In a car park surrounding the football stadium belonging to the University of Virginia, a lone DJ works a pair of decks, keeping a steady mix of house music booming out of the speakers. On each side of him are tented stalls manned by volunteers who are encouraging the university's students to register themselves on the electoral register. This is the latest stop on a tour of America's universities by Rock The Vote, a non-partisan organisation that encourages political engagement amongst the young. After stops at both the Republican and Democratic conventions, the latter featuring a concert by the Foo Fighters, this stop in Charlotte, Virginia is quite a step down, with little in the way of interest amongst the student population.
A few mill around the stands, more out of polite curiosity than active interest. In spite of the low numbers, those behind Rock the Vote are keen to affirm the interest in this year's election amongst the young. Phaedra Jackson, a field director for the organisation, remains enthusiastic about the task of engaging 2012's first-time voters as well as those voting second time round who feel let down by the current administration's inability to get the economy going. "I think in general young people are enthusiastic and we've managed to register a lot of young people." Asked about the difference in the mood of the nation's youth compared to this time four years and Jackson is sanguine about how times have changed. "Most folks would agree that 2008 was a landmark year so recapturing that same enthusiasm is going to require a lot more work to be done."
In 2008, the state of Virginia was where enthusiasm amongst the young was decidedly prominent as well as being influential. Youth voter turnout was the joint fourth largest in the country at 59%. This was an increase of 16% compared to 2004 and was certainly a factor in Virginia going to the Democrats for the first time in 44 years.
This time round and the feeling amongst young voters is markedly different. A member of the Rock the Vote team who asked not be named spoke of the difficulties that the organisation has been facing in terms of persuading young people to make a choice either way. "In 2008, you had a lot of people excited at the prospect of hope and change. But Obama hasn't been able to deliver on his promises and a lot of people feel let down by that."
Bailey, a student at the university, embodies the weary cynicism felt by many towards politics after four years of inertia. A voter for McCain in 2008, she says that she intends to switch to Obama over such issues as women's rights and the provision of healthcare. But as she added, "You still feel like you're voting for the less of two evils."
Over in the state capital of Richmond, there is a similar feeling of disenchantment not only with the political process but also with the way in which this year's election is being fought, with a slew of negative adverts by both sides. Abby Kloppenburg, a French and journalism student at the University of Richmond bemoans the onslaught of the negative campaigning, saying, "The election has become more about making the other side look bad, in an overtly cutthroat way, which can only taint your view of the democratic process. Even with Obama, I feel like his personality has been allowed to overshadow what he has actually done."
A fellow student, Matt Eley, who is studying politics, philosophy and law as well as leadership studies, worked on the McCain campaign in 2008. However this time round, he is not so keen to be involved. "I've found myself retracting from the political scene, only because I've seen too much of that partisan nonsense." Such world-weariness might be expected from someone who has been involved in politics for decades, seeing the cynicism and the murky realities of seeing how politics is really run. Matt Eley is only 20 years old.
There are very present difficulties for the young with youth unemployment at 17.1% compared to a national average of 7.8%. Added to this is a national debt reaching $16 trillion, a figure that America's youth will be charged with paying off.
All of this has led America's youth to become jaded and cynical about politics. An era of vicious bi-partisanship and the diminishing influence of the office of president has led many to question how politics can affect what is going on in their daily lives. "I think some young people are little disaffected, some young people may be tilting to try vote Romney and some liberal people may be consdering not voting," says Peter Levine with the Washington think-tank, Circle.
The effects of the 2008 crash are starting to impact four years on. The percentage of young people are living at home has reached an all-time. An Ohio State University study revealed that nearly a quarter of 20-34-year-olds are living with their parents, compared to 17% during the late 1970s recession. When the age group narrows to those from 20-25-years old, the percentage goes up to 43%.
Yet the reasons for the distancing of America's youth from its national politics go back further than four years ago and are deeper than any misgivings over failed promises by the Obama administration. The feeling of disillusionment with politics comes from the fact that those in the age range of 18-29 have been brought up in an age that has been markedly different than previous decades. This year's first time voters were not around for Ronald Reagen's 'Good Morning America' era of feel-good patriotism and will remember little of the economic prosperity enjoyed under Clinton. This is a generation that saw America attacked on its own soil and has seen their country get bogged down in two expensive wars overseas that by the time they have reached any kind of definitive conclusion will have spanned decades. America's faith in the office of president has been diminished over the revelations about the deceptions that led to the wars along with the barely disguised rewarding of contracts to companies with links to the members of Bush's cabinet.
America has come to be wary of its elected officials, wondering whether they represent them or special interest groups. The hope that came with the election of Obama has diminished along with the faltering economy. This has led to young people withdrawing from politics as they consistently see how politicians are unable to enact real change in their lives. This is something expressed by Kionna who works in a thrift store in Richmond. "People say that Obama hasn't done anything to improve the economy. But I've had 25 years of having it tough, coming from a poor neighbourhood and there's no one that has done anything to fix that." Asked if she is engaged with the issues on a national or local level, Kionna was dismissive of how the issues at the heart of the election come to impact on her daily life. "I work for someone else and I pay rent to someone else so how is each of the candidates going to make a difference to me?"
Another factor in the diminishing interest in the election is the increasing partisan nature of American politics. The difference in the parties' stances on issues is stark and whilst this might give the voting public a clear choice, the divide and rhetorical hostility that created it, has actually brought about a large amount of disillusionment due to the polarisation of the debate.
President Obama came into office seeking to form a coalition and to work with Republicans on improving the economy. Yet he has run into a party keen to do all they can to make him a one-term president. Whenever he has tried to introduce bills aimed at stimulating the economy, he has met impasse after impasse. The increasing divide has left many behind and feeling that they don't anyone representing them.
Yet there is still some residual optimism and each of the young people interviewed are optimistic about the country's future. Given the stark choice between the visions laid out by the two candidates, many are keen to move against the current feeling of apathy amongst the young. Kionna's co-worker, James is adamant that he won't be joining some of his friends in abstaining from voting in November. For him there are too many issues at stake for him not to vote. I'm very much against apathy. I'm concerned about gay rights, women's rights and the economy. I don't want to go back to the deregulation we had under Bush."
Another pair of students at the University of Richmond are further examples of the willingness not to give into the feeling of cynicism. Sharon Uti is a student who worked with the Obama campaign this summer. "A lot of my generation are apathetic and it angered me sometimes. They know something about what is going on but they just don't care." John McAuliff, a Leadership Studies major who was at the Democratic Convention, concurs about how well informed this generation is. "I would say my friends are disinterested, not disillusioned. The choice between the candidates hasn't been made clear because there isn't a big difference in terms of quality of life between the Bush administration and the Obama administration."
John is realistic about how much the President can affect what goes on in the country and what the role of the government should be. "The media greatly overstate how much of a role has in affecting things in this country. Nowadays, it's mostly about projecting a culture rather than affecting real change. For me, it's a question of protection, the government being a barrier between human sins that are always going to be there. The government should be situation-specific, i.e. who is going to make sure that there aren't people making huge bets on the economy failing and then collecting when it does."
This is not the first time that Americans have fallen out of love with politics. The Watergate scandal of the early Seventies and the cover up led to a decade-long mistrust that was only restored by the charisma and ironclad surety of Ronald Reagen. The two candidates in this election will have to work exceedingly hard to galvanise voters to put their trust not only in them but also that they can deliver real change that makes an impact in what goes on in American's daily lives.
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