem. Maybe it’s time we got media coverage of how boomers have messed up this election and millennials were smart enough to stay out of the fray.
All of which expresses an understandable frustration, but it makes two fundamental errors. First, it is hard to imagine anyone saying that there has been no media coverage of how badly Baby Boomers have messed up this election and everything else. Baby Boomers are criticized almost daily—but not, as I noted above, without cause.
But much more importantly, the second problem is in describing sitting out this election as being “smart enough to stay out of the fray.” I have never before heard anyone argue that it is smart for young people (or anyone) to sit by while their future is being ruined simply because things are bad now.
The fact is that sitting it out, as tempting as it is, would be a textbook example of figuratively cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. However one feels about the situation today, it can become worse. And frankly, it will get much, much worse unless young people get out and vote in large numbers for Clinton.
As strange as it might sound, this should be a source of joy for young people. For the first time in your lives, you actually matter. What you choose to do—including refusing to choose by not voting or voting for a third-party candidate—will determine your future. That is exhilarating and scary, but it is a power that every voter should embrace.
A Warning About Bad Choices, Based on Personal Experience
I noted above that most American elections seem like low-stakes affairs. As it happens, however, I was a first-time voter the last time that the country faced a fateful choice that changed the course of history. It was in 1980. (Yes, I’m old.)
If young people want to know when the bad trends started that have led to all of the problems that millennials rightly complain about today, it really can be traced to that one election. Prior to 1980, we were moving in the right direction on environmental policy, inequality, women’s rights, racial justice, and so on. We were still a long way from the promised land, but progress was evident. (The economy had hit a rough patch, but that would have been easily fixable without a radical political shift.)
But because of a bad outcome in 1980, with Baby Boomers and their parents electing a man (who had been born in 1911) with a radical rightwing agenda, all of those trends shifted into reverse. This is when the tide turned.
The choice in 1980, of course, was between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Carter was an uninspiring incumbent. Although he has had the most valuable post-presidency in history, at the time he was widely viewed (and certainly by young people like me) as nothing to get excited about.
Meanwhile, Reagan was a joke. He was a failed B-movie actor who had moved into politics while insistently maintaining an astonishing level of ignorance about policy questions. His own party was amazed that he won the nomination, and there was a near-revolt before the Republican nominating convention that would have replaced Reagan on the ticket with someone who was at least unembarrassing. Sound familiar?
This was also the first seriously important election after the voting age was reduced to 18 from 21. But even young people over 21 had been notable for their low turnout at elections. Would 1980 be different?
Sadly, most of my peers sat it out or voted for an independent candidate named John Anderson. (I had supported Anderson in the Republican primaries before he ran as an independent, because he really was a fine man.) Although the election ended up being decided in part by a foreign policy crisis, young people missed their chance to change the course of history.
Now, many people today have absorbed the lore that Reagan was a transformative president, but in a good way. Today’s Republicans invoke his name with reverence. But the reality, as I noted above, is that Reagan’s presidency set in motion many of the catastrophic trends that threaten young people today.
Reagan put justices on the Supreme Court who undermined environmental laws, fought against gender and racial equality, and entrenched the power of financial elites in the economy and U.S. elections.
Reagan’s candidacy also set the pattern for all future Republican candidates in using racial code words to motivate white voters. He radically expanded military spending, and his years in office marked the beginning of the age of inequality that has reached a peak today.
The Reagan years also empowered people who think, as Reagan himself put it, that “government is the problem.” One of the results of that mindset has been Republicans’ efforts to reduce state governments’ spending on higher education, which has put today’s young people in deep debt.
But no matter how one feels about Reagan, he was a combination of Socrates and the Dalai Lama compared to Donald Trump. Reagan, and the Republicans who followed him through 2012, at least tried to make a show of compassion. He at least tried to get elected with a positive message of hope. He at least nodded toward reality.
Young people today have an opportunity to do something that my generation failed to do. This country survived Reagan, diminished but still able to function and in some ways recover. We might not survive Trump in a way that resembles anything like the America that young people (understandably) take for granted.
That Gut Feeling
Despite all of those reasons to worry about Donald Trump, however, many young people say that they do not like Hillary Clinton, either. Some are angry that Bernie Sanders is not the nominee. Others have come to believe that Clinton is “corrupt” or “untrustworthy” in some unspecified way.
Although I could spend a lot of time here pointing out that none of the supposed scandals that have trailed Clinton have turned out to have any real substance, I already did that a few months ago. The bottom line is that the vague suspicions surrounding Clinton are not even smoke with no fire. There is mostly just a lot of hot air.
Even so, voting is often about gut feelings rather than rational thinking. And as a younger pro-Clinton voter said in the New York Times article that I mentioned above: “I know it’s not cool to be excited to vote for Hillary, and that we’re supposed to preface every positive remark about her with, ‘Well, she’s certainly not perfect, but … ’.”
It is impossible to decide independently what or who is cool, or to change the narrative once it is in place. Honestly, I think that people who give Clinton a fair chance will see that she is a potentially transformative candidate. But in the current environment, I have no illusions that she will ever be thought of as a cool politician.
What I do know, however, is that even negative voting can be exciting. Stopping a negative transformation before it happens is the most important thing that anyone can do. And defeating an openly white supremacist candidate should make any generation proud.
Some commentators have argued that it is not enough to tell people what to vote against, because people—especially young people—need to something to vote for. And they are right.
Young people should vote for their own futures, to allow the world to move forward without bigotry, inequality, misogyny, or fear.
If this were my first time voting, I would be awed by how much responsibility rests on me this year. It is a heady experience to learn that you matter. Voting for Hillary Clinton is the only way to exercise that power in a way that gives young people hope for a positive future.