November 12, 2008

Generation O: Is it Over? Activism After the Election

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On Nov. 4, Barack Hussein Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States. A key contingent of Obama’s support base was the nation’s youth — most recently termed Generation O — who campaigned across the country for “The Change We Need.” Now that the American citizenry has voted in favor of Obama, the question remains as to what will happen to the student activism.
While Prof. Theodore Lowi, government, called the increase of student activism “impressive,” he sees it as a unique phenomenon.
“I think this activism among students was a product of a few things: the beauty and agony of the fight between Obama and Hillary in the primaries, the unusual opportunities of a black candidate, and the kind of charisma that he has,” Lowi said. “But generally, I was surprised by the turnout and I think the amount of involvement among young people is special to this campaign.”
Like Lowi, Ethan Felder ’09, president of Cornell Democrats, sees the charisma of Obama as a key element to the increase of student activism. Felder, as well as many other politically minded students, however, hope to build off this energy.“I think this election turned students on to politics much more that previous years. Since they were able to relate to Obama,” Felder said. “Students must continue to stay in touch with the news to know what is going on, understand what is at stake over next few years and the challenges still to be faced.”
From registering Cornell students on campus to hosting two trips to key swing-state Pennsylvania, Cornell Democrats kept busy campaigning this semester. Regardless of their recent victories, the Cornell Democrats still have more political activities scheduled to promote their progressive ideas.
“The election was a great victory, but the hardest effort of pushing controversial Democratic agenda is still here,” Felder said. “We are holding a rally next week in opposition of Proposition 8 in California,” Felder said. “We are also holding a couple lobbying trips to Albany and D.C. next semester.”
While Cornell Democrats will not take the election as a stopping point, the results of this election on student activism across the nation are yet to be determined. The 2008 election did instigate a greater amount of student activism. An increase in civic engagement among youth, however, has been a trend over the past few years.
Michael McGrath, editor of the National Civic Review, has found student activism to come in all forms, whether through political activism or community outreach. According to McGrath, this election is the beginning of a melding of the two forms of the youth’s civic engagement.
“Youth voting statistics have been pretty low since the first election when 18 year olds could vote in 1972,” McGrath said. “In 2004, however, we started to see a major increase in youth voting — more than this year — and that’s continued. For a number of years, youth have been very involved in their communities, volunteering with organizations that are not political, being civically engaged through the non-profit world or a direct hands-on way of directing people in their communities. But now I think we may see the beginning of a merging of these two different aspects of civic engagement.”
Obama’s campaign made student involvement a key concern, using the internet and technology to get the attention of the youth electorate. McGrath sees tapping into this resource as an objective not only for Obama’s campaign, but also for his presidency.
“I suspect that there will be a carryover effect of student activism into other levels of government but clearly the huge momentum at the presidents could translate into other forms of activism,” McGrath said. “The Obama campaign was really exciting for people and it offered such a clear way for people to get involved. The challenge now is how they figure out less partisan community organizing methods for youth that don’t necessarily involve campaign politics.”
The fate of student political activism may have a lot to do with the successes and failures of the Obama presidency that students — along with the majority of the American public — have put their faith behind.
“All American hopes are soaring off what Obama can do but a lot of it is out of Obama’s control, like the budget crisis and the current state of the economy,” Felder said. “I think in the end it’s up to him and his administration to be bold and go hard for change. In the end I believe he will deliver a great presidency.”
Although much rides on the Democrats’ success in office, the responsibility of maintaining this high level of student activism falls on the student organizations themselves. From the local Cornell Democrats chapter to the strategy of national organizations, a top priority on their agenda is to not let this political spirit go to waste.
“There really needs to be a significant effort by student organizations around the country to build on that civic engagement and enthusiasm,” said Nate Loewentheil, executive director of The Roosevelt Institution, the nation’s first student think tank.
With the great amounts of money used to fund the presidential campaigns and increase public involvement, Loewentheil fears that “unless there is a concerted effort by these organizations to build on this, it will all be a waste and people will go back to their non-political lives.
As head of a national student political organization, Loewentheil hopes to be able to harness this energy from the election to increase political awareness across the country. Whether students decide to do hands-on community service, engage in political discussion, or try to better society through creative policy, the central idea is that people continue to be socially conscious.
“The key is to make students understand that voting is a part of the life of a citizen, but not the life of a citizen and that there are other ways to get involved in public life,” Loewentheil said. “There are so many ways young people can get involved and stay involved and it’s just about building support for the youth movement to provide these opportunities so students know that they can play a greater role than casting a ballot every two years.”