Watching Joe Biden win major victories on Super Tuesday felt like a punch in the gut.
It wasn’t as traumatic as watching Donald Trump win the 2016 election or Brett Kavanaugh get a spot on the Supreme Court. This heartbreak was more of a thud than a primal scream, but the reaction that followed was the same: I resisted the temptation to go numb to it all, instead finding the energy to continue fighting, even when fighting feels like running in a pool after eating a burrito.
As a millennial yet again warding off the lure of this depression we call “burnout,” I urge you to do the same. I encourage you to channel your angry energy into action while honestly admitting that this sh*t hurts like hell. Millennials and Gen-Z have been screwed by the generations who held power before us. It’s totally absurd that there is even a conversation about whether or not young people “care” about politics enough to turnout and vote: We’re not apathetic, we’re alienated. And yet, we must come together to create a system in which each and every person stands on the equal political footing that we have been denied.
Political alienation is an ageless phenomenon. This is a country where we shoot off fireworks for our democracy birthday, and yet conventional wisdom holds that our individual votes are insignificant. The wealth and power of this nation is not held by the public at large, and that impotence is only further compounded by youth.
Coverage of youth turnout should not be about whether young people “care” about politics. It should be about how we empower ourselves to climb out of this state of submission. Beyond being boxed out of the political process, the reality that millennials face is beyond grim: we’re working multiple jobs in a gig economy to rent homes we don’t own, while struggling to afford healthcare and pay back the price tag on an education that never delivered the promise of success upon which it was sold.
This is the state of the American dream awaiting Gen-Z, after they go through a school system in which there is regular threat of assasination by mass murder machines. Indeed, as a teenager, to believe you will survive at all — high school, graduation, the esteemed meritocratic privilege of having a career while being able to pay to go to the doctor — is itself a matter of optimism, considering the earth is about to become uninhabitable in about two decades.
Young Americans have been so beaten into alienation, it seems like a fantasy to even bother dreaming of political agency. Yet this dumpster fire state of being is precisely the reason we need to act.
Despite the gloom of our reigning moment, I am convinced that the sane majority of our cohort can be organized to defeat Donald Trump in November, and, ideally, to build a culture of democracy that sustains itself well beyond that. (Just a quick sidenote: Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders explicitly support this rise in equitable public power. Meanwhile, Biden seems to be running on little more than his tenure as Barack Obama’s vice president and a miraculous ability to navigate death with grace, which I’m not sure qualifies him to be anything other than America’s most famous grief counselor.)
That said, the most important part of a political awakening is understanding that democracy must be a constant practice, no matter what is happening on the Jumbotron of national politics. It is one thing to “know” that America is an oligarchy organized by the white supremacist patriarchy, and it is another thing to do something about it.
Ever since I experienced a political awakening after Trump’s win, I have been working to find the most effective way to convince young people to insist on our right and duty to the political conversation. It recently occurred to me that the best way to help my fellow citizens internalize political agency is to ask how they fit democracy into their schedule.
I saw this with clarity earlier this year, when the Instagram influencer Caroline Calloway invited me to dinner to apologize for calling me a “willfully white feminist” in an interview with Buzzfeed. She said she was sorry the second she opened the door.
“I was talking out of my ass, I don’t know anything about you,” she said, before we sat on the floor and ate roasted vegetables. “By the way, what do you do?”
I told her about my book, “How to Start a Revolution,” in which I research the post-Trump youth political awakening, ultimately making the case for hope and hard work in building a sustainable discipline of democracy. Calloway was nodding.
“I totally had a political awakening,” she said, covering her mouth as she finished chewing.
I asked how her behavior had changed, and she said she was making donations and speaking up in her Instagram captions. I asked what action she was taking on a monthly basis, and that’s what made it click. Understanding political activism in terms of a time commitment got Calloway to think differently. A few days later she texted me with some exciting news: she had signed up to volunteer for Bernie Sanders.
Think of it this way: At the individual level, the democratic crisis is an issue of prioritizing our time. Yeah, we’re all booked and busy, but the most privileged among us still find time to work out, right? Developing a habit of democracy is like exercising. You decide the activities that work for you and when they’ll best fit into your schedule. You decide to take care of yourself and make updates as needed, always committed to flexing the muscle (and you also remember to keep drinking water.)
In regard to the ongoing punditry speculating wildly about youth voter turnout, let’s make one thing clear: No matter how old you are, the absolute bare minimum anyone can do is to register to vote.
Get informed, vote, and commit to a habit of democracy. That might include attending town halls, contacting elected officials, showing up to a protest, or organizing your own. You could volunteer for a campaign or run for office yourself. I don’t care what you do, but do something. Pick a number of hours every month and commit to it. Not only in the lead-up to the general election, but well beyond it. On Tuesday, November 3rd, we can send a resounding “f**k you” to Donald Trump at the polls — and no matter what happens next, we’ll keep going.
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