Jason Rosenbury heard the news of Kerry’s concession on the radio, on his first day back at work after a long weekend of canvassing for America Coming Together in Cleveland. “I just started crying and I’ve never cried like that in my life,” he says. “I cried for half an hour straight. I was at my office with the door closed, slamming my hand into the table and swearing and crying. My eyes burned that day and they were sore for two or three days. My nose was chapped. I thought about things I could do that night to forget about what had happened, but there was no escape.”
Like millions of other young people across the country, Rosenbury, a 33-year-old New Yorker, took on the effort to beat George Bush as the political fight of his life. He contributed almost $2,000 to the Democrats from his meager salary as a social worker. He called, wrote letters, and volunteered. And it all came to naught. “This was the one opportunity we had to change things,” he says. “It was the one huge thing that could somehow turn the tide. And we got almost nothing.”
Young voters like Rosenbury were undeniably wounded by this election, but they were also undeniably galvanized. They toiled in dozens of groups large and small, from the League of Pissed Off Voters to the New Voters Project and punkvoter.org. They came out to vote in the highest percentages since the McGovern defeat in 1972, an unfortunate parallel. In battleground states, youth turnout hit 64.4 percent, and young voters preferred Kerry by 54 to 44 percent nationwide. Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 were the only age group to go for him, and we probably swung Wisconsin and New Hampshire. College students and young people were the foot soldiers of groups like ACT and MoveOn, tens of thousands of them volunteering for door-knocking and polling-place operations across the country.
They worked their asses off month after month, and whether the groups were officially nonpartisan or not, most young people were overwhelmingly motivated by the need to beat Bush.
Against the odds, the trauma of this devastating defeat appears to be convincing young people anew of the importance of working politically within their own communities, on their own terms. Unlike the Democratic Party, which is now clutching at straws labeled “morality” and “pander more to the South,” and unlike the old liberals, who are putting out yet another call to take to the streets, these young progressives are strong on values and strong on tactics, both.
Forget John Kerry and his everlasting straddles, the $87 billion that he did and did not vote for, the “marriage is between a man and a woman.” The new folks coming up have no fear of conviction, of true faith. We are anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-war, pro–living wage, pro–reproductive rights, pro–gay rights, pro-environment, anti–Rockefeller drug laws, anti–arms proliferation, anti-imperialist, anti-censorship, pro–sex education, pro-Constitution, pro–affordable housing, pro–HIV awareness. Or as spelled out in the book titles of Billy Wimsatt, activist, author, and co-founder of the League of Pissed Off Voters: Bomb the Suburbs, No More Prisons, How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office.
As for the tactics part, well, just look at the numbers. “We really did our part to turn out the youth vote and make things happen,” says Adrienne Maree Brown, the other co-founder of the League of Pissed Off Voters and co-editor of How to Get Stupid White Men of Office, from their New York headquarters the morning after the election. “I don’t think I could sleep tonight if there was anything else we could have done.”
Brown declares that despite the way things turned out, her nationwide coalition is celebrating an “internal win”—they managed to turn out 80 to 90 percent of their own targeted voters. They had hundreds of kids out in the rain in Ohio, in the snow in Colorado, knocking on doors and standing on street corners for 10 hours. Let’s face it, they weren’t doing it for Kerry. If he won, they would have spent almost as much time pushing him toward their positions as they will protesting Bush. They were doing this work for themselves, feeling their own power for the first time.
Brown says they’ll now take to community organizing and fielding their own candidates for local office. “In the long term we’re talking about shock lobbying and holding officials accountable. We’ll be training our people in accountability models. And we’re running people next year. People feel emboldened to go out and run for office across the board. . . . We will see a progressive governing majority in our lifetimes, and this is just the first step,” she says, defiance in her voice.
Young liberals running for office might turn out to be the sleeper backlash to this heartbreaking election. The consolatory message sent out November 3 by Eli Pariser, the 24-year-old executive director of MoveOn, included an e-mail from a young supporter who’s decided to run for Congress in 2006.
You might have thought that the people who have been working so hard would be exhausted now, demoralized and ready to crawl back into their shells. And there is some of that going around. But people are also starting to rebound. “I’m gonna support and maximize whatever efforts there are to get a Democrat in office in 2008,” Rosenbury says. “It doesn’t do any good to give up. You have to keep fighting.”
Just as disaffection breeds more alienation, involvement in politics breeds more involvement in politics, even when you don’t win. Political scientists know that voting behavior is set early; people who vote when they’re young are more likely to vote later in life. This outcome isn’t just limited to serious activists; it affects the frat brothers just as much. In fact, the college students who were part of Penn Leads the Vote, at the University of Pennsylvania, are even more upbeat about things than the Indyvoter types. Their nonpartisan coalition of 25 student groups, from fraternities and sororities to student government and the Black Student League, registered more new voters than in any other ward in the state and increased voter turnout on campus 280 percent over the 2000 election.
Election Day turned into a celebration as singing groups performed for people waiting in line, resident advisers gave out pastries, and professors canceled classes. According to exit polls, young people in Pennsylvania went for Kerry by 32 points. Nevertheless, the students who led the campus effort, like the ones at the League of Pissed Off Voters, are as taken with their own numbers as the election’s overall outcome. “It’s bittersweet,” says Alyson Krueger, a 20-year-old sophomore who got involved along with her sorority. “A lot of people voted for Kerry. I did. So a lot of people are upset. But we were able to turn around voter turnout on this campus. You could feel the enthusiasm and the excitement. Voting was the cool thing to do.”
Beyond the simple goal of turning out more voters, Krueger and her fellow students built networks among people who hadn’t met before, and are poised to work on a range of local issues in Philadelphia.
“Even after the election I think it doesn’t even matter who we voted for and who won,” Krueger says. “All that matters was that so many people voted and talked about the issues. That’ll make more of a difference in the long run.” If the country survives long enough to see it, she may be right.