In 2008, Barack Obama won the presidency and the Democrats won a commanding majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Millions of Americans, especially young people, first-time voters and Black Americans, were inspired by Obama’s messages of hope and change. Some optimistically viewed his election as a harbinger of a new, “post-racial” America.
This confidence, however, was short-lived. Just two years later, in 2010, Democrats lost an astounding 63 seats in the House of Representatives. Republicans also gained numerous seats in state legislatures across the nation.While many still fiercely loved their president, it was clear that many others were uncomfortable with his vision for a new America.
There are many other reasons why the 2010 midterms were so abysmal for Democratic politicians. The Affordable Care Act, while fairly popular today, was passed after a bitter partisan battle that angered many voters, especially conservatives. Midterm elections tend to mobilize members of the opposing party, who are determined to change the status quo. The Tea Party movement also inspired many candidates to embrace the kind of right-wing populism that proved to be even more popular in 2016.
Of all the reasons that Democrats lost badly in 2010, one is particularly appalling. After a heartening turnout of young voters in 2008, the trend sharply reversed in 2010. Young voters, who tend to be some of the most reliable supporters of progressive candidates, simply did not show up during the crucial 2010 elections. Only 20 percent of young people voted in 2010. The failure of many young Americans who excitedly supported Barack Obama in 2008 to support him in the midterms ensured his later failures.
Americans are still suffering the consequences from the 2010 midterms. That year, state legislatures were responsible for drawing Congressional and legislative districts. After the Republican wave, districts were gerrymandered to give Republicans an advantage in future races. Over the next six years of the Obama presidency, the most extreme conservatives had leverage to block most legislation that held Democratic or bipartisan support. The Republican majority in Congress even blocked the Supreme Court nomination for Merrick Garland — now, two years later, we are likely to see the most conservative Supreme Court bench we’ve had in decades.
Eight years after the 2010 midterm elections, we are in a particularly dire era of American politics. The Republican Party controls all three branches of government and the results have been damaging. The party has been unable to accomplish key parts of their agenda — their attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare were disastrous. When Congress was able to pass legislation, the laws hurt most Americans — the new tax policy, for example, is designed to primarily benefit the wealthiest one percent of Americans. The White House is consistently plunged in chaos and corruption. The president’s primary agenda is airing petty grievances and appealing to the most hateful instincts of his base. His immigration policies have been especially horrifying. President Trump banned immigration from several Muslim-majority countries and separated thousands of children from their parents at the United States-Mexico border.
While politics in Utah have been less chaotic than in Washington, there are still many problems in this state that require progressive solutions. Opioid addiction and suicide are legitimate public health crises. Salt Lake City has some of the worst air quality in the nation. Public schools in the state are overcrowded and underfunded. The current legislature in Utah — which is overwhelmingly white, wealthy and male — often doesn’t have a sense of the issues that affect most Utahans. We need legislators who are uncomfortable with the status quo.
The lessons from 2010 taught us that when young people stay home from elections, the consequences are dire. This year, the stakes are even higher. As a special counsel investigates the president and while members of his own staff admit to subverting his dangerous agenda, the foundations of our democratic system are in peril. The Congressional elections are an essential check on Trump’s White House. While the Republican Party remains unwilling to honestly consider the dangers that Trump poses to our nation, we must elect Congressmen willing to fully investigate any possible wrongdoing.
With the brokenness of our current system, it’s easy to get cynical. Many young people feel that their vote doesn’t matter or that the results of an election will not lead to meaningful change. It’s hard to blame anyone for being exhausted and exasperated by the current state of politics. Refusing to participate only increases the toxicity of our current climate. If the past decade taught us anything, it’s the need for decent, sensible people to make their voice heard.
In Utah, it is especially easy to justify apathy. In one of the most conservative states in the country, many citizens don’t bother to vote, assuming that the Republican candidates will win automatically. Many of the 2018 races are legitimate toss-ups, however. In Utah’s fourth Congressional district, Ben McAdams is neck-and-neck with Republican incumbent Mia Love. In a Utah House of Representatives race, Democrat Suzanne Harrison is in close with Brad Bonham. Harrison ran in 2016 and lost by only five votes In local elections, every vote makes a difference. (Full disclosure: I am a paid employee of Harrison’s campaign.) Even in solidly red districts, it is necessary for every voter to make their voice heard. Over the next several decades, Utah will get more diverse and less conservative. If voting results reflect these changes, even conservative politicians will be forced to better represent the needs of all Utahans.
The blame one holds for our political climate should not be entirely placed on voters. Many lawmakers intentionally disenfranchise many voters, especially poor minority voters. If Democrats win control of Congress, reforming voter ID laws should be a top priority — not because it will benefit progressive politicians, but because it’s the right thing to do. It would also be useful to make Election Day a national holiday, which would make voting more accessible to all Americans. Encouraging voter registration should always be a top priority of Democratic strategists and making the overall process more Democratic would go a long way with disillusioned voters. As an example, it is time to remove superdelegates from the Democratic National Convention. Party operatives should also be conscious of what messages actually resonate with young voters. The Bernie Sanders presidential campaign was a potent reminder of this. Sanders’ mix of economic populism and anti-establishment rhetoric spoke to millions of voters, especially young people, who felt ignored by mainstream politicians.
We as young people have a duty to vote even when most candidates feel flawed or uninspiring. In 2016, many liberals who were disappointed with both major candidates stayed home or voted for a third-party candidate. In a deceptively close election, even a fraction of these voters could have changed the outcome. The American political system is flawed in too many ways to count. However, if young people decline to participate, there is no chance for anything to improve.
While plenty of older Americans complain about self-involved millenials, I see a generation that cares deeply about politics. While social media can be incredibly damaging, it can also be used to learn new perspectives and follow important news stories in real time. Young people today are passionate and desperate for change, especially because so many of today’s most pressing problems disproportionately affect young people. We are the victims of a rigged economy, stagnant wages and rampant economic inequality. We see an immigration system that has been broken for our entire lives. We have watched as LGBTQ people strive toward greater equality, and we are aware that an extremist Supreme Court will threaten this hard-won progress. Voting in every election is a simple but important way to make our voices heard and address the issues that matter most.
To register to vote or change your voting address, visit vote.utah.gov. You can visit vote.org to check your registration status and find your polling place. You must register by Oct. 30 to vote in the midterms. Ballots will be mailed to voters around Oct. 16, and election day is Nov. 6.