Another Opinion, Editorial

The Youth Vote: Making Politics Palatable for the Next Generation

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I spent the evening and the morning trying to parse out the most effective way to launch a new generation of voters into the political fray. Obvious to most of us, so much in politics isn’t working. In fact, it feels particularly grim at the moment, although I am cognizant of the fact that each generation tends to feel this way about their particular challenges. Presently I’ve concluded (with the caveat that this opinion will change shape most definitely as I do) that when the narrative focuses on the politician and not the policy, the politician has failed; the system has failed. When the conversation and allegiance are to a larger-than-life personality rather than to the health of a nation, we are no longer swimming in the waters of democratic discourse, but rather being sucked into the vortex of fandom and discipleship.

I know a thing or two about cults, and whenever the commentary turns to the person/personality, intensity eclipses reason, and passion turns practical disagreements into personal affronts. This cult of personality style of politics has forced us into a precarious car chase on a gravel road, skidding around the corners and choking on dust, and will most certainly culminate in a disastrous pile-up with a multitude of unnecessary casualties. The only purpose it serves is to deliver a continuous dose of stimulation, and the more invigorating the experience, and the more adrenaline that is pumping, the more difficult it is to see the bigger picture. Adrenaline is a tricky thing. It can make one feel invincible, but, in reality, it narrows the field of vision; a blurring of the periphery is not conducive to effective and informed choices.

I had a heated discussion with my son about voting for the lesser of evils, the fury one feels, or even repulsion. It isn’t fair to have to swallow bile every time we step into the booth, but it seems like that’s where we’ve been for decades, and there appears to be no end in sight.

Sometime between 2016 and 2020, I started reading a book called “The Age of American Unreason” by Susan Jacoby, a book that analyzes (direct quote from the inside jacket) “an anti-rationalist landscape extending from pop culture to a pseudo-intellectual universe of ‘junk thought.’ Disdain for logic and evidence defines a pervasive malaise fostered by the mass media, triumphalist religious fundamentalism, mediocre public education, a dearth of fair-minded public intellectuals on the right and the left, and, above all, a lazy and credulous public.”

I didn’t get very far into the book seeing as how, at that point in my life, I rarely took the time to sit down with a book, but, as a lover of language and the power of words, I was instantly engrossed. In the first chapter, Jacoby dives right into the colloquialism of folks, whose over-use I had noticed myself in the effort made by most politicians to talk like regular people, in other words, to not seem too elite, or too smart because normal people would feel alienated by intellect (highly insulting in my opinion). This wasn’t always the case with those seeking political positions. There was a time when “proper grammar and respectful forms of address were mandatory for anyone seeking high office” (“The Age of American Unreason,” page 4). I don’t want to wander too far into the weeds here as this isn’t an assignment response to a book, but in order to clarify the origins of my query: “The specific political use of folks as an exclusionary and inclusionary signal, designed to make the speaker sound like one of the boys or girls, is symptomatic of a debasement of public speech inseparable from a more general erosion of American cultural standards. Casual, colloquial language also conveys an implicit denial of the seriousness of whatever issue is being debated” (“The Age of American Unreason,” page 4). Has the dumbing down of political speech allowed us to accept dumb politicians? I have since been unable to hear the word folks without cringing.

Somewhere along the way, (I am not a historian, so I won’t pretend to know when), politicians and/or political advisors decided that the key to winning an election was for the electorate to connect with a candidate on the basis of their perception that said candidate as one of them (a perfect example is how the ex-president managed to convince so many voters of his solidarity and sameness in spite of his gilded empire). The age of social media and the requirement of anyone with any aspirations of any kind whatsoever to establish a brand and a social footprint has magnified that concept to an untenable magnitude, and now, likability (or despicability as the case may be) seems to be the only thing that matters. It’s no wonder new and seasoned voters alike are drenched in the stench of it all, and disillusionment is all but a given.

For years, I’ve heard plenty of people dismiss career politicians out of hand, but the black-and-white, either-or, hard-lines mentality isn’t serving us at all. Doesn’t it matter what kind of politician and what caliber of career? I listen to the comments and critiques, and they are so narrowly focused on the person and the personality and rarely on the qualifications of the candidate or their history of political votes. Isn’t experience and wisdom a valuable asset on the face of it, the thing of value being the record of lawmaking? Has our obsession with age, newness, and fresh faces landed us in a place where there are plenty of new, fresh politicians who are insane and don’t know [what] they are doing?

No one politician will always vote the way we want, and no one politician will always mirror every single individual. In an individualistic society, this ruffles our feathers. We want to imagine them speaking directly to us, seeing only us, and having ourselves reflected back to us in the people we choose to make our laws, but maybe that’s a mistake because how many of us actually know how to make laws?   

Personally, I’d like my politicians to be smarter than me because I don’t have a clue how to run the country. However, increasingly, corralling the Congress appears to be more akin to managing a preschool, which is actually an insult to preschoolers. I fight a recurring urge to go down there and manage them, which of course is silly because I would not know [what] I was doing either. I enthusiastically support youth in politics, and young politicians are essential to bringing balance to Congress. But let’s not completely write off the high-quality experienced politicians who can show them the ropes. And on the flip side, let’s not deny our youth their years of seemingly extreme and idealistic passions—without those perspectives, our society would wither.

The more I untangle this mess, the less I know. I hate looking my son in the eyes and saying, “I have no answers.” I hate that he has to witness the same disillusionment in me that he himself is feeling. It’s not fair. I am supposed to be able to guide my children, to help them feel sane in a persistently insane environment. But I am at a loss. I know that most of us feel like our options are bad and worse and that a so-called protest vote could feel like vindication, and I don’t know what to do about that. What I do know is that, when we vote, we need to ask ourselves: are we thinking only about our individual ability to make a statement, or are we considering how our vote is going to affect the whole? Are we thinking about how satisfying it will be for us to check a particular box, or about the impact of our vote on minorities, women, immigrants, and our most vulnerable and valuable demographic of all, our children who cannot vote, who need to rely on us to speak for them and in their best interests, a category in which we have been falling woefully short for decades?

Why are we, the electorate, always the ones swallowing the bitter pill, choking back the bile? How can we turn the tables so lawmakers can feel the sting of their incompetence instead of us?

Our kids deserve better.

Angie Kehler lives in Greensboro.

Angie Kehler

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