The Follies of Youth

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last election, I was 16 and feeling woefully left out. My older friends were lighting-up the Internet with pro-Obama postings, attending rallies and bragging about the “history” they were making. I was enthusiastic for neither John McCain nor Barack Obama, but felt that casting a ballot would lend credence to my rants on tax policy. To cope with my teenage ineligibility, I wrote a naive Op-Ed for Connecticut’s Hartford Courant on lowering the voting age, complete with a Tea Party-esque denunciation of “taxation without representation.” (As a bizarre aside, perennial presidential candidate Ralph Nader picked-up the article as a part of his website platform. It was probably the first and last time Nader and I shared a cause.)

This time around, I’d like to retract those adolescent musings. 18 years on this planet is a perfectly fair requirement to vote.  Yes, it’s somewhat arbitrary, but it corresponds with something our society needs more of: “adulthood.” Not just legal adults. Our generation, as it matures, must voice itself beyond the echo-chamber of Twitter and insist upon true fiscal, legal, and moral responsibility. The tones of the past two Obama campaigns, unfortunately, have not exactly brought about our coming-of-age.In 2008, America was awash in the “potential of youth.” The energy may have been exhilarating, but the conversations were embarrassingly impractical. We were pawns in a feel-good movement. Candidate Obama promised to “slow the rise of the oceans,” without explaining how he would balance the tax, regulatory, and sovereignty concerns that global warming legislation entails. He insisted that America’s popularity on the world stage would improve, without explaining–other than sitting down with Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and Cuba without precondition–how such a democratic peace might emerge.

Now, in 2012, our hopes for political perfection are mostly dashed. We’re left with a crass pandering to secular twenty-somethings. Every politician must ignite his base and appeal to more favorable demographics (i.e. The Youth Vote).  But do we really need a president with the distinction of being the first Commander in Chief to use Reddit? Obama knows that giving young Jay-Z concert-goers a shout-out helps at the polls, but will those votes garnered from hip urbanites in this manner reflect the knowledge needed for a participatory democracy to thrive?

Our generation is passé when it comes to gravitas and tradition. Maybe its because old cultural institutions ought not be respected anymore, but more likely it is because we are too young to appreciate the institutions we are betraying. And if we are smart and articulate and ready for the world–as no doubt many, if not most young adults are–why are we allowing condescension?

Some may find Obama’s comments to Rolling Stone about Romney being a “bullshitter” amusing, yet it degrades the office of the executive. Romney, who doesn’t swear, drink, smoke, or even wake up to coffee, is obviously on the other end of the spectrum. Aware of his own stodginess, Romney avoids the youth altogether, unless it means giving commencement speeches at known-evangelical schools like Liberty University. Then again, maybe its self-centered to think candidates ought to woo us at all.

Recently, Obama has taken to sighing, “I’m not a perfect man,” but it’s not so much an apology as an odd innuendo that the president can be a leader while also a lover. My views on social issues are likely out of step with most in our age cohort. But this is for everyone: Do we really need 60-second campaign clips in which an HBO star compares our President to a sexual partner?  Is that what motivates us? That commercial in which 26-year-old actress Lena Dunham says “Your first time shouldn’t be with just anybody” is downright statist.  Dunham falls into the creepy totalitarian trope that says the State is the masculine omnibody we’re married to, or, in this case, the male leader we’re meeting for an  “amazing” and “first time” one-night-stand on November 6th.  What’s more, birth control has been legal for 52 years. It’s not going anywhere. Messages to the contrary are no more than cynical schemes David Axelrod issues from Chicago. The War on Women is first and foremost a marketing campaign.

The government-as-friend mantra has been around since FDR’s fireside chats, or Churchill’s stirring wartime addresses to Englanders. Today, though, we have an overextended government that will pay for our contraception as well as our Big Bird. We’re infantilized, except when we’re sexualized. In this identity-pull of Sesame Street-viewer and ObamaCare-recipient, we’ve failed to cultivate our identities as active, reflective citizens. Reasons our generation cites for voting Blue usually include our “right” to stay on our parents insurance plan or maintaining the “right” to  federal student loans. Suddenly, a “right” is something we expect Uncle Sam to give to us, rather than the older notion of a right as something–like speech and freedom from unreasonable search–that government dare not  take away.

Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, once observed that the students he encountered in his 1980’s UChicago classroom no longer looked-up to heros. They were skeptical or, worse, disinterested in larger-than-life personalities.  I’m not sure how Bloom would deal with a figure like Barack Obama.  Who was it on all those 2008 bumper-stickers, posters and “Obama-Girl” clips, if not a hero? At one time, Obama had real heroic potential, yet he was young and untested and he made the mistake of hyping those qualities as good things. If we’ve learned anything over the past four years, it’s that youth is whimsy and idealism–but not political wisdom.

Come comment in-person at The Daily Gazette Columnists’ pre-election debate. Monday 8pm SCI 101. Also featuring Will Lawrence ’13 and Sam Sussman ’13.


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