Voting is for Old People: Apathy and hope battle it out this election year

YO! Youth Outlook, Commentary, Published: April 01, 2004 

A couple weeks ago, I was at breakfast with some friends – all of us in our very early twenties – and I told a joke. I swallowed a bite of my Swedish pancakes and asked them, “How is John Kerry like a gay man?” They looked at each other and shrugged and I blurted out, “Neither of them will ever beat Bush!” I was waiting for them to fall out of their chairs laughing, but they just sat there, stone-faced. Then one of them asked me, “Who’s John Kerry?”

It’s election year and this one’s HUGE, so everybody is talking about young voters. Democrats are calling for an “end to apathy” and demanding that we “take America back.” Take it back? More likely that Democrats are only interested in using our sizable voting block to take America back from Republicans and then keep it for themselves. Maybe we’ll get to take America on a farewell dinner date before we have to say good bye forever – maybe not forever, but at least until we’re old enough to run the country into the ground ourselves.

But I’m being cynical. There’s a bizarre plague of hope looming around this election and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t reflect it. The hope comes from young voter organizations like Rock the Vote, MTV’s Choose or Lose and, who believe that young America can get Bush out of the White House. Which is true – there are enough of us. But what if young people like Bush and want him in there for another four years? Would still be aggressively demanding that young people register and change the world?

The most recent flare-up in this apathetic young voter drama was surrounding a t-shirt sold at Urban Outfitters emblazoned with the slogan “Voting is for Old People.” College newspapers across America have been covering this story harder than Entertainment Tonight covers Martha Stewart. They’re upset and they should be. But they’re mad for the wrong reasons.

Al Jourgenson, a board member of, wrote a barbecue of a letter to Richard Hayne, the chairman of Urban Outfitters (a Republican supporter), accusing him of selling the shirt in a conspiracy to get kids not to vote so that Bush will stay in the White House. What Jourgenson hasn’t considered is that if young people did come out in droves, they might just put Bush back in there for four more years. That is, young does not equal liberal. This myth is perpetuated by the 50-something ex-hippies who have become the establishment and are looking for us to bail them out.

The guy who made the shirt is a 26-year old named John Foster-Keddie who defended the garment by saying, “This shirt’s real intention is to sum up the current state of political affairs, pointing a finger at all of us who have been so apathetic in the past.” Urban Outfitters stepped it up in a statement which hit the issue on the head. They said the slogan was “a statement meant to draw attention to the growing rift between politicians and their platforms and the concerns of young people in this country.”

The brightest beam of hope for young people in this election so far was Howard Dean’s campaign. Before the collapse. Before he was (speculatively) hammered out of contention by the Washington Dems who didn’t want an outsider as their candidate. Dean got a lot of young people very excited about presidential politics by having his balls out and challenging Bush and the Republicans (even his fellow Dems) on real issues. The young people who supported Dean and the legion of “vegan computer nerds” who staffed his campaign were BELIEVERS. They were hopeful and they felt like they were changing the world. Right up until CNN and the political establishment smeared their dream on the tarmac of the Des Moines Airport.

I must say it’s as big of a mistake for me to assume that young people would put Bush back in the White House as it is for the Democrats to assume we’ll back the other dude (what’s his name again?). Big young voter turnout or no, Kerry’s gonna lose the election right after Bush flies to Pakistan and drags Osama out of a cave himself, with a victory parade attended by Rudy Guliani, Tiger Woods and Jesus.

At this point, I would like to paraphrase Errol Morris, who won best documentary at the Academy Awards for his ridiculously good film The Fog of War. In his acceptance speech, he said he’s afraid that America is going down a rabbit hole. I feel that way, too. I’m almost dizzy from the offensive lunacy of our American circus. I look around and all I see is young people getting shafted. We’re dying in the desert, our schools are pathetic, we’re rotting in prisons and no one will hire us. And now we get to choose between one guy who will at best maintain this level of disrepair and another one who will suck us even further down the hole.

It’s times like these that make me think of Timothy McVeigh as the last American patriot. He was a deranged murderer, but he wanted to save us from a government run amok. Yell at me if you want to, but don’t forget that America made that monster – McVeigh was a gulf war vet.

I’m sad, too, because I just finished watching CNN’s behind the scenes documentary of the Howard Dean campaign. At the end, when it all fell apart, I didn’t feel any sympathy for Dean. Instead, I swallowed hard for the swarms of young people who believed they could change the world and got beat down by the system. They cried and had to face the hard truth that with believing in anything comes the risk of watching it all blow up in your face. The kids who worked on his campaign don’t have an “anyone but Bush” mentality and they won’t be voting for Kerry or anyone else. They’re back in Vermont, trying to piece their lives together.

One of the kids who worked on the campaign gave an interview with his eyes bubbling when the campaign was first coming under fire. He was responding to criticism that the whole campaign was idealistic and not going anywhere. He said, “I’m 21 years old. If you’re 21 years old and you’re not idealistic, something’s wrong.”

Well, I’m 23 and I’m not optimistic and something is very wrong. I have the feeling that we’re going down a rabbit hole and the only young people who care with the means to do anything about it are in the Michigan Militia or a commune in Vermont.