Tens of millions of American youngsters are this week facing the ballot box for the first time and their choice could scarcely be bleaker. Their votes matter and a stampede of late teens towards the Democrats could see a rout of Republican strongholds across the US.
Between the White House incumbent and the aspirant there’s a troubling — even alarming — combined age of 151 years. The former does a very good impression of a mid-70s, fun-loving, unhinged lunatic and the latter does a great act as a 77-year-old with a fading memory and slender grasp of both his own name and that of his opponent.
For politically aware young Americans who so desperately want to believe in an optimistic future for their country neither the GOP nor the Democrats could have produced two less likely people to instil confidence or vision in a nation starved of both.
To vote in the US, a citizen must be 18 years of age but before 1970, 21 was the minimum age to exercise this fundamental democratic right.
During the 1960s, many Americans pushed both Congress and the state legislatures to lower the minimum voting age from 21 to 18. This was, for the most part, due to the Vietnam War. Inconveniently, the war meant that young Americans were being sent off to fight in a far off place often several years before they had reached the legal age to cast a vote.
The world today is a very different place. While it remains almost impossible to make hard and fast observations about this presidential election, particularly from the perspective of a non-American living outside the country, one thing is crystal clear — never before has an election been so important for the future of the US, while the choice of candidates been so poor.
Will young people exercise their right and, at the same time, give emphasis to policy over politics or will they be dazzled by the obscene antics of the celebrity incumbent and place politics and optics ahead of policy? It’s very difficult to give an answer to this, but despite US voting being optional, no one should doubt the capacity of young voters to change national thinking, policies and outcomes.
Following a string of horrendous mass killings in America, young people rose up across the country achieving some important state legislative amendments to ‘gun owning’ age limits but fell short of Congressional action on gun ownership.
The shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February this year took 17 lives and shattered many more, the Las Vegas shootings in October 2017 at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino saw 58 people shot dead and some 700 injured, a shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando in June 2016 killed 49 people and injured over 50 — but no single event caused more revulsion than the December 14 2012 killings of 20 children aged between six and seven and six adult school staff and faculty in what became known as the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.
Of course, there have been many others besides. In 2020 alone, the numbers of killings are staggering. By the start of October, there had been 486 events which fit the criteria of a mass shooting (adopted by the Congressional Research Service) in which four or more people are gunned down. Injuries are not included.
In the US now, it’s possible to obtain instant statistics on gun deaths not just weekly but for the period covering the previous 72 hours.
America has become a country obsessed with collating statistics on gun-related deaths, but is a nation hopelessly bereft of the will or political bravery to do anything about this worsening scourge such is the power of the US gun lobby. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have wanted to even mention the issue during campaigning and nor was it raised in the two leaders’ debates.
Regrettably too, global challenges such as the changing climate, protection of the environment, opening of bilateral trade agreements or global security have barely featured as even second or third-tier issues through the last few months.
As is well established in many democracies worldwide, the younger the voter the more aligned they tend to be with progressive policies, preferring the state to take the central role in provision of education, health and transport services with little consideration for who is paying the bill. The older voters become the more considered and analytical they are of policies, especially when it comes to the protection of wealth, to buy a house and the ability to get meaningful employment.
It’s often claimed that the Republican Party has been losing young voters by double digits in elections since 2004. The 2020 election could just be the event which coalesces young sentiment against the GOP and more specifically against ‘Trumpism.’
A central question remains to what extent has Trump’s bizarre, unconventional style alienated decisive majorities away from his Party. The more flamboyant, vulgar and unconventional Trump’s behaviour is, the more Presidential Biden appears.
Essentially anti-intellectual, unburdened by any sense of history (American or world) or any grasp of literature, Trump represents a figure unfamiliar to young voters when they think of national leadership.
The White House, along with the revered Oval Office, should not be some kind of vaudeville stage simply for photo ops. but rather it should be a place where due recognition and respect to the Office of President and the architecture of US Administration should be central and visible. Trump has failed in this task.
Another important factor to note, according to The Washington Post, is that millennials (born roughly between 1981-1996) along with Generation Z (the so-called Zoomers born after 1996) is the chasm between the policies of the Republican Party and what young people want.
Young voters contemplating turning up to vote for the time could do worse than ask themselves these two questions: ‘has the incumbent made America safer’ and secondly, ‘does he respect and defend the great US institutions of Congress, the Courts, the media and civil rights’?
On the first point, it’s difficult to say whether Donald Trump has made the nation safer from external threat. Tensions with North Korea may have eased, despite Trump’s best efforts to demean and humiliate that country’s leader, but chronic tensions with China remain real and likely to worsen. Some recent and significant efforts on the geopolitical stage in respect of building Middle East alliances with Israel can be attributed to the Trump Administration, but do these make Americans safer?
On the question of respect for the Office and for the enduring US institutions, Trump fails and fails badly. He used the White House for blatant electioneering purposes, he has lavished highly influential jobs on most of his family, he has set aside mid-election convention to make an appointment to the US Supreme Court and he had denied the lethal force of Covid-19 notwithstanding 220,000 dead Americans from the virus – a figure worsening by the day as winter tightens its grip.
Worse than this is the enthusiasm and relish with which Trump trashes and demeans anyone who stands in his path. There is now a battalion of people — many highly respected — who have been pushed under buses, moved aside, ignored, bullied or had their reputations wrecked all in the name of keeping Trump’s glow in the ascendency.
It’s way too soon to say with any certainty what kind of President the ageing Jo Biden would make. By 2024 he will be 81 and certainly unlikely to be any more sprightly or agile of mind than he currently is. This will weigh on the minds of many voters.
Biden has been Vice President for eight years already and during that time, while opinions vary, did not do anything which appeared to undermine US institutions or divide the country. He knows Congress, he respects the line between the legislature and the courts and, with the right advisers around him, could cement a reputation as a steady hand in what have been four years of cyclonic turbulence in Washington.
One other thought young voters might contemplate is which of the candidates is most likely to restore sand enhance abroad the reputation of their great country? Which is likely to represent their country with dignity, pride, sincerity and with national-interest (not self-interest) as a priority?
This moment in US history is critical and will provide political historians, analysts and commentators much to dissect and digest.
Let us remember too that a remarkable and positive feature of US politics has been, for the most part, the peaceful transition of administration from one to the other. Will this election result (and its aftermath) be remembered for right or profoundly wrong reasons? The next week or weeks will reveal answers to this question.
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