In my head I idolize the 1960s. I picture a Velvet Underground tune playing quietly in the background of every moment. I imagine hopping into a light blue and mostly broken Volkswagen and driving aimlessly towards Woodstock with a caravan of friends trailing behind. I envision every item to smell vaguely of pot and patchouli, and every outfit to look like something Stevie Nicks would wear. But most of all, I idolize the way young people were engaged in politics.
Maybe this idolization of 1960s counterculture stems largely from the scene in Forrest Gump where a young Tom Hanks as Forrest reunites with Jenny, his true love, in the waters of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, becoming the center of a passionate Vietnam War protest. But in truth, the ‘60s and ‘70s were a challenging time for America. Emerging from the Civil Rights Era, the nation was divided, riled up, and people on both sides of the aisle were ready to fight for what they believed in. Since the Civil War, the U.S had never been so divided, and since the ‘60s, that same political energy has remained under-surface. That is, of course, until today.
Polarized politics is back with a vengeance. Since the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, Americans have been at each other’s throats, and we’re stuck in gridlock in about every issue in the book. After electing a president on the far right, Democrats have been fighting tooth and nail to win back seats in the house and the senate, and local elections and propositions have suddenly become more important than ever. Yesterday’s Midterm Election has been highly anticipated for the past two years, regarded by many as a competition for their party to win or to lose, rather than a fight for a better and more unified country.
The political parallels between the days of Forrest Gump’s young-adulthood and my own are plenty. The Vietnam War and the impeachment of President Richard Nixon ruffled people’s feathers in a similar way as the election of a celebrity businessman and all 86 of the Executive Orders he has since signed. Voter turnout for the Midterm Election is as high as it’s been since 1966. On Tuesday, more than 47 percent of the United States’ eligible population turned out to vote. In 1966, 49 percent of the eligible population voted. Between then and now, even the highest years of voter turnout for midterms have trailed over 6 percentage points behind.
But unlike the 60’s, young people are not the leaders of the movement. I’ll state the obvious: I’m a millennial, born during the heart of Clinton’s Presidency. Not even my parents lived through the 60’s. I can’t attest for what it was like living through the Vietnam War. Although I know it to be a contentious period, I’m also sure that every corner of America wasn’t as passionately involved in politics as those marching the streets of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley or living in the bungalows of Greenwich Village in New York. In 1972, about 30 percent of youth turned out to vote in the midterms, because they were the ones leading the Progressive Movement. In 2014, about 20 percent of the youth voted in the midterms.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, young minds were pushing politics forward, and their parents were trying to keep traditional mentalities in place. The dynamic is not quite the same today. A banner hanging in Hunsaker Plaza states that only 11 percent of University of Redlands students, ages of 18-21 voted in the 2014 Midterm Elections.
Yesterday, I followed a sign up to the university’s Student Involvement and Success center (SIS) urging people to share a snack and watch the election results. In what is sometimes a hub of student activity, I encountered a mostly empty room with three scattered students halfway watching CNN which was airing on a flat screen. An enormous table of donuts sat largely untouched, and a bundle of red, white and blue balloons drifted defeatedly in the corner.
When asking my peers outside of the university’s polling location why they voted today, someone responded, without skipping a beat, that he had done so out of obligation.
I have a friend who voted for President Trump as a joke, rooted in the belief that voting Democratic in California is completely meaningless. He bit his tongue when Trump won.
Time after time, I find myself in the same, dead-end conversations with apathetic classmates who refuse to vote because of “the electoral college.”
While at a party during the 2016 campaign season, I tried to explain to conservative friends and Trump supporters the potential consequences of voting in Trump’s favor. They politely told me they would ask me to leave their home if I continued to speak about politics while they were trying to enjoy themselves.
NAIL Communications created a video called “Dear Young People, Don’t Vote,” which ironically encouraged young people to show up the polls, as elderly populations have significantly outnumbered the youth vote in recent years.
The evidence of apathy goes on forever. But I don’t want to take credit away from the thousands of young people who have put their hearts and souls into elections, those who have dedicated their academics and their careers to politics and campaigns, and those who spent countless hours block walking and phone banking for the candidates of their choice – some who aren’t even old enough to vote themselves. And I especially don’t want to take due credit away from the students whose high school careers have been uprooted by school shootings and have since dedicated their lives to fighting for gun control. In no way do I want to belittle those efforts, and the boundless value they’ve contributed to today’s political arena. I just can’t picture any university student 50 years ago walking into an empty viewing party on Election Day, or to be told that their political banter was a fun-ruiner.
America was divisive in the 60s, and it’s divisive now. But in a different way. After the 2016 presidential election, the Associated Press (AP) published a multimedia series of reports, where they delved into how and why America has become so divided on issues ranging from gun rights, immigration policy, trade wars with China, and who can use the bathroom where. Their findings varied from issue to issue, and one conclusive explanation for the stark political division was nowhere to be found (although they did note that Americans everywhere yearned for unity.) But since the election of President Trump two long years ago, we can’t seem to agree on questions that to me seem to be the simplest to answer, like if it’s okay to separate and detain young children from their families when attempting to cross the border, or if we should elect (yet another) accused sex offender to a lifetime position on the Supreme Court bench. Countless folks have cut off communication with their families for their voting choices. Political rallies have been violent. Leaders of the Democratic party have been targeted with mail-bombs in an attempt to demolish the left-wing.
The debates of today are complicated and rooted on top of years of ideological tension. They expand beyond the controversy of sex and drugs, and civil rights, and an unfounded war. Maybe if the issues of the 60s were the issues at hand now, we would find the demographics of the politically engaged just as it was 50 years ago. But they’re not, and we owe the activists of the past a big thank you for laying some serious groundwork for today’s generation. Although we find ourselves currently divided, we’re moving towards peace, progress and unity. And until then, we have Forrest and Jenny to turn to for political and romantic inspiration.
Photo contributed by Redlands Bulldog photographer Briana Weekes.