It never fails. When I talk with my slightly older colleagues about today’s college students, they will often complain about the lack of engagement and energy by young Americans. Rather than protest and idealistically seek some kind of alternative understanding of reality, they play gameboys or get lost in facebook and IM. Yet something happened in this election campaign — the generation of 2008 handed the 1968s a lesson in political efficacy that can’t go unnoticed.
In 1968 the active, protesting youth gathered in Grant Park in Chicago to challenge Mayor Daley’s police and the Democratic convention, which had just nominated Minnesotan Hubert Humphrey for the Presidency. The result was violence, injury and disorder, all of which combined with a year of protest and anger to create the impression that the country was on the verge of anarchy. Young people were making themselves heard, and they had a political impact: the scared silent majority rushed to support Richard Nixon, and the Republican party appeared a safe alternative to this crazy new politics of radicalism and protest embraced by young activists. Even after the 68ers settled down and became “establishment,” they held their own activism in a kind of romantic myth: they were the generation that rose up and made a statement. Today’s youth are more interested in their future bank statements.
Yet the generation of 08 has accomplished something that the 68ers couldn’t. They determined the winner of an American election, and put the country on a new path. Rather than protesting in the streets, they were out volunteering and organizing. Rather than scaring the middle class with radical attacks on the status quo, they inspired the middle class by working within the system to improve it. This includes McCain supporters as well as Obama volunteers, though the latter were far more numerous. Statistics show a sharp increase in voter turnout, and without the youth vote the election would have gone the other way. Young people made a difference.
It’s common place for every generation to complain about the “youth.” They are always considered lazier than the generation before, less engaged, and more prone to weird fads or strange music. In the case of the current “millenial” cohort, the claim is that they are less self-motivated, more needy of instructions, and focused too much on internet style information — fast, bullet pointed, and less time and patience for context. While there may be some truth to those criticisms, let’s put them in context.
The generation of the 68ers may have been willing to protest and embrace a counter-cultural approach, but their cohort had numerous failings as well. Drug use and addiction grew, people disconnected from society, and the counter culture often developed without thoughtful reflection on the culture they were rebelling against. They emotionally connected with worthy causes — civil rights, opposition to the Vietnam war, and more individual freedom — but it was often reactive rather than thoughtful. Not by everyone, but many simply went with the crowd, it was fun and ‘the thing to do.’
The 08ers are from a generation that is used to the internet. Teaching at a university I’ve watched the subtle change in students from the early nineties to the present, as technology spread and the internet became ubiquitious. At the same time, it’s interesting to see how “common knowledge” has changed as well. It struck me in the election campaign that John McCain’s complaints about being compared to George Wallace, or arguments about Obama as ‘socialist’ were totally meaningless to most young people. William Ayres or Rev. Wright’s causes, which caused outrage amongst some of the 50+ crowd who remember those battles, were irrelevant side shows. Their world is not the cold war world of communism vs. capitalism, or the left as some kind of radical “marxist” alternative. Those things are no longer part of the culture, they are anachronisms that Obama knew to let go of, but the GOP did not.
All of this worries the older crowd, right and left alike. The youth don’t have the depth of knowledge of the past that they should, don’t think about the ideological debates as much, and lack a sense of world history. What they miss is that the youth replace what they lack with a new approach to thinking about politics and the world. Ideology tends to bore them. It’s dogmatic and their world is defined by multiplicity and overlapping perspectives. They also have learned the hard way not to trust the emotions of nationalism and militarism. Most were supportive of the Iraq war back in junior high, because that was simply the way everyone was. They watched as the war went sour and moved almost completely to the anti-war camp. They don’t trust dogmatic emotional politics, and they clearly see patriotism as being about engagement rather than simply supporting the state.
While this new mentality overwhelmingly supported Obama, young Republicans are also coming of age, recognizing that their party is in need of change. Most were not impressed with Palin, and are skeptical of social conservatives. They are worried about the size of government and tend to see the world as more dangerous than young Democrats. They also share the dislike of ideology, and many seemed uninspired by McCain’s negative campaign, aimed at the older generation that still thinks socialists may be out to take over. They want a positive, innovative voice for the GOP that shares Obama’s pragmatism, but emphasizes smaller government and effective reaction to global threats.
I suspect young Republicans will get their 21st century GOP. The old crop of Republican leaders were deluded by the success of the past 25 years into thinking that the old formula for success could still work. But Democratic and Republican alike, the youth is showing the country that they are ready to act and be heard. They won’t be screaming in protests that much, or part of the “impeach Bush” or “Obama is a socialist” mutual hatred society that defines too much of the political spectrum. They’ll be out organizing, fighting for causes, and working together, Republicans and Democrats alike, on shared causes like human rights, global warming and Darfur. My generation has run up a massive debt, partied the economy away, and has left the country in a mess. This generation seems ready to make a difference.
The older generation always underestimates the youth. And no generation is perfect. But now, 40 years after the protests of 1968, massive numbers of youth again met in Grant park in Chicago, but now peacefully to celebrate how their hard work created an major and powerful shift in American politics, with the vote and energy of the youth the key to Obama’s victory. Symbolically they showed the 68ers that hard work is more effective than anger and screaming. Watching an engaged campus, talking to Obama supporters, College Republicans, and other students, some starting groups like a campus chapter of Amnesty International, I am more confident of this generation of students to be a positive force for change than at any time I can remember. That’s good — we need them!