Ten minutes walk from my front door is Manuel’s Tavern, once considered the epicenter of Atlanta politics. Hundreds of pictures hang inside it to create a mosaic of the city’s last sixty years. A poster for Jimmy Carter’s 1970 campaign for governor, a framed image of Bill Clinton shaking a customer’s hand with the quintessential touch of the elbow, a photograph of Shirley Franklin beaming brighter than the flower on her lapel – each can be seen from just one booth at the main bar. It is a place where the walls truly do talk through their imagery and as you look around, you sense that politics not only matter in this place but they also affect the lives of each patron.
It was fitting then that I found myself caught in a conversation centered on politics there at 1AM on a Tuesday. I was talking with a few guys I meet there almost every week and one was expressing his complete and utter distain with contemporary American politics.
And there is where we find the heart of the issue.
My friend is not the first person to become dejected about our political system. He won’t be the last. But what he represents is another intelligent mind in a long line of those who cared about the American political process, watched it unfold differently from what was imagined, and then chose to stop caring. The twist is that my friend and so many others who choose this path now fall into the group termed the “Millennials.”
By now you’ve heard the (cringe worthy) term that describes anyone born between roughly 1981 and 2000. There seems to be an abundance of social commentators trying to unlock the secrets of this generation. Why do they refuse to grow up? Do they really hate the suburbs? Should they bother with college? How should they be managed in the workplace? Are they too stressed out? Why do they hate bone-in chicken? All these pieces offer supposed insights that bounce around the abyss of the internet and echo about until their meanings are lost in the chasm.
Last week, the story du jour came from a Harvard study reporting that for the first time the majority of the younger generation of voters disapproves of Obama. Op-Eds across the web pontificated on the meaning of all this under headlines like “Why Millennials Fell Out of Love with President Obama” and “Why Millennials Love the Federal Government, but Loathe President Obama.” And eventually the seemingly next logical question for the commentators was asked: with so much dissatisfaction, which political party will woo this generation?
I think this misses the point. In part because it’s impossible to say what an entire group of people will do politically, but also because the survey reported another trend. Given the option today, the respondents would recall every member of Congress. Dissatisfaction with the left apparently translate to a pendulum swing to the right; no party is winning over young voters. To me, this helps illustrate that the only common political threads woven into the fabric of this generation are frustration and dissatisfaction.
At the risk of generalizing, I believe that this generation wants to care. Politics is the unfortunate process through which we build a better future and we care about that future. But we can’t keep accepting this system’s failure. We know history and we want change, change which doesn’t have to be a vague concept. There are real tangible issues a lot of people I speak with seem to agree on. Less money in politics, better drawn political districts, an end to endless bipartisanship – each of these things represent a middle ground so many people agree on regardless of where they fall on the spectrum.
Yet the more system presents itself as a downward spiral of bickering and disappointment, the more the entire political process puts a lot of young people between a rock of frustration and a hard place of apathy.
And right now what we have is time. We don’t have to assume that all those political pitfalls are unavoidable and we don’t have to slide into them immediately. The world hasn’t yet been completely set upon our shoulders. We still have time to soak up the lessons of the past, to recall what doesn’t work and pledge not to make the same mistakes. We can still find common ground. We can still stand up and say that neither party’s direction is acceptable and that we’re willing to determine a new path. Again, I’m sure we’re not that different; every generation has heard this clarion call. But this is our chance. Perhaps we can be the ones who heed it.
If we can learn something from the microcosm of Manuel’s it’s that politics doesn’t have to be our entire lives, but it does surround us. And if we just pay a little attention and involve ourselves in the process a little more, than we might find community in that. We might find that change. We might find something better.
So when the conversation comes up, speak up. Stay positive. Don’t let the notions of apathy or unconstructive frustration take hold of the discussion. The Harvard Study pointed out that many want to completely recall Congress. As cliché as it sounds, we can do just that. Remind people of this. Remind them that we still have some semblance of power through our votes and together our voices can be heard. The alternative where apathy and frustration rule the day is far too grime for me and I hope that we’re not willing to sit back and let them take hold.