The turn of phrase comes as regularly as election cycles, but was this last election really the most important in our lifetime? Youth voter turnout, while high, was not record-setting in 2012; and although much has been made of older Americans lamenting the low civic engagement and voting patterns of Millennials, it turns out that today’s youth are voting at the same rate the Baby Boomers did when they were our age. Clichéd expression and middling benchmarks aside, here are three key observations from the recent election that reflect the transformation of the rising generation’s role in politics and change-making.
1. Politics is a pathway; not an end in and of itself.
Pundits forewarned of a so-called “enthusiasm gap” in advance of Election Day, citing that President Obama was not receiving the level of dedication and enthusiasm among his supporters that he saw during his first presidential campaign. However, he handily achieved reelection with 60% of the youth vote this year. While Obama’s first election spoke to more of a movement mentality, engaging cause-driven activists to put their hopes in a specific person, his reelection race was a distinctly political campaign. Much less quixotic in nature, it acknowledged the increasing recognition of this generation that creating the world you want doesn’t culminate in electing a single individual. To create a sustaining vision for the future, Millennials were reminded that our work is still just beginning and includes how we engage daily as active citizens in our workplaces, among friends and families, and in our communities.
2. This generation is growing smarter, better organized, more effective. Online and offline.
In a speech thanking his young staffers, the President asserted, “It’s not that you guys actually remind me of myself -- it's the fact that you are so much better than I was. In so many ways. You're smarter, you're better organized, and you're more effective. I’m absolutely confident that all of you are going to do just amazing things in your lives." This election saw micro-targeting at its finest, narwhals and ORCAsconducting battle, and a secret weapon of conversations reach across an entire state to defeat a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The burgeoning wave of technological tools to reach the most specifically targeted demographics, meshed with old-school storytelling to discover our neighbor’s values, exemplifies a Millennial narrative that leverages sophisticated tools of connectivity to build and advance meaningful community relationships. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and are charged to use well what we’ve been given to lift our democracy and each other up.
3. The (starting and) lasting impression of political engagement: Campaigns as capacity-building.
Sean Kershaw, Executive Director of the Citizens League, posted the day before the election, “To Minnesotans United For All Families: We will look back in 10 and 15 years and see the next generation of political leaders who began their work here, or excelled in their work here. Their success in organizing so many thousands of Minnesotans, and in assembling such a phenomenal group of leaders from all ideologies, is inspiring and amazing.”
I know a high school freshman who made countless phone calls volunteering for the Vote No effort. I know a young campaign veteran who served as Get-Out-the-Vote Director for the East Metro during the final three weeks of the campaign. While worlds apart in organizing and political experience, each was deeply impacted by the opportunity to engage on an issue they found core to their beliefs and to contribute using (and honing) their organizing, people, strategy, and leadership skills. Regardless of which side of the aisle or issue, opportunities to engage in respectful conversations and to vote their consciences earlier this month have strengthened the capacity of young Minnesotans to tackle big challenges and make momentous decisions alongside each other.
In my analysis, this last election was critical not just because of changing demographics or historic results, but for the same reason why every citizen movement is important – because of the growth and development of the individual people who, through the process of making powerful change in their communities, are challenged to cultivate ever greater capacity to dramatically improve the future of our world. This is the legacy of the 2012 elections, and astonishingly, it’s only the foundation for elections to come. The most important election of our lifetime? It certainly was for some of us. And that will continue to make a big difference for all of us.