“Well, we had to be out there at 2 a.m.,” he told me, blurry-eyed, fumbling around on the table for piece of cold Publix chicken. “We went to bed around midnight, got up at 1:45, and were out there, planting signs at 2.”
It was around 7:30 p.m. last Tuesday night and one of the volunteers for a local campaign was sorting through the dinner the coordinators had provided. 22-year olds run on adrenaline, warm soda, cold chicken, and a heavy dose of ornery-ness.
Peter and his girlfriend, Gabby, had been planting signs, walking with literature and collaring skeptical voters — or people they hoped were voters — for three months. Nearly every spare hour had been spent running in and out of a grimy little office, grabbing a few friends, a walkbook, and a map to knock doors.
They’d just seen the results of their particular effort, but were unfazed by the beating their operation had just taken at the polls. Now they had joined a group of tired, sweaty workers around a central table where many of them had taken their cheap fast-food dinners.
“Yeah, we got hammered,” said one. “But look at what’s happening in Virginia,” said another, pointing to the emerging Democratic statewide victory, lighting up her phone. Another, clearly a Republican, shot back “Well, that’s a Democratic state anyways” — and the conversation devolved into a heated but affable autopsy of delegate races 2,000 miles away. Computers came out, maps were scrutinized, vote totals were scanned.
There is an apparent, maybe scary, lack of apathy among today’s “youth” about politics. And I blame Trump.
The 18-25 cohort has been a reliable source of near-total indifference for decades when it came to this sort of thing. Yet The Donald is a visceral force in politics like few seen before.
He is loved and hated, but few view him without some reaction. He’s made politics into a participation game, and evidently anyone can play.
His effect on all citizens has been polarizing, true, but also electric — either a fiery comet streaking across the night sky, or a flaming nitwit setting things alight quicker than any sensible person can put them out. Lethargy is not the zeitgeist that comes to mind.
The recent Florida elections were “off-off" year — the only elections were local. Really local.
The kids who turned out in 2017 were concentrating on city elections for the most part, usually not the sort of thing to excite the bloodlust of any politico, much less millennials, still less the 18-22-year-old crowd.
This age group is typically one of the least engaged.
They do not vote (or not much, about 30 percent of those eligible voted in the 2016 presidential election). They rarely pay much attention. And they are the most unlikely to give up a Saturday padding around strange neighborhoods, knocking on strangers' doors, flacking a candidate or a cause.
“I met a really mean lady today,” one told me during the campaign. “She looked at my flyer through the window and started screaming at me and banging on the window from inside the house.” “It was a lot of fun,” said another “except for the dogs,” adding, after a moment’s thought, “and the broken steps! I dang near broke my ankle!”
What drives them?
It's not purely an interest in politics, although without an interest, they would not last long. Some earn academic credit. It’s also the causes, the candidates who keep them coming back long after their hours are met.
There’s a genuine connection between the workers and the candidates, and at this level, there’s little to insulate them from one another — and each other.
There’s an almost summer-camp feeling to all of this. The chatter level is insane around the dinner table. Stories fly back and forth, ideologies clash, futures are discussed. The issues may not be surprising, but it’s the heat and the passion: climate change, ecology, taxes, potential wars. Startlingly astute discussions of foreign policy, but also zoning laws, the future of citrus, hurricane relief.
At the internship fair, way back in September, the candidates and causes and initiatives came ‘round, set up tables of political literature and tried to entice the students onto their bandwagons. Everyone had an equal shot at recruiting. One campaign refused to drop by: “I don’t need any inexperienced children running around underfoot” he said. Hmmm.
They are here, all the same. Interested, invested in their country — in politics and government and the future they all share. They are unlikely to go away.
As the morning after dawned, I had a call from a local pol, who had obviously been up all night, working a race that was headed for a run-off. “Hey, we got 30 days to make this work” he babbled, “you got any more of those kids?”
R. Bruce Anderson (email@example.com) is the Dr. Sarah D. and L. Kirk McKay Jr. Endowed Chair in American History, Government, and Civics at Florida Southern College in Lakeland.