The Indifference of Younger Voters and Our Imperiled Democracy

"Lower voter participation is a silent threat to our democracy... It under-represents young people, the poor, the disabled, those with little education, minorities and you and me." This sentiment, uttered by Nancy Neumann, is nothing short of a prophecy, being played out today in district after district, now that our democracy has been imperiled by the amount of proxy money being poured in the electoral process (thanks to the Supreme Court's Faustian bargain with corporations). Low turnout taints the very essence of our Republic, of which Ben Franklin famously said upon being asked after just having hammered out the details of the constitution, "We have given you a Republic, madam -- if you can keep it."

The U.S. is one of the oldest democracies, with a constitution distilled from other brackish and fetid systems of government that our founding fathers found so unpalatable. Yet just over half the population participates in this precious bequest, and even in an election year as popular as 2008, total voter turnout was less than 57 percent -- nothing short of dismal, considering that in the last general election in India (the largest democracy in the world), over half a billion people voted without any major voting incidents (no computer malfunction, no hanging chads, no ballot confusion). That figure is just about 50 percent of the population of India.

Why is this comparison shocking, when the Indian turnout was in fact a lower percentage of population? For one thing, India is not very modernized by most Western standards: rural areas still don't have reliable electricity, clean water, or modern highway systems. India only won its independence from the Brits in 1947, and has none of the advance organizational facilities or the financial means that the United States has to conduct a successful voting event. And yet, it did so with much aplomb and without much ado. For a country still considered a developing nation while containing one fifth of the population of the globe, each and every election is an immense statistical, logistical, ethical, and historical feat.

Why haven't we learned to better preserve and nurture this delicate and precious democracy of ours? Specifically, it is quite disappointing to see the younger generation of voters forfeit this important right as if it was some sort of burdensome dead weight they were trying to offload, convinced that their input makes no difference.

My biggest quibble with young people of voting age (roughly 18-29) is that they could care less about most elections, yet complain en masse when politically things don't pan out as they hoped. Though they did vote in record numbers in 2008, charmed by Obama's social network approach to fund raising and election (66 % according to Pew research), their number was low in prior general elections -- closer to low fifties and lower still in earlier elections. This is truest of young voters from suburbia where political apathy is de rigueur. They don't pay attention to political processes unless they are excited about a candidate. But taking part in a political process shouldn't be akin to romantic dating: one shouldn't wait for that special someone to fall in love with.

This political non-participation and lack of interest is not without consequence: the penalty is two to four years, depending on which election and offices they ignored. These young voters (I know quite a few of them) have the advantage of living their lives in a comparatively self-indulgent, selfishly carefree, and materialistic fashion, made possible by a group of people who came before them and worked hard to build this country, took part in civic discourse to better it, and left it for posterity.

Although independents are the biggest voting bloc and their voting decisions are often swayed by the slightest of breezes let alone political winds, when elections are decided by a thin margin, younger voters can make all the difference. Case in point, the presidential election of 2000, and again this year, the approval gaps between candidates are tight enough that there is no light shining through. Yet among young people, according to Pew research, there is currently a 19-point spread between registered Democrats versus registered Republicans: they have the ability to make or break a candidate no matter what direction the fickle independents go.

I have been to a few countries where political freedom is only an elusive mirage. I know it is hard to appreciate something that one takes for granted unless it is no longer granted. The U.S. is both enriched and victimized by its own freedoms, as its young people take those freedoms largely for granted and opt out of their inherited civic role. And today the visible inequities and inadequacies of the system that turns young people off politically are compounded: our political punch has been spiked with an undetectable component -- untraceable monies that threaten the very foundation of our democracy: freedom of speech freely shared, and not hidden in seedy recesses of election law. As Mussolini said, "Fascism should rightly be called Corporatism, as it is the merger of corporate and government power" -- a merger that has been silently engulfing our democratic system for the last several decades. Indeed, young people have reason to be suspicious and skeptical about a corrupt process. But the fact remains, it is a human-powered system and their input does indeed make a difference.

Fellini once famously said in one of his movies that the Fascists did only one good thing, they made the train run on time. I have lived through Indira Gandhi's martial law, and I can vouch for Fellini's claim. And indeed, if young voters keep caviling about the government they abhor without taking part in political process to help reshape it (after all we are a country of over three hundred million individuals, change will not come as fast or grand as they would prefer), then yes, we may have trains running on time soon, and little else. This great democracy of ours is definitely waning, and it remains to be seen whether it will remain in its current gibbous state for long.