Right around 1975, something very special happened: the Baby Boomer generation turned 18. They could finally vote, and the change in tone was immediate. The politics of the time shifted to meet a newer, more boisterous demographic, and the country began a new era.
In their first election, the Boomers capitalized on a decade of activism by electing Jimmy Carter president. As the shadow of Watergate lifted from the Oval Office, Carter used his political capital to pursue a pacifist foreign policy and a progressive domestic agenda. He created the Departments of Education and Energy, limited nuclear proliferation worldwide, and returned the Panama Canal Zone. Whether or not his presidency will ultimately survive the crucible of history is not the point: Carter represented the political might of a new generation
Now we are experiencing the “Echo Boom”: Generation Y, and their first attempt at political participation. The most generous interpretations of the Echo Boom set its members’ birthdays between 1977 and 2002. A more conservative take places the generation between 1982 and 1995. No matter how you look at it, one thing is clear: the Echo Boomers came of voting age in time to elect Barack Obama president.
There’s one difference between now and then, though. We may have elected Barack Obama, but he has yet to prove himself as representing the policies of a new generation, even if he does represent our politics. Soon enough, this country’s youth will begin to demand a new focus on issues that are just now rising to the top of our national agenda. They will be divisive, and they will present real problems to elected officials who choose to ignore them. And they’re not what you might expect:
What the Internet Means to Us
This past year’s heated debate over two Internet piracy-prevention bills, “SOPA” and “PIPA,” is a great indicator of a political battle of the future, and a pristine example of when the year of one’s birth becomes intensely politically relevant.
An average college freshman for the 2012/2013 school year–someone who will vote for president for the first time this year–may quite possibly share a birthday with yahoo.com. Google came around as he turned four, and Wikipedia joined the pack as he rounded the corner towards third grade. Myspace accompanied his middle school years, and Facebook and YouTube kept careful track of high school. The next generation of voters grew up with the Internet. For many, it was a ubiquitous presence, a reliable constant in our lives.
This also means, for the first time since the 19th century, a generation is used to a platform without limitations from the federal government. 200 years ago, it was westward expansion: a wild journey free from the shackles of propriety, law, social class, or taboo. Now, the Internet stands before my generation as the sacred symbol of a new era of freedom and interconnectivity.
That’s why SOPA and PIPA–two bills ostensibly to limit copyright violations and intellectual property theft–were so virulently opposed. Not only were they acts of government intrusion upon the “Wild West” of the 21st century, they were also ominous harbingers of a dark future, in which the government felt free to meddle in the affairs of a once-porous web of open communication. No matter which side of the aisle we stand on, young people of all political stripes know that government regulation is exponentially more difficult to scale back than it is to implement. We were trying to resist the first attempt at severe Internet regulation, and for now, it worked.
The issue won’t stop here, though. It’s true, there are serious problems on the Internet that deserve some kind of attention, whether or not it’s legislative. Copyright issues are a huge problem for businesses large and small in America. Child pornography is showing us a darker side of society that, until now, lived in obscurity. Black markets for drugs and weapons are another issue.
None of this should lead one to believe that the correct route–politically or otherwise–is increased regulation. In fact, politicians with that view will find themselves facing an ever-growing tide of opposition as more and more young voters head to the polls.
Rethinking the Drug War
The problems of our criminal justice system are well known, if not acted upon. We know that the sentencing for crack cocaine is 100 times harsher than it is for powder cocaine, just as we know that, while illegal drug use is split roughly evenly among different racial groups, African-Americans are 10 times as likely to be arrested and incarcerated for it. We know that America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, far above Russia, China, South Africa, or Cuba, even correcting for population size. We know that almost half of all arrests made are made for marijuana possession alone, without the intent to sell, and we know that one in every eight prisoners is in jail for marijuana alone.
We know all of this, and yet we’ve avoided talking about it as a country. Maybe it’s because the issue itself is such a polarizing nod to counterculture, an acknowledgment by federal and state governments that the Drug War may not be working.
But, as with other issues, it may take a fresh set of eyes to take on a problem that we’ve been ignoring for so long. Current college students didn’t grow up in the stringent propriety of the 50s, or on either side of the cultural chasm of the 60s. More importantly, our parents weren’t alive during the semi-scientific informational campaign that denounced “reefer madness,” which turned what was more or less an agricultural commodity into a threat to public health.
In fact, we’ve grown up in an age in which the popular culture surrounding marijuana has more and more often clearly fallen out of line with our legal policies towards it. So goes the popular picture of Barack Obama and Michael Phelps edited side by side, captioned, “Don’t smoke pot – you may grow up to be the world’s best Olympian or President of the United States.”
The point isn’t that marijuana culture itself is infiltrating our schools or communities at large, but rather that our society–especially our youth–are more amenable now than ever before to considering the plant what it is, a plant and not a crime.
Changing the Way We Think and Talk About War
To try and use this article as a platform to argue for change in our military is at once futile and so necessary. The argument itself is well-worn by now: our armed forces are the best at killing Nazis and keeping the Soviet Union at bay. In order to make them the best at fighting a new, ambiguous “enemy,” we have to start thinking about what a “counter-terrorism” military should really look like. Light enough on its feet to respond to threats world-wide, sensitive to regional cultural cues so as to not create new enemies where we go to seek old ones out, employing the most cutting edge techniques and strategies to root out the problem at its source, and not its manifestation. Anti-terrorism should be as much a poverty campaign as anything else.
This is an old and well-worn argument, and spending a paragraph on it here is futile. The reason it is necessary to mention is not that it has changed, but rather that a new generation is learning it. We grew up haunted by the memory of September 11th. It was the first global event in our lifetimes, and may very well be the most significant thing many of us ever witness. And if the goal of terrorism is terror, it worked: my generation was scared into believing that force must respond to force, no matter how ill-conceived or unfit for current challenges. We believed that nation-building was an answer for terrorism, and we believed that a generation still wounded with the scars of Vietnam would not soon lead us into folly.
We’ve begun to un-learn that, and more: that our current path is not only unsustainable, but dangerous. The politics of isolationism, for better or worse, are creeping into our political lexicon. The country that we slowly grew accustomed to in a post-9/11 world, stuck on lockdown and constantly looking over its shoulder, has led us only to an unpopular TSA and heinous violations of civil liberties. My generation cannot see a future governed by fear. Politicians aiming for our vote will face another choice: succumbing to the cold tactics of isolationism, or creating a new vision for American foreign policy that balances sensible leadership on the world stage with a continued vigilance against unnecessary, unwise, or immoral foreign affairs.
We will not be governed for much longer by the politics of the 20th century. These new issues, and so many others, are set to become planks in a larger, non-partisan platform held by many of tomorrow’s voters that so awkwardly stands in the no man’s land of party politics. The Tea Party and a new wave of libertarianism have forced the GOP to address issues formerly controlled by liberals, such as drug policy. Meanwhile, the surprisingly aggressive foreign policy agenda put forth by the Obama administration has truly created an atmosphere of shifting partisan ideologies and loyalties towards the military and civil liberties going forward. And still, it seems as if neither party has fully addressed the new political issues brought on by technological advance, among them questions of privacy rights, censorship, and intellectual property.
I mention all of this in closing because these new questions offer fertile ground for any public figure, no matter his or her party, to tap into a rising generation of voters. President Obama offered us a glimpse at the true power of young people in this country, but we have yet to venture towards a brave new world of political thought.