For more than a decade, our Harvard Institute of Politics study group of undergraduate students has been meeting regularly to survey and discuss their generation's involvement in American politics. While some semesters the data were more encouraging than others, the overarching narrative of the last ten years has been that of a new, potentially great generation, beginning to take hold -- a generation that seemed intent on making an impact first as community volunteers and then in the voting booth -- culminating with the election of Barack Obama in 2008.
And then something happened. The economy crashed. Jobs were lost. Oil spilled. Troops were re-deployed. Partisanship exploded.
And now, in our latest Harvard IOP survey released today in Washington, DC with student chair Eric Lu (Harvard '12) and Lillian Nottingham (Harvard '13), more than 70 percent of young voters tell us they are not sure that they will vote in the upcoming midterm elections. In fact, as the election has drawn nearer, our tracking numbers over the last year indicate that Millennials aged 18 to 29 are less -- not more -- likely to vote; less than one-in-five tell us that they are politically engaged.
Suddenly, the generation that in 2008 proudly made the difference as caucus-goers in snowy Iowa for Senator Barack Obama, tell us less than three years later that they are so discouraged with politics that they may sit this one out.
A generation marked earlier this decade by their community spirit and optimism, seems on the brink of a despair similar to that of their parents, grandparents and millions of disaffected older voters.
With just a few weeks to go before Election Day, it is not too late to turn this listlessness into action. It is not too late for the best of America's leaders -- whether they represent the left, the center or the right; rock and roll, hip hop or country -- to step up, challenge and empower young people to vote on November 2nd.
It is not too late for young people, the great Millennial generation, to use the technology and tools that they invented to spread the word and encourage their friends and family members to spend five minutes to vote for their representative in Congress, or future leaders of the their state.
From the earliest days of his presidency, Barack Obama challenged Americans to hold both him and other elected officials accountable. Accountability is the difference between polls and elections. In elections, citizens can hold their representatives accountable. Let's hope that Millennials take President Obama's advice, vote on November 2nd -- and exercise the awesome power that comes with political engagement and being part of the largest generation in American history.
It's not too late.
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