We don’t believe in politics.
That’s the biggest challenge facing American teenagers today–not war, poverty, debt, abortion or civil rights. It’s the fact that we don’t believe that the current political system can solve any of those problems. Most teenagers in America care deeply about the future of our country, but all the passion in the world will not help us unless we learn either to work within or to change the current power structure.
We are in many ways like every generation before us. We want jobs, security, a better world for our children someday, stability, justice and freedom. Our concerns mirror the concerns of the general population. However, unlike the older public, halfheartedly involved in democracy, we don’t realize the purpose in any involvement at all–and this may destroy everything we wish for.
We don’t trust our government. Citizens three times our age could agree that our current leaders hardly inspire faith, but they have long memories and have seen government work. Teenagers today can remember maybe a decade of politics, older youth maybe fifteen years, and most of what we remember are lies, scandals and war. At least Nixon was going to be impeached; we have seen little or no accountability, and few can blame us for our lack of faith.
We don’t believe in the power of the ballot. Many of us still plan on voting, but we don’t think it’ll matter. I live in a red state. When I vote, it will be for the symbolic power of the action, not because I truly believe my voice will change anything. Other young people have simply given up on voting all together.
We aren’t that partisan. There are powerful exceptions, and many students are passionately and absolutely supportive of a party. However, most of us either don’t know what side we’d like to support or else have moderate and mixed perspectives. As the nation becomes politically more and more divided, and Republicans and Democrats more belligerently sectarian, teens grow less inclined to join fully a party they only partially support.
We don’t count on protests to create justice. During the civil rights movement, vast protests represented the conscience of America and sparked change–or so history classes tell us. What great protests have today’s teens seen? When hundreds of thousands march to protest war, America invades Iraq anyway. Massive marches for gay rights aim to create a change in social prejudices, and rejoice when the wording of an archaic law is changed. When we are told of vast, effective protests of the ’60s, and then view the limited success of political demonstrations today, our disillusionment is hardly incomprehensible.
We don’t expect journalists to solve anything. Despite popular opinion, studies show we do consume the media. It’s just that nothing we see inspires us with confidence. Older generations saw Watergate; we saw mass media supporting the Administration’s claim that Iraq had WMDs. We don’t believe that a free press will create a just democracy, which might help explain why a third of us think the First Amendment goes too far.
We don’t trust our current government, but we don’t believe that our vote can change it. We don’t full-heartedly support either political party, and so we are further alienated from today’s factional political atmosphere. We don’t believe that protests or the media can create change. In short, today’s teens have given up on traditional ways to participate in politics.
What do we believe in? We believe in technology, that newer, cleaner machines will help save the environment. We believe in education, and that investing in college will help us find better-paying jobs–which we’ll need because we sure don’t place our trust in Social Security. We believe that, as we are less racist and sexist than our parents, so too our children will be less biased than we are. We believe the world will continue to get worse but that our lives will continue to get better. We believe, in an abstract way, in justice, peace and freedom, but we mostly fail to see our connection to those ideals. Teenagers today aren’t “apathetic”–most of us just don’t see the point of politics.
Every other issue facing our generation pales before this one, simply because so much depends on it. As a generation, we’ve given up on the ability of politics to create change. Our great challenge will be to either engage with the current political system, or to help transform it into one that we trust. Either way, something has to change; if teenagers can’t figure out how to participate meaningfully in politics, we will have lost our voice, our impact and our power.