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The end of youth voter apathy.

November 5, 2008

Tonight, I was lucky enough to witness something big. Something historic.

I’m not talking about the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, although that was certainly big and historic. What I’m talking about is something else. Something I didn’t think I would ever see: riots in the streets all over my giant college campus, celebrating the election of Barack Obama and the fact that they helped to elect him. People (albeit, very drunk people) were running through campus, cheering in the streets, yelling every Obama campaign slogan you could think of. Everything from “Yes we can” to “No More Bush” to “Yes we did.” They sang the Star-Spangled Banner at least four times. They carried a sea of American flags of all sizes. Hundreds, hundreds of college kids — the kids society typically brushes off as self-involved slackers who don’t give a damn about the world — were cheering in the streets for over two hours, full of pride that THEY made a change for their country. Never once have I seen so many people my age care about politics; I’m usually the lone nerd watching election returns and reminding everyone to vote year after year.

At one point, I heard one African-American guy (with arms full of bottles of champagne) tell his friends: “Our boy Obama won, and I voted! My vote mattered!”

At another point, a bunch of students lifted up an African-American kid with a handicap, who has been in a wheelchair for sixteen years. The entire crowd went silent as the kid slowly started to speak. For 16 years, he told us, he had been in physical therapy, pushing himself to learn about the world around him, waiting for this moment (crowd erupted in cheers at this point). This moment, he said, was “proof that anyone can come from nothing…and become somebody.” Imagine a handicapped, wheelchair-bound college student being held up in the air (wheelchair and all) by 10 of his fellow college students, and 300 other students silently listen while he tells onlookers that their votes mattered today, that the election of a longshot black candidate for President of the United States meant there was hope for every single one of them, that this was really America and they could really be anything they wanted to be. That anything is now possible. It was pretty powerful.

Ever since the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, young people always voted in abysmally low numbers. We’ve always been the apathetic demographic. No one takes college kids seriously. But seeing the way my entire campus erupted this evening, I realized something is different this year, and something will be different from now on. An era is over: that era in which young people didn’t care about politics. From now on, this generation is going to be more engaged and more civically active than any group of young people have been since the antiwar protests of the ’60s. Something has shifted in the American electorate as a result of this election; even the cynical college kids who thought politics didn’t matter suddenly have hope for the political system. This election is definitely the end of youth voter apathy as we know it.

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