(reposted from May 12, 2008 at YoungVoterMag)
As if the Democrats need more constituencies in an uproar over the presidential contest, here’s one more: Youth activists. Recently, youth organizations have been angered by the media’s portrayal of young people as voting in droves simply because of Barack Obama. Youth leaders point to four intensive years of extensive field organizing, creative online outreach tools, issue education, and an impressive increase in political engagement through nonpartisan youth organizations, like the one for which I work.
But the honest truth is that many young people are voting this election simply because of Mr. Obama. And a second truth is even more important: If Mr. Obama is denied the nomination due to superdelegates and back room politics, many young voters will be alienated from the process and less inclined to vote again.
Many of my professional colleagues hope that every single young person who votes this year is doing so because of the great work that we have done. And some indeed are. A wide range of organizations committed to youth training and advocacy have launched or been revitalized since 2004, and have made a tremendous impact. But my community ties assure me that there are a chunk of 18-25 year olds voting simply because they are inspired by Barack Obama.
These young people are not the traditional student activists, the students who rally against sweatshops and volunteered for Howard Dean. These are not the young adults who intern at high profile progressive organizations in Washington D.C. or vote because of a cool online registration tool, an MTV ad, or a Facebook group.
Instead, these are the students who were like me in college – working 40 hours a week, going to school full time, with barely enough time to foster important relationships with my loved ones and community, let alone become a full time or even part time “activist.”
These are the students who, like me, commuted to campus. While my classmates were in protests and door-knocking for Kerry in ‘04, I was stuck in rush hour traffic on I-95. They are the ones that, like me (warning: confession of a liberal sin ahead) didn’t want to lose the wages to take off work and vote in the 2004 primary.
I know these young people, as well as the many who didn’t go to college at all. While I now work every day in downtown Washington , in a sea of politics and CNN, rubbing shoulders on the Hill, and flagging emails from politically savvy youth, I return home to friends who have never heard of the alphabet soup of organizations committed to youth organizing.
They aren’t interested in NAFTA, and chuckled when they heard Rev. Wright’s comments because their grandmother said something just as incendiary last week. They are smart and aware of the issues, but lack the time, money, or inclination to support a cause. They slap me five, are proud of the work that I’m doing, and go back to their everyday lives, far removed from the arcane debates over which of the candidates has a better health plan, because right now they’re not covered at all. They’re uninterested in how the troops will be brought home because their brother is already dead . They are only interested in a candidate who will ensure that they don’t have to take so much precious time away to address said problems. And they now believe that this time, if they vote, they won’t be disappointed.
It is these voters who will be especially turned off from our political process if Mrs. Clinton wins based on superdelegates. And what, pray tell, is wrong with telling that truth? Just as some honest African Americans have dared to say that they are voting for Mr. Obama because he is African American and some women have been courageous enough to admit that they are voting for Mrs. Clinton because of their long battle with sexism, there is nothing wrong with admitting that a candidate has garnered a percentage of votes simply on the merits of what he represents to marginalized, disenfranchised, and disillusioned young people.
One man collected all of the blood, sweat and tears that the youth movement has invested and, in the process of making history, became our most effective advocate.
Of course, the old guard response is that these new young voters should have been engaged long before Mr. Obama and that, if they can be lost simply because of party politics, they are stupid and naive and the youth movement is a failure. Not so. The fact that there is a non-partisan youth infrastructure able to arm these new voters with the tools needed to foster long term engagement is a huge victory. It is a privilege to have a candidate who appreciates, supports, and broadens the impact of this work.
The challenge now will be to keep these new voters engaged for the long haul. I am hopeful that we will. But if Mr. Obama loses the nomination because of superdelegates, my job will get a lot harder.
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