Over the past few days, Americans of many different backgrounds and persuasions have come together with family and friends for Thanksgiving. This is an uncertain, stressful time for so many, yet, as always, there is much to be thankful for — including the right to participate in the public life of our nation. I am especially grateful for this because of the values that my father instilled in me many years ago.
My father, who came to the United States from Russia in the early 1920s, was astonished by the possibility of materially affecting the governance of the country through the power of the ballot box. He exhorted me never to miss a chance to vote, and his advice has stayed with me to this day.
Unfortunately, in our recent midterm election, voter turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds dropped from an already low 23.5 percent in the 2006 midterm election to around 20 percent. More broadly, a Pew Research Center poll shortly after the election revealed that less than half of adults of all ages surveyed knew that the Republican Party had won control of the House of Representatives. Students I have talked with about this mention the acrimonious nature of the campaigns, apathy and cynicism about the political process. Whatever the reasons for lack of interest, I call on all of you to reverse this trend and to become active in local, state and national politics.
So many of the issues of our time — including health care, jobs programs, economic regulation and de-regulation, immigration (including the DREAM act), civil rights (e.g. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”), government support of education and the cost of public and private higher education — will clearly and substantially affect you. So why not be involved and help sway the debate?
Student activism has long been a potent force for change, in our local communities, in our states, in the United States and around the world. From the American anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s to Tiananmen Square, student voices have been critical to public discourse, and student votes have moved mountains in the U.S. The tradition of student activism has been well represented at Cornell over the years and decades. Whatever your personal political perspectives, you can make a big difference by your efforts, your engagement and your votes. I am proud that two members of the Ithaca Common Council, Svante Myrick ’09 and Eddie Rooker ’09, were elected while they were Cornell undergraduates. Additionally, I am encouraged by the activities of the Student Assembly and the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly. We need that kind of commitment throughout the political process.
To be clear, I am not calling for more liberal policies, nor am I reacting against the increasingly conservative mood of the electorate. I am calling for all parts of the political spectrum to be represented in the public debate — and for young voices to be heard clearly, repeatedly and compellingly.
So here are my suggestions for your direct involvement in the ongoing political conversations:
First, become more knowledgeable about the local, state and national issues that will affect you now and in the future. Campus lectures are a good source of information. Within the last month the Ithaca campus hosted William Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and Hank Paulson, one of the principal architects of the federal government’s economic recovery effort.
The Cornell Daily Sun is also a terrific source of some of this information, and you all know many other sources of news and opinion — print and online — by which you can stay abreast of political matters. Please use a variety of sources, including sources whose viewpoint you may not share, to inform your opinion on critical issues. Otherwise you are likely, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has noted, to lull yourselves “into a self-confident stupor through which [you] will perceive in blacks and whites a world that typically unfolds in grays.”
Cass Sunstein, in his book republic.com, makes a similar point: “People should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance,” he writes. “Such encounters often involve topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find quite irritating. They are important partly to ensure against fragmentation and extremism, which are predictable outcomes of any situation in which like-minded people speak only with themselves.”
Second, become involved in organizations on the Cornell campus that contribute constructively to public discourse on the myriad relevant political issues of our time. We have 39 student organizations that could be considered political or activist. In the Cornell tradition, if you don’t see an organization that fits your activism, create one!
Third, become involved in community issues in Tompkins County. Whether the issue is the effect of local economic conditions on the lives of our neighbors regarding food security, transportation and housing; exploration for natural gas; sustainability, or any other issue, we are graced by a surrounding community of activists. Please join in!
Fourth, be in contact with your local, state and national elected representatives. Know that communication from constituents is — or should be — incredibly important to them, and that the opinions of young people are particularly important, given the long period you have ahead of you in the political process.
Finally, and very importantly, vote. Register and utilize this precious right. If my dad were here, he’d back me up on the importance of exercising this right to affect the future of our country. Take it from us both: voting is a right and also a responsibility for all of us.
As I enjoyed Thanksgiving with family this year, I remembered that my father taught me to get involved, and for that, I am endlessly thankful.
David J. Skorton is president of Cornell University. He may be reached at email@example.com. From David appears monthly this semester.