On hope and change and the power of the youth vote

On Tuesday evening, I found myself handing out campaign literature outside a polling place on a quiet corner in Queens. Voters were few and far between, so I chatted with the guy across from me. He was handing out fliers for an anti-choice, anti-gay rights Republican incumbent who had been in the State Senate for 38 years. I was urging voters to support the pro-choice Democratic challenger.

My new friend/opponent was a native of Queens, probably in his late 30s or early 40s, a union man and Bush/McCain supporter. He didn’t seem all that invested in the candidate he was volunteering for—but assured me he was bound to win. Curious and with nothing else to do, I peppered him with good-natured questions about his political views.

He described a mix of positions that seemed maddeningly inconsistent to me. He didn’t support health care reform because he thought it just poured money into an inefficient government bureaucracy. He railed against “people who think health care is a right” but later admitted that he did believe everyone should have health insurance. He was angry that the Obama administration had bailed out the banks and the auto industry, claiming it went against all “the rules of capitalism” — and then suggested that instead the government should have taken over the failing companies completely. He blamed Obama for the deficit—ignoring the enormous price tag of the two wars started by his predecessor. He worried that he wouldn’t get the Social Security he felt entitled to—apparently not knowing which party would be fine with privatizing it away.

Now, I’m usually not one to buy into romantic notions of bipartisan unity, of finding common ground between the most bitter of political enemies, of a commonality of core values between “ordinary Americans.” But I kinda liked this guy. Unlike the most vocal conservatives these days, he didn’t seem particularly crazy or racist or hateful. He didn’t think I should go to hell for being pro-choice (or, at least, he was polite enough not to say so). I thought he was dead wrong on most issues—but I do believe that what he wanted wasn’t all that different from what I do.

Underneath the jumble of ill-informed positions and parroted rhetoric, my new friend just seemed disillusioned—with everything. He had no faith in any aspect of government—or really any system of people. He thought no one—from the cops to the union leaders to the insurance companies—did their jobs well or was accountable or gave a damn. He saw corruption everywhere.

His conservatism seemed to stem from a complete lack of hope that anything could ever be better—that health care could become a right even though we’ve always treated it as a luxury, that government could run more effectively, that companies could be held accountable. Resigned to the way things work, the enduring, everlasting shittiness of the status quo seemed to be his only article of faith—to the point that challenging it was actually the scary thing.

Eventually, he asked if I had supported Obama. When I said I had, he replied somewhat bitterly: “Obama got so many new voters. You know, female voters 18-22 are usually the worst voters. But they all came out for him. My niece and her girlfriends—they were always talking about Obama.” I grinned and agreed. Although I myself was 22 when I voted for Obama and certainly felt the energy and passion of my peers at the time, listening to this guy talk about the power of the youth vote in 2008 was almost as thrilling as living it. He was amazed by how much these young people had supported Obama—and undeniably a little bit irritated. These girls—these young, naïve girls who usually didn’t vote—were suddenly voting! For this hope and change stuff! And they were talking about it!

As goddessjaz pointed out her in election post-mortem Wednesday, young people came out to vote at about the same rate as they have in previous mid-term elections—that is, at about half the rate of their older counterparts. Which is perhaps not surprising but is definitely too bad—since if more people under 30 had voted, they would have undoubtedly helped the Democrats.

Hopefully, by the time the 2012 election rolls around, Obama and other progressive candidates will remember just how powerful that youth vote is and work diligently to harness it again—by reaching out to young people, addressing their concerns, and treating them like the important progressive base that they are.  Convincing my new friend in Queens to believe in the possibility of change after so many years of cynicism might be impossible. But convincing his niece—or me or the millions of young people who voted in droves in 2008—is not so hard. We want to believe.

And often we are right to believe. Even when it appears the status quo will be maintained out of pure inertia, change does come—and once it does, it seems almost inevitable: On Tuesday night, after 38 years in office, the incumbent in Queens finally lost.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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