Friday, February 1, 2008

Youth Action Can Make Political History...Again

The first day of February is a course-altering day in American History. It was on this date in 1960 that four men first walked into a Woolworth's store in Greensboro, NC. They purchased books and school supplies, and then sat down at the lunch counter. The men, freshmen at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, pretty much knew they wouldn't be getting a hamburger and fries that day. You see, they were black and this particular lunch counter was segregated-- whites only.

That very first sit-in didn't accomplish a whole lot. The store manager was all too happy to let the guys just sit there until closing time. But the students had this idea -- radical at the time -- that if they bought goods in one part of the store, there was no reason why they shouldn't be able to purchase services in another part of the store. And when a larger group of students returned the next day, well.... you know the rest of the story. The media moved in, civil rights groups spread the word to other campuses north and south of the Mason-Dixon line, and in two weeks students in 11 cities held sit-ins. By the summer of 1961, similar acts of civil disobedience had attracted over 70,000 people and resulted in more than 3,000 arrests. Sit-ins became an integral tactic that marked a change in the civil rights movement, demonstrating that nonviolent action -- and most importantly, that young activists -- could be effective weapons in the fight against segregation.

Young people changed the world that day back in 1960. And their youth movement continued to push the envelope well into the '70s, with a counter culture that stopped an unpopular war and reshaped restrictive values and old social norms. Hmm, I'm getting a sense of deja vu, here. Why? Because I believe young people are set to make another kind of history this election season. Perhaps it won't feel as world-altering as the achievements of the hippy generation, but I think it has the potential to have long-term consequences. This is going to be the election where young people not only find their voice, but assert their power at the ballot box as well. And in so doing, young voters will chose the nominees for both parties and -- if they trouble themselves to vote in November at the same rates they have in the primaries -- could well be the determining factor on the final outcome this fall.

Just look at the numbers:

  • Iowa: Turnout up 315% to 65,230 votes

  • New Hampshire: Turnout up 274% to 84,232

  • South Carolina: Turnout up 145% to 118,565

  • Florida: Turnout up 355% to 285,970
To keep mixing my generational metaphors by quoting a '60s tune, "there's something happening here." Except, I think what's happening here is exactly clear. The youth vote, as it's being called, will make or break the candidates on Super Duper Nuclear Tuesday. And the nominees that these new voters coronate will usher in a new era in American politics in a variety of directions: Clinton is the first woman, Obama the first African American, McCain would be the oldest to win the nomination, Romney would be the first Mormon. It seems fitting, actually, that a generation that has grown up with diversity as the norm would usher in this era of firsts. This is also a generation sick of their elders telling them what's best, and tired of political business as usual. Frankly, they don't think we've done such a great job on their behalf. It's about time these young voters stepped up to the plate, and I can't wait to see where it takes all of us. The Rock the Vote pledge says it all:
"I pledge to vote. I've had enough of politicians making decisions about our lives without our input -- this year, we're picking the president."

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