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Will my college students vote?

By       Message Adam Bessie       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink

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With T-minus four days and a recent poll showing Obama already leading in cast ballots, we've all heard rumors of some Obama supporters pre-emptively uncorking champagne in honor of his assured victory, one built in part on the energetic "youth vote."  The same poll also showed that during this last week 18-29 year olds overwhelmingly support Obama (68%).  And another Pew poll has showed that young voters acted on this support in the Democratic primaries, coming out in greater numbers than previous years.

And while many pundits lament how unreliable the youth vote is, some say "this election will be different", and provide all sorts of studies and stats to prove their hunch.  This sort of desperate-sounding talk reminds me of a scorned wife trying to convince herself that this time her philandering husband Joe has changed, that this time, he'll be different than all the other times he cheated with the secretary.

In my community college English classes, this election does seem different than I remember in 2004, when the youth didn't show up, despite all the enthusiasm.  This time, about 75% of each class claimed they're registered to vote--and the students that didn't raise their hands were largely international students and 17 year olds.

 "Young voters could help sway the presidential election in Barack Obama's favor," claims Amy Chozik in a recent Wall Street Journal article.  That is, with one big caveat: "if they vote."

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Will my college students vote?  Will they play a role--even a decisive one--in this election?   And more broadly: what part do they see themselves playing in politics in general?

Certainly, my students are passionate about this election--even if they are passionately apathetic.  A minority of students are militant anti-voters, convinced that it doesn't matter, that too many people are voting, that the whole thing's rigged, and so on. Some even planned not to vote because they thought Obama was already winning by a landslide.  Interestingly, this population cares very much about not caring, unfurling arguments about why caring is a waste of time.

A larger group is conflicted, wanting to change things, but feeling that neither candidate represents their best interests.  The two-party system, they feel, ties their hands, and while they plan to maybe vote, they will hold their nose, picking the "lesser of two evils."  

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But many students, while acknowledging these problems, are very invested in voting, using words like "duty" and "responsibility," and express pride in being part of a "historic" election.

Nearly all students "" regardless if they plan to vote or not, or who they plan to vote for "" seem unhappy with the current state of affairs.  Something, they acknowledge, needs to change.  But can voting help that change? Many of my students also seem to have little faith in the government's ability to make that change, noting that politicians are "liars," or that the whole system is corrupted.  Many of my students seem to deeply distrust the government.

And their profound distrust makes perfect sense.  The young voter has never known a political world without scandal, psychologist Jean Twenge writes in her polemic study on young Americans Generation Me. In the 90s, as small children, they see Clinton's impeachment proceedings. Then, as they come into their teens, they see Bush's questionable win over Gore, which one student cited as a reason she wouldn't vote.  They've also seen us taken to war for WMDs, when the WMDs never showed up.  And then they watched as New Orleans was decimated by Hurricane Katrina, people in distress and misery, as Washington hems and haws for days. And now, they see a financial collapse "no one saw coming."  Is it any surprise they distrust the government? And, as Twenge points out, while the youth feel the government is corrupt or evil, they don't think they "can do much to change that."

We will know whether young people voted very shortly - and certainly, we should try to channel that passion into actual voting in the time we have left.  And shortly, we'll be able to pop the champagne--either for celebration or to drown our misery.  Beyond this election, I hope that we can restore the faith in our government, not only for the young, but for all of us.

Only then, can we sling the banner of "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED," and declare victory.


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Adam Bessie is an assistant professor of English at Diablo Valley College, in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a co-wrote a chapter in the 2011 edition of Project Censored on metaphor and political language, and is a frequent contributor to (more...)

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