As predictable as night following day, the mainstream media's messaging about young voters this year has been was the 2008 election a fluke? Was America's youth simply excited about candidate Barack Obama's dynamism and charisma and not the policy platforms on which he sought office? As irritating as it is to lend this question legitimacy by answering it, as the president of the United States Student Association (USSA), the nation's oldest, largest, and most inclusive student organization, I feel it's time to respond.
To begin, we cannot discount the amazing work being done by students nationwide. The Oregon Student Association has registered just shy of 40,000 new voters this year, which is basically an entire university's worth of people. North Carolina Central University students rallied last week with Governor Bev Perdue and Congressman David Price in an effort to educate students about the election and to encourage them to vote. There is amazing electoral organizing happening on campuses everyday in this country, too often going unnoticed by the media.
Still, there is noticeably less enthusiasm in young people for today's candidates than there was two years ago. While those running for office could draw oceans of inspired young people to civic events and rallies in 2008, this time around it seems only pop celebrities and comedians can do the trick.
Why? Because politicians aren't effectively communicating with students. Thus far, they have talked about all the recent legislative victories making college more affordable and accessible: student aid reform, financial aid funding in the stimulus package, FAFSA simplification, Income-Based Repayment, and so on. While these victories are important, the way in which they are justified is critical when communicating with students. Candidates need to address why laws impacting students are being passed, not just will they help us. For instance, it isn't only will student aid reform make college more affordable, we know it will; candidates must also discuss why student aid reform passed in the first place. Why invest so much money and political capital into increasing college graduation rates? If it's so that the United States can compete with China in the global economy, you can count us out. Higher education is more than an economic tool to boost our standing in the G8. Students deserve an affordable college experience because a higher education allows people to pursue the American Dream, not just because it makes the country financially competitive. So focusing exclusively on the economic benefits of a higher education when discussing student legislative victories is not only down-playing the value of a college education, it's losing the interest and investment of young people in electoral politics.
At a time when every political issue is being traced back to how it will financially help the United States, candidates' arguments for investing in students is like a manufacturer wanting to produce more goods than the business down the street. The more students on the college conveyor belt, the more skilled workers will grow the economy in an increasingly competitive global market. In 2008, candidate Obama mobilized the youth vote successfully because he made us feel like we had intrinsic worth; young people were worth listening to and sending to college because it was the right thing to do, not because it was economically beneficial. So today, when incumbents and office-seekers remind us that college is necessary because we're being beaten by the Chinese and Germans, it's no wonder that young people aren't compelled to then run to the polls en masse.
Despite the media's instance to the contrary, young people are not apathetic when it comes to electoral organizing. Electoral politics is a two-way street; in order to get young people out to vote, candidates must honestly and authentically engage young people and address student issues. Stopping at 'will' a policy help young people is not good enough; candidates must tell us 'why,' then perhaps we'll be inspired. After all, when there's a 'will' and 'why,' there's a vote.