11/17/2011 01:07 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2012

Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport

"They're counting our votes!"

At 2:00 a.m. on election night in 2008, my brother was ecstatic that our absentee ballots, sent to North Carolina weeks before, might have an impact. Neither of us had felt engaged by the political debate or believed that our voices mattered in the 2004 polls. I was studying in Spain, able only to mail in my ballot, and we were both dismayed at a process that seemed to be delivering a president based on incumbency rather than policy.

In 2008, though, my generation felt charged with excitement and, yes, hope. Nationally, we voted at the highest rate since 1972: 51.1%, with just over two-thirds of us supporting President Obama, compared to a 54-45 split for Senator Kerry in 2004. North Carolina went blue for the first time in 32 years by only 0.3%, or some 14,177 ballots - a win attributed to enthusiastic support among African Americans and young voters.

Accustomed to instant gratification, we wanted to believe that change would come quickly. But our democracy was crafted for incremental steps, and we quickly became disaffected due to what many perceived as the government's frustratingly unsure progress toward "real" change. Indeed, only 20.9% of voters aged 18 to 29 nationwide voted in 2010. While midterm elections consistently draw lower numbers than presidential years - youth turnout in 2006 was only 23.5% to 2004's 47% - the precipitous drop from 2008 to 2010 indicated that President Obama's wave of engagement has quickly receded.

While the changes so far have been less dramatic than many hoped, we should not take the lesson that activism is futile. Sitting on the sidelines is not a political statement; if anything, it only proves to both parties that the youth vote does not matter. And if 2010 is any indicator, youth turnout can shape elections. Decisions are made by those who show up.

Although the Occupy Movement is disproportionately driven by youth, it is a statement more of frustration with and alienation from the political process than a force for political change. The activists show an admirable willingness to commit their time and effort, but - unlike the Tea Party, their conservative counterparts - the action has largely lacked direction or impact. The Occupy Movement may ultimately motivate participation, or it may become an unchanneled flood of discontent that accomplishes little other than deepening the chasms among us.

Resigning ourselves to such divisions and washing our hands of politics will not help pass the DREAM Act or motivate responsible decision-making about our financial future. Criticizing from the safety of liberal enclaves, so often emotionally and geographically separate from those who disagree with us, will not bridge the gap between what we believe the administration should do and what it has accomplished so far.

Indeed, many of the administration's wins have gone unheralded in liberal circles. Rather than celebrating the achievements, we complain that they have not achieved enough. Although the health reform bill does not dramatically reshape the system, the president succeeded where several others of both parties had failed, establishing new norms of fairness in the insurance market and expanding coverage for many previously un- or under-insured. Marriage equality progresses slowly, but members of the armed forces now serve openly regardless of sexual orientation. For the first time, the Supreme Court has three female justices, including its first Latina; more diverse voices now decide our most crucial questions.

Dissent is democratic. Liberals are not obliged to support everything that a Democratic administration does. But while we must let our government know how we believe it can better serve the country, we must not let discontent engender political apathy. Particularly when the grassroots right is becoming increasingly organized and politically savvy, inaction on the left means abdicating our role as democratic citizens.

We cannot wait until the Republican primary has produced a standard-bearer before we donate, volunteer, or reach out to our communities. It will take time to convince our country that the government, while not perfect, can help solve many problems we can't fix for ourselves. Instead of waiting to act until there is no other option, we should start now.

If calling voters or knocking on their doors is too intimidating, we can start by changing the tone of political discourse with our families and friends. Cynicism remains the status quo only if we permit it. We should point people to the structural impediments to change, like the filibuster or lopsided campaign finance rules, and propose solutions. When we hear complaints about the Obama administration, we should talk about how its policies have changed the lives of people we know. Through the Affordable Care Act, young people who are trying to get ahead in a fragile economy, like my brother, may now get health insurance from their parents' jobs; starting next August, American women with insurance will have free access to more cost- and life-saving preventive care.

In 2008, we were captivated by the idea that there could be something better than what we had seen for most of our political lives. 2012 presents another opportunity to turn those hopes into a reality. We should hold onto our dreams but not let them dominate our expectations; we should let our knowledge of the existing political landscape inform our strategies rather than short-circuit them. Disappointment does not justify sitting on the sidelines: as has often been said, democracy is not a spectator sport.

Written by Sarah Steege, Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and Juris Doctor candidate at the University of Michigan Law School. HKS Democrats leadership reviews and approves all op-eds that appear in this space.