"I think I'm going to sit this election out," a 20-something friend-of-a-friend sighed to me during President Obama's dreary first debate performance, in a tone strongly suggesting he expected a high-five in reply.
"Sorry?" I asked.
"There's no difference between Obama and Romney."
"No difference to who?"
"No difference to me," he said, clearly agitated I would even ask.
Making excuses about needing another drink, I scooted down to what I hoped would be the less solipsistic end of the bar, and avoided this specter of disengagement as best I could for the rest of the night. But what his comment represented -- the likelihood that the millennials who had voted with such fervor in 2008 would not do so in 2012 -- haunted me for the rest of the night.
For as much as I wish the incident was an isolated one, I've found a disturbing number of my peers draping themselves in similar myopia. As the Los Angeles Times' Mark Z. Barabak reported earlier this week, many young voters "...regard the presidential race as a less-than-inspiring choice between two thoroughly conventional candidates." And given that 66 percent of voters under thirty broke for President Obama in 2008, and only 52 percent report being poised to do so now, Democrats will suffer from this waning enthusiasm far more than Republicans.
Complaining that Obama has 'disappointed them,' these young voters seem to see their votes (or abstinence) in terms of self-expression, like they would their blogs or Twitter feeds, meant mainly to telegraph to the world who they are. In this age of unmitigated self-expression, it seems that its standard-bearer generation -- equipped armies of iPhones and information -- has forgotten that our votes are meant to carry with them actual utility.
And they seem to think this disillusionment means they've grown up. After four years of ugliness in Washington, they no longer believe Obama can "heal this nation" or "repair this world," as easily as they did when those were lines in an underdog concession speech in New Hampshire that would go on to become lyrics in an acoustic fight song.
But in the week before the election, I would beg my disengaged peers to consider this: Your blasé is both immature and unkind. In withholding your support for lack of a perfect choice, you are admitting that life is still a classroom full of theory to you, where choices between bad options haven't yet had to be made, and the consequence to keeping quiet is a class participation grade. You don't want to hold your nose and vote for someone? Well, sorry, princess, but in life, you often must. Un-alluring choices (waitressing or bartending? paying off debt or saving for retirement?) are par for the course for most people, and you aren't making much of a case for your disenchantment by predicating it on so prissy a platform.
But moreover, you are announcing loud and proud that the outcome of the election is immaterial to you -- you are independent, and luxuriating in it. You feel no responsibility for the veterans with PTSD, single mothers of four living paycheck-to-paycheck, uninsured cancer patients and job seekers unable to find work for whom one of these very different men -- President Obama or Governor Romney -- is going to define the parameters of their possibilities. But you? You don't need to care. Fate has been kind enough to you (thus far) to avoid casting the choice in this election in such existential terms.
And despite this thumbing of the nose to the struggling around you, you seem proud of your lack of passion or participation, like your disengagement isn't petty or offensive in the face of suffering. Your cadence as you pick apart flaws in both candidates, boldly attempting to expose their "phoniness" like little modern-day Holden Caulfields, carries with it more than a whiff of moral superiority, as though you think appearing picky has bestowed upon you the thoughtfulness of actual discernment.
On election night four years ago, I stood on the streets of a college town amidst a usually apathetic student body that suddenly was cheering, crying, and grateful, because they felt history had been made and that progress was in the making. If you who were on that proverbial street four years ago now feel chastised by democracy's price -- the hard reality of the art of the possible -- into a less euphoric support, I hope you wear this humbling as a badge of maturity rather than use it as an excuse to disengage.
For the people who needed help four years ago are a little better off today than they were then, from the soldiers who are now home from Iraq to the Chrysler workers whose jobs are not being shipped to China to the gay men and women who finally have a president who recognizes their right to marry the person they love. You believed history was being made four years ago because it was -- because your children and their children will have evidentiary support of a colorblindness that you never did. But moreover, you believed progress was in the making because of the policies you heard Obama propose, and you should see ample evidence around you that he has made good on that ambition, and that progress, should you so choose to help it, will continue for another term.
Ultimately, I hope you are more swayed by progress than by history -- that the drama and glitter of Obama's first election is not more important to you than the ways he has made this country more equitable in his first term, and the progress he can still make in a second. For if the former matters to you more than the latter, perhaps the president's detractors the first go around were right -- we truly are swayed more by style than by substance, and Obama is just the fancy of a college kid, of no interest to those with even the slightest bit of exposure to the real world. And to let that narrative be so, or to have it be about the narrative at all? That is, self-admittedly, a real luxury.