THE BLOG
10/16/2014 06:15 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2014

Millennial Helplessness: Why Are Young Voters Abandoning Their Political Destiny?

James Cullum

What does one vote do to change the outcome of a broken system? This is not my government. These are not my leaders.

This is the internal narrative dominating the thoughts of most millennials, regarding our bought and sold politicians that represent primarily corporate interests. Midterms are less than three weeks away. Three out of four 18-29 year-olds are expected to stay home, rather than vote. These numbers alone could flip the Senate to Republican control.

Learned Helplessness

In the 1960s, Dr. Martin Seligman, Director of the Positive Psychology Center at U Penn, experimented to discover animal responses toward adversity. The psychologist electrocuted restrained dogs to observe how the shocks would impact the animals' willpower. He found the same dogs, when placed in a different environment - no longer tied down and tortured - did not attempt to escape the administered electrocutions, even though they now could.

He coined this behavior learned helplessness. It stems from the attitude that
effort does not equal outcome, the belief one has no control over aspects of their life, a victimization both real and imagined. This fixed mindset, characteristic of miserablists, is venom to personal and environmental growth - if the next revolution is behavioral evolution, as some say.

The millennials (along with everyone else) have been shocked by the decade or so of events following 9/11 that make up our working memory about what it means to be a citizen in the US. We witnessed rogue bankers go untried after crashing the economy, international carbon declarations stay unsigned, whistleblowers become enemies of the state, and drones get dropped on multiple Middle Eastern countries, all under the reign of the same Nobel Peace Prize-winning President we quit our jobs to campaign for.

Many feel there are no candidates worth voting for. Studies also show, the majority of Americans have no idea how the many moving parts in our government actually work.

Watching the news makes us feel helpless. Paying off debt from for-profit universities, while working for $10/hour, spending $3.55 per gallon of gas, makes us feel helpless. And politics are supposed to be the vehicle to amend all this.

It's not just the government we Millennials exhaustedly write off. A poll by Harvard shows we harbor historically low distrust in every national, mixed-bag institution erected in theory to serve the people. The mass media, the NSA, the Military Industrial Complex, Wall Street - your power seems indomitable from the young people on the outside, your intentions opaque.

This all feels insane.

Generation Nice

We've been called empathic and existential. We've been deemed the most conscious generation in history. We gruel over determining a life purpose and direction in an America no longer equipped with a map to adulthood. We sacrifice salary to adhere to an ethical code. Our stance on social issues is largely liberal, though our opinions paradoxically, and perhaps ignorantly, contradict themselves.

Yet, it seems most millennials can't face that America has the government the American people elected.

Yes, there are excuses: gerrymandering, the interception of the electoral college. The way we're forced to cast a ballot seems archaic given advances in technology. Why can't we vote on a smart phone? The excuses make sense.

Despite appearances and the negative voice in your head attempting to discern what's going on and where you fit in, young voters make a difference. If it weren't for the under-30 vote in 2012, Romney would have won the Presidency by 2 million votes. Instead, he lost by 4 million. [1]

Would our lives be better or worse under someone else's reign? The answer depends on who you ask. They would, however, be different. (My friends who now have affordable health care like that they can go to the ER again.)

Nice is good, but sometimes, it is not enough when the vehement show up to the polls - not the meek. The President isn't the only who person makes the calls. He is subject to the views of Congress.

We have the Senate, House, Governors, Mayors, and local legislators that the people have elected.

Most of these politicians are up for re-election November 4.

The Stakes

"I vote for the same reason I turn off the lights when I leave a room," said parker east, age 29, who likes to keep his name in lowercase. "Let's just put it this way, if you're in a car, and you don't like where it's heading, you don't take your hands off the wheel."


The radicals can preach "smash the system." The liberal reformists can push for change from within the existing structure. The conservatives can work to protect their capital, while the right wing extremists work to infiltrate our government to keep from being governed while they poison and impoverish the masses. The a-political who like to live in the land of warm and fuzzy (keyword: fuzzy) can pretend the waste and instability of our infrastructures are not reaching crisis levels to keep down their cortisol levels.

However, this is the system we have. This is the suffering it causes. And it allows you to take a stance. Unless we take the time to seize the crumbs of political control the members of this diverse nation are allotted, we will surrender our ability to decide who makes decisions on our behalf. And the young voters who do are most likely going to be Republican. And majority of the people who do vote are going to pushing age 50 and up.

Is this what you want?

Politics aren't popular. Not many people are going to "like" your political posts on Facebook. This perhaps is reason enough for a generation that gets off from virtual validation to avoid engaging in the conflicts of interest and controversy that come with living out loud in a representative democracy.

But you should vote, because politics are entirely personal. You should vote because it takes far less time for freedoms to get stripped from your life than it takes for them to be fought for and gained. You should vote because it is an extension of your rights and your free will.

There is a lot in this world imposed upon us that we can't change. Perhaps, accepting this in stride is the biggest lesson of growing up. We may be shocked. However, when it comes to our ability to vote - we are not restrained.

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Photo credit: James Cullum

Source: [1] Taylor, The Next America, pg. 2