In November of 2000, I cast my first-ever presidential ballot for Ralph Nader. I felt exhilarated and proud, partly for performing what I felt was my civic duty, and partly for my show of defiance, eschewing the two-party system and choosing the candidate who I felt best represented my values and beliefs.
Twelve years later, I have the good fortune of being part of a national research effort on the political lives of American youth funded by the MacArthur Foundation, for which I talk to young people about the various paths that lead them, or don’t lead them, toward civic engagement. As part of that work, I have interviewed 30 young libertarians to date, or members of the Liberty Movement, as it is called, between the ages of 15 and 23.
At the outset of my research on young libertarians, I expected to find a great deal of enthusiasm for Libertarian Party nominee, Gary Johnson, and for Ron Paul, who, with his staunch anti-war stance and free market approach, injected the Republican primaries with a hefty dose of libertarianism.
I also expected to find motivations similar to mine for engaging in third party politics; though I knew Nader had no chance of winning, I was happy enough to ride a wave of optimism that felt like it would last forever (coincidentally, I thought my fire engine red hair and nose ring would stand the test of time, too), secure in the belief that my vote had, in a small way, helped to broaden political discourse.
While I found some Johnson and Paul supporters, I also interviewed a surprisingly large number of non-voters (about half the interviewees identified as categorical non-voters), most of whom were quite knowledgeable, even passionate, about American politics, but who had made a conscious choice to avoid the polls. Sometimes this decision was based on an effort to make a statement about the current state of electoral politics, while other times it had more to do with a general lack of options.
Youth voting campaigns often focus on encouraging youth political power through knowledge and voter registration. Campaigns like Rock the Vote are hinged on the premise that if youth simply become more aware, then civic action will ensue. But what happens when smart, informed, articulate young people give up on the electoral process completely?
“It's just not something that is worth it right now for me to engage in,” one young woman said of voting. She continued, “But the reason that I don't vote isn't in any way because I don't care about the direction of our country.”
Another young libertarian I spoke to said, “I am a non-voter more or less.” He explained, “I would vote for someone that I really thought had a good shot and that was doing something very meaningful, but I just don’t see any of the frontrunners as that.”
“I would love a world where the politicians are more or less irrelevant,” another interviewee said, in an even stronger indictment of politics. “I want to see people get politically uninvolved. I want the politicians to know they are not important. We don’t like them. We don’t want them around. Go away.”
It seems that sense of optimism I felt about third party politics as a young person has largely been lost on … well, young people interested in third party politics. The young libertarians with whom I spoke were very well informed about political issues and candidates, but instead of counting on politicians to give them voice, they chose instead to focus their civic efforts in areas like education, charity, and community service.
And it’s not just young libertarians who are increasingly choosing to abstain from voting. A recent Gallup poll showed that only 58 percent of registered voters aged 18 to 29 said they would “definitely vote” in the fall. That’s 20 percent below the national average and just as far below young voters’ recorded intentions in both 2004 and 2008.
Of course, voter turnout among young people has consistently been lower than other groups for decades, but this new low in enthusiasm is especially marked given that the intention deficit would have to shrink considerably before the election to return to 2004 and 2008 levels (which it likely won’t).
While listening to this week’s presidential debate from the gridlock of the 110 freeway, I got a sense of why young people might be feeling particularly disengaged this election cycle.
As President Obama and Governor Romney sparred over Libya and traded jabs about 5 trillion dollar tax plans, it became difficult to keep track of each candidate’s distinct stance on the issues. Detailed accusations were rebuffed with flat out rejections. Who was telling the truth? And how were their positions different?
Amidst all the interrupting and tactical pivoting, I also thought about the dozens of young libertarians I had interviewed. Though I’m a registered Democrat now, given my past voting habits, it is not difficult for me to see the appeal of third party politics. But the non-voting stance has been troubling me.
I encourage anyone invested in the future of this country’s democratic process to take this trend seriously, though I don’t believe it is cause to sound the alarm bells and wring our hands about the misguidedness of the Millennials.
Instead, why not take young people’s disillusionment as a sign that many are, indeed, awake and paying attention (though, given the current state of affairs, they might rather be sleeping— perchance to dream?). It’s time we — academics, policy-makers, educators, cultural producers — understand some young people’s radical belief that voting won’t change a darn thing and ask ourselves what we’re going to do about it. And there’s the rub.