Conventional wisdom says that when it comes to politics, young people don’t matter. As a group, they tend to be apathetic, disillusioned, and too lazy to vote. No one buys into this mindset more than today’s politicians and policy makers.
Increasingly, however, there is reason to believe that conventional wisdom is mistaken. Granted, young people are disillusioned, but this hardly distinguishes them from the rest of the population. President George W. Bush’s approval ratings are consistently low, and according to Newsweek over half of adults now believe the country is on the wrong track. But instead of letting dissatisfaction give way to apathy, youth are realizing that simply ignoring politics is not the answer. Indeed, a new poll of youth nationwide by Harvard’s Institute of Politics (IOP) survey group found that 71 percent of young people ages 18 to 24 disagreed with the statement that “politics is not relevant to my life right now,” regardless of how upset they are with government as a whole.
America’s youth have historically voted at a far lower rate than the general population, but that is beginning to change. Today’s “apathetic youth” consists of about 27 million eligible voters who understand the importance of voting and political activism—59 percent disagreed with the statement that “political involvement rarely has tangible results.” The youth vote dramatically exceeded expectations in the 2004 election as turnout jumped 11 percentage points from 2000—the highest jump in any age group—and was “especially high in the contested battleground states,” according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at the University of Maryland.
This year, nearly a third of 18 to 24-year-olds report that they will definitely vote in this year’s midterm elections—a percentage that would represent the highest mid-term turnout since 1982. For politicians to ignore this critical segment of the population is not only foolish but dangerous.
Despite the growing political importance of youth, there exists the potential for still greater youth involvement in politics: Fewer than one fifth of young people are currently involved in a “government, political, or issue-related organization” in spite of the fact that large majorities of youth recognize the importance of politics. Although youth voter turnout is on the rise, it still lags far behind that of the rest of the population. During the last midterm election in 2002, turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds was a measly 23 percent as compared to 56 percent among voters over 25 according to CIRCLE. Although some young people may think that politicians are sleazy, corrupt, or flawed in their priorities, youth must not resign themselves to a political system that does not reflect their views.
This is where college students come in. It has often been said that students live in a bubble, out of touch with our non-college peers. This is especially true of students at Harvard, where the disparity extends into the realm of political activism. For many of us, on-campus involvement in politics, whether through a party-affiliated club or a non-partisan structure, such as the IOP, is an integral part of life, and we find it hard to imagine life any other way. We forget just how unique these opportunities and our political enthusiasm really are.
Such anecdotal evidence on the political fervor generated on college campuses is supported by the new IOP poll. For the first time, the poll included non-college youth, and their inclusion revealed that students in a campus environment are significantly more likely to be politically engaged than their non-college peers. This is neither a Harvard phenomenon nor a fluke of the Vietnam era. College campuses as a whole serve as catalysts for political involvement and are likely to remain that way. Because students are constantly surrounded by thousands of motivated young individuals, many of whom have an active interest in politics, they are more likely to be asked or encouraged to get involved in politics. The vibrant political environment and personal connections fostered on college campuses are the key to stimulating involvement.
As Harvard undergrads, we are in the enviable position of spending four years at an institution with both extremely talented peers and vast political resources. Many young people, even Harvard students, still don’t believe that making a real difference in politics is possible at our age; they could not be more wrong, and students at Harvard have more opportunities to make an impact than anyone else. To cite just one example, policy regarding sex trafficking, drawn up by Harvard students at the IOP, has recently served as evidence for a bill in the state legislature in Pennsylvania, and is serving as the basis for legislation to be introduced next term in Louisiana and Tennessee.
This is the time and the place for us to get involved. That starts with voting, but as Harvard students on a campus bustling with political interest and activity, our influence must not be limited to a single ballot every other November. There are political groups on campus for nearly every issue and ideological affiliation. At any given moment, there are dozens of real policy makers at our fingertips. We as Harvard students are uniquely situated to make our voices heard in the political realm both on campus and off. All of us—whether or not we are planning to pursue politics in the future—should not let these four years of opportunity pass us by without making a real difference.
Let’s show older generations that we are anything but apathetic and lazy. Let’s prove conventional wisdom wrong.
Joshua G. Allen ’09 is a government concentrator in Mather House. Marina Fisher ’09 is a linguistics concentrator in Leverett House. Matthew T. Valji ’08 is a government concentrator in Cabot House. They are all members of the IOP survey group.