Several years ago, during Arianna Huffington's Shadow Convention, I was on a CNN political panel addressing the cynicism of teen voters. I learned from that experience that teens have defaulted their participation in politics. Today, when teenagers tell me that they feel cynical about the political process, I remind them, that young adults and adolescents in our country have always influenced and affected our political system.
For example, it was the teens in our country who protested for civil rights in the 1960s, while peacefully marching on Selma, Alabama with Dr. Martin Luther King. These events led to a change in the law and helped to end segregation. Further, in 1964, it was these very same young adults who protested for equal voting rights, and also changed the law.
Then, in 1965, teens protested once again, this time for health care... and once again, these young activists changed existing law. In 1968, teenagers moved to change the political process once more and protested for fair housing, which resulted in another new law. And, finally, it was teenagers and young adults, feeling the injustice of the Vietnam War, that marched on Washington, becoming the strongest force, not only to end that war, but also, for peace.
So why the cynicism?
Well, teens are disillusioned by the very thing that their adult counterparts are: corruption in politics, out of control spending, lobbyists, special interest groups, pay for play, favors owed, and pay-offs made, as well as the general hypocrisy, in the re-election process, which keeps politicians on both sides of the aisle, expanding goods and services, for the very constituencies that will get them re-elected. Never mind all the spinning, compromises and plays for sheer unadulterated power.
It's no wonder that some of today's young people would rather quit than fight. They drop out of the political scene, they don't vote, and they no longer participate in the discussion... fearing opposing viewpoints, needing safe spaces and holding narrow ideologies, as recently demonstrated on our college campuses. And, yet it is important to remember that adolescents were among the soldiers who fought against King George's most powerful army in the Revolutionary War, helping to create a democratic system with individual representation. This ensured the evolution of a middle class, which is the true protector of democracy.
However, that democratic system is now endanger of being subverted by election modifications such as: the 1984 decision for super-delegates, created to block grassroots candidates; lobbying; back room deals; machine-run politics; the primary system; and gerrymandering. Now, teenagers no longer discuss and collaborate, but rather compete for special interests, voting in blocks, as stakeholders; or shutting down opposing viewpoints, compromising our most important freedom... speech. Warning us, that whether ruled by a mob or a dictator, suppressing civil discourse, can only lead to anarchy.
On a recent Face the Nation, political writer Ben Domenech stated, that what we are seeing, in this political season, is a rally for the realignment of both political parties, needing a shift in the traditional understanding of right and left. When I was young, each party contained liberals, moderates, and conservatives. For example, you had conservative democrats, such as former Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen and you also had liberal Republicans, such as former New York Senator Jacob Javits. But currently, we are seeing a bankrupt system, in which each party is identified by only one perspective: liberal or conservative.
As a result, teenagers can no longer find a home in our political parties. Thus, young people, are looking for a cure to heal our democracy, by allowing it to transition into a new construction that they can trust, and have faith in... and that will look like a democratic reality for America.
So, what can you do about it? How can you help teens participate in the political discussion of our country?
Believe it or not, there is hope for both the system and the youth that are discouraged by it. Education is the answer. School curriculums can be changed to include classes in civics, political science, current history, and just plain old citizenship. Clubs on and off of campus can bring students back to the table, by investing them in the debate as well as in the development of strategies for peaceful activism.
Mentoring and interning in both community government, as well as national government, can change the lament of frustration, by pointing out positive action for change, such as learning about the issues and voting. Because this is a win-win approach, it can lead to an interesting apprenticeship for teenagers, as they transform from adolescence to responsible adulthood. This is a constructive way to not only bring future voters into the forum, but also an interesting way to teach them how to change the system by first understanding the system.
It was John Stewart Mill who said, "It is important that everyone of the governed have a voice in the government, because it can hardly be expected that those who have no voice will not be unjustly postponed to those who have." Therefore, it is imperative that teenagers become both activists as well as voters. Clearly this would give them the potential for influence in the discussion as they could theoretically change the course of an election.
In the final analysis, to be educated, to learn about the issues, and to act by voting, can empower the teen voice and make it heard. It is in this way that teens can not only participate in the political process, but how they can also transform the political process.
As you can see, teens have changed the world, and by exercising their voting rights, they can become a political force unto themselves. Activism teaches that history is not what we see on the television, but rather, what we do.