The 2008 presidential election saw an astonishing turnout of young voters, all apparently voting for causes they believe in. Gone are the elections given to an apathetic country of voters who turn up as much to cast a vote against the opposing party as for their own candidate. Statistics clearly show that young voters were a major force in President Obama’s victory, although they were certainly not unopposed, as youth voting for both parties was up this election. For once, the ideal of the youth of America representing its future didn’t seem like such a fantastical notion, or an impossible and therefore depressing notion, if you’re a cynic.
Certainly this energetic youth vote was not always the state of our union. The two primary American political parties have long been seen as steadily polarizing clubs, entrenching themselves deeper into the bastions of their prevailing rhetoric and feeding on the contrariness and exclusivity that competing clubs foster. Liberals are not mere liberals, but young punks, all bleeding-heart, save-the-trees, crazed activist, elitist, baby killing, self-cannibalizing socialists. Conservatives are not mere conservatives, but old fogies, all blood-for-oil, homophobic, greedy, selfish, ignorant, self-aggrandizing fascists. Actual politics matter little: you choose your party and you vote according to your party line. Everything is black and white. Members of your opposing party are not mere opponents or even rivals; they are the enemy, to be feared, hated, and ridiculed. They do not simply differ in opinion, they are wrong. This kind of die-hard partisanship is what makes the not-so-die-hard citizen despise politics. It is what leads to voter apathy.
But the cynical critic of American politics has a lot to answer for of late. Youth saw huge numbers this year. Given this, the cynic would assume that this trend would have led to record numbers of hardcore Democrat and Republican legionnaires with one-sided rhetoric for shields and solid blue or red party-line ballots as their swords.
It didn’t happen.
And not for lack of trying, either. Early on in the campaign, hardcore liberal money was on John Edwards, the young upstart type with some of the most leftist views among the Democratic frontrunners. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama chose comparatively centrist platforms. Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney stood for varying degrees of rightwing Conservatism with Mike Huckabee representing a more grassroots, blue collar Republican. Recall that McCain had earned his Maverick stripes long before the 2008 election, and originally was seen as having a fairly centrist platform.
Fully polarized parties, by their own divisive logic, could easily have voted for an Edwards versus Giuliani election. So what happened?
Barack Obama gradually slid deeper into centrist territory, catering to either side of the political spectrum at the risk of alienating hard-line liberal Democrats, while John McCain leaned precipitously to the right in order to rally the base. Both tactics have seen success in the past, exemplified in the former by Bill Clinton’s 1996 “middle-of-the-road” campaign tactics – not to mention rallying youth votes with a few select saxophone exhibitions – and the latter by George W. Bush’s mainstream conservative appeal for four more years in 2004.
The war dragged on, the environment continued to decline, and the economy tanked. In fact, the economy didn’t just tank, it fell to levels not seen since the Great Depression of the ’30s.
It was clear to voters that politics as usual wasn’t going to be good enough in 2008.
In the aftermath of the election, statistics show that even perennially red regions like Orange County defied traditional voting records. The Orange County Register reports that OC voters 25 and younger “effectively are tripartisan,” with 46 percent registered Republicans, 33 percent Democrats, and a staggering 18 percent decline-to-state. Nearly every ZIP Code saw a huge turnout of this important third group. If 18 percent of young voters decline to state their party affiliation in this, the renowned Orange Curtain, this hot bed of traditional conservatism, it stands to reason that one might suspect that these were lapsed Republicans or children of Republican families who defied convention, statistics, and their upbringing to vote Obama.
It’s no wonder that the GOP is crying out for “rebranding.” The Bush legacy and associated party identity apparently does not sit well with young Republicans. Possibly entering a voting climate of unpopular war on multiple fronts and a tanking economy has Republicans Bushed.
With many active voters from both parties exhausted by their extremist brethren and now inhabiting a broad expanse from moderate right to left, the future of both parties may be decided by the degree to which President Obama succeeds in America’s endeavors and delivers upon his promises.
And Americans from both sides would do well to root for our new President: his success could serve to greatly benefit both parties, not to mention the country as a whole. A successful Obama administration could revitalize a long dormant and divided Democratic Party, but it could also serve as the catalyst the Republican Party needs to redefine itself, to turn away from the party of George W. Bush and its negative stereotypes and out-of-date philosophies, all to better match the needs and views of the young voter. If Obama does not succeed and the doubters prevail, both parties will revert to polarizing behavior, and all will suffer for it. But an effective Obama will prove to his voters that they made the right choice, and show his opposition and competition that they had better step up and be worthy political opponents.
Now more than ever it is clear that young voters have not only the power to govern the future, but the will. Perhaps a little hope and change were just what America needed.