LOCAL SPIN: Geezers Logic
Battling youth-voter apathy and elder-voter ego.
Thursday, November 8, 2012
I was fetching my eldest from Monterey Peninsula College the other day – don’t ask why an 18-year-old doesn’t have a license, as that’s another column altogether – and he told me his friend/study partner/classmate could desperately use a ride home to his apartment in Pacific Grove. “Wouldja, couldja?” my son asked. With his friend standing there, a mix of chagrin and hope on his face, it’s not like I could have said no even if I was inclined to.
I didn’t know much about his friend, other than the bits and pieces my kid had told me. He was born and raised in Utah and enlisted in the Army almost straight out of high school, where his six-year stint in an infantry unit included two tours in Iraq. He’s attending MPC on the G.I. Bill and living life pretty close to the bone.
At my house, when we’re not talking about local politics, we’re talking about state or national politics, and so I struck up a conversation based on that obsession.
“Did you vote yet or are you waiting until tomorrow?” I asked.
“No, I haven’t voted and I’m not going to,” he said. And I almost jammed on the brakes so hard that had he not been seat-belted in, he might have banged his head off the windshield.
“But why?” I asked him. “Why wouldn’t you vote?” He had devoted his late teens and early 20s to defending the country – he spent two years fighting on foreign soil and could easily have lost his life in the process. Why wouldn’t he want to have a say in what goes on?
In short, he said he doesn’t have the time or the inclination to sufficiently educate himself on the issues and make intelligent choices at the polls. He goes to school, plays video games, believes in God and he’s working on finding a job for next summer. He lives on very little, he says – as little as $1,000 a month – and lives here because Monterey just called to him. And he just doesn’t think his vote would matter.
I was a little sad when I dropped him off.
On Sunday, comedian/pundit Baratunde Thurston, formerly digital director for The Onion, had sent out a call for submissions for his new venture, a website called Cultivated Wit; he was working on a campaign to shame non-voters with a series of videos telling non-voters their excuses suck. Oscar-winning director Michael Moore, meanwhile, put his cell-phone number on Facebook and spent election day asking followers to text him the numbers of friends who didn’t plan to vote; he was going to call as many of them as he could (and then change his phone number). I didn’t want to shame this young man into voting, and I didn’t want anyone badgering him either. But I wanted to talk about it, and so I turned to a group of wise guys (double entendre intended) known as The Cherry Bean Geezer Organization, a group of, ahem, older gents that meets every weekday morning at the Bean for coffee and conversation. They range in age from 72 to 95 – almost all of them are military veterans – and there is one honorary female member too.
They have an official sign they place on the bar: The last line reads “Recognized informal consultants on most affairs of state.” But when I told them I wanted to talk politics and voter apathy through the lens of one young veteran, they kind of recoiled. “Don’t write about politics, write about something nice,” one urged. “That’s supposed to say ‘Affairs of steak,’ not state,” another said. I steered them in the direction of the young non-voter, and it was something they mostly couldn’t understand.
“I was excited to vote because my parents brought me up that way,” one said. Another opined that kids aren’t trained in anything but expectations – they expect everything because they get everything. He retreated from that position when we talked about the guy’s background, with a “but still… ”
And then the guy who ran away to join the Army got to the crux of the matter. Young voters feel helpless, helplessness breeds despair and despair breeds apathy.
“His M.O. is that his vote doesn’t count anyway and you can almost understand it. They feel helpless,” he said. “They go to school and they can’t get a job, for a lot of reasons.”
According to Forbes, quoting a Harvard Institute of Politics’ survey, only 48 percent of 18 – to 29-year-olds planned to vote. There are 46 million who fit into that age category; I think about the power they could wield and all of the change that would happen if only they did.
This election cycle, it was too late for me to work the gentle art of persuasion on my son’s friend. But there’s time before the next election; and if you know anybody like him, skip the shaming and skip the badgering. Let them know why their vote matters.
MARY DUAN is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at email@example.com or follower her at twitter.com/maryrduan