Young people seeing their power
Fight fiercely, Harvard, for voting rights! But don’t expect my daughter Dorthy to participate.
What does my Harvard 50th reunion and its voting rights project have to do with my daughter not voting? Not much. Indeed, the two phenomena seem to play out on separate planets, which raises troubling thoughts about a stubborn civic disparity in America that threatens democracy.
Dorthy, 22, is the oldest of three siblings adopted by my wife Chris and me more than a decade ago. Dorthy, Michael and Tanika spent their earliest years with their dysfunctional family, which includes five more children, all living on Syracuse’s south side. Dorthy made it through high school; quite a feat, all things considered. A quiet, attractive young woman, she is now engaged in the arduous climb toward adulthood: boyfriend, job, apartment, and so on. While driving her home from health aide training class the other day, I brought up the recent elections, which included a pretty exciting race for Syracuse mayor. Though I suspected Dorthy had not voted, and wasn’t even registered, our conversation still shocked me.
We’re full of ourselves, and we are passionate about democracy. We, the most media-pampered class.
Fred: . . . and I bet you didn’t vote, did you?
Dorthy: (defiant): No, I didn’t.
Fred: That’s disappointing.
Dorthy: I didn’t because it doesn’t make any difference.
Fred: I’m sorry to hear you say that.
Dorthy: It just doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to me. Maybe it matters to someone else. Maybe to you, but not to me.
Fred: You don’t think it affects you?
Non-voters outnumbered the supporters of every single party in 2010 in the US. [o]
Fred: What about the last election for president?
Dorthy: That doesn’t affect me, either. There wasn’t any difference anyway.
Fred: No difference? Between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton?
Dorthy: No difference in the way it would affect me . . .
And so it went. I thought about elections and consequences. I thought of Obama, but what was the point? Dorthy’s mind was made up, and any riposte would likely result in sullen withdrawal from the conversation. Besides, Dorthy was old enough to register and help re-elect the first black president back in 2012. If she didn’t get it then, why should she now?
Dorthy’s younger sister Tanika, now 19, and brother Michael, 21, have never voted, either. Year after year, Chris and I were model voters, participating in every election. But it never seemed to get on the kids’ radar. And I’m darned if I’m going to drag my adult children out to register and vote.
Starting young . . . [o]
This sense of alienation toward voting is not restricted to my adopted children. I suspect the friends they grew up with are also no-shows at the polls — Tyron, Rondell, Shamar, Shafik, Dooda, Najeh, Nasara, Mook, Ivory, Nana and the rest. Maybe Robert voted, or Kiki, or Tyreek. Probably not, though. I’m a little optimistic about some of their parents, but not very. These are the “absent voters” — citizens who are eligible to register and eligible to vote, and could do so without great effort, but who are too distracted, alienated, unimpressed, cynical or resigned to cast a ballot.
The right to vote is supposed to be the keystone of freedom’s arch. The voice of the people expressed freely, privately, is one of the best ways to deter tyranny, uphold the common welfare and bring forth wise leaders. This precious right is under stress due to a number of factors, including Republican-led “reforms” aimed at depressing the franchise in Democratic precincts. Gerrymandering, money in politics, Russian meddling, the vagaries of the Electoral College. You’d think elected leaders who swear to uphold the Constitution would be acting to protect voting rights, but they seem as much part of the problem as the solution.
In making voting rights our 50th reunion project, my Harvard classmates are acting in character: We’re full of ourselves, and we are passionate about democracy. We, probably the most media-pampered class in Harvard history. In 1966, The New York Times Magazine did a cover story on the dewy freshmen, and then in 1970 there was another story, on the battle-hardened seniors — “on strike” against the Vietnam war. Stay tuned for the write-up of our 50th in 2020. After graduation, Harvard men (and Radcliffe women) went to work and made lots of money, on Wall Street and elsewhere. Hence the plausible expectation that classmates will rally to the cause of voting rights with lots of dough. The idea is to use the money to pay the salaries of people working to protect the vote. It’s a worthy idea, as far as it goes.
Democracy and its desperations . . . [o]
But I ask: Is this really the best we can do, as a class and as a nation? Get a bunch of rich people to donate money to pay people working on voting rights? What finally galls me about this project is its inherent elitism. It revolves around people with money and privilege. "See how the enlightened rich are protecting the voting rights of the downtrodden!"
My so far non-voting adopted daughter Dorthy and her peer group discourage me. I’m sorry I was unable to kindle a spark of civic responsibility in any of them. (In my defense, I have two bio kids who are regular voters.) I can’t see how the Harvard Class of 1970 voter rights campaign will make a chad’s worth of difference with this roster of absentee/AWOLs. And it worries me that alarming numbers of citizens may not care enough about this democracy to preserve it.
FRED FISKE, a contributing editor of The Journal of Wild Culture, is an independent journalist and composer who spent his career in journalism, mostly writing editorials for The Post-Standard newspaper in Syracuse, New York. He majored in history and literature at Harvard and received his masters from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Having grown up in a foreign service family, living in Bangladesh, Germany, Congo and Iceland, he now lives in Syracuse and Florida.
Stamp photo by the author.