Young at the DNC: Show me off, shut me up

I won’t be combing South Philadelphia to register voters like I did in 2008, because the Democrats still haven’t learned what supporting youth actually looks like: letting us speak, and act, on our own behalf.  Instead, Democrats wrap Millennials in dirty diapers, and shove pacifiers in our mouths when we try to point out the problems they’re leaving for the next generation. They tell us to quit whining — they’re taking good care of us.

The stink of faux-empowerment politics was pungent at the Democratic National Convention. Following the signs for the “Youth Caucus” through the bowels of the Charlotte Convention Center, I found my way to the cavernous “Ballroom C.” For the un-credentialed convention-goers like me, the Democrats had provided daily caucuses for key constituencies, like LGBT, veterans, and youth.

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Originally posted at The Nation’s “Extra Credit” Student blog:

As my eyes adjusted, I noted a paucity of available seating, and of youth. I scurried up front to fill an empty seat next to some suited thirty-somethings. “These are reserved,” a bloated face scrunched in my direction.  Meanwhile, a middle-aged statesman provoked a resounding “awwww” by describing how counselors told kids in his community, “Maybe college isn’t for you.” A middle-aged woman scolded the crowd, “As a college student…you have to stand before them [haters, presumably] and say Barack Obama will be re-elected!” And a middle-aged Organizing For America director elucidated just how much David Axelrod cares about his children.

Finally, the kids got to speak. Rod Snyder, the early-thirties President of Young Democrats for America and Rob Abraham, a mid-twenties Youth Vote director for OFA, delivered related messages: it’s awfully important for youth to vote. At that point, Dr. Jill Biden — teacher, mother, and grandmother — unexpectedly entered to speak to the children, derailing the meeting for nearly half an hour, and displacing the subsequent youth speakers scheduled.

As I exited the hall, I spotted a dozen or so youth delegates, of the “644 under 36” that the convention commonly boasted. Martin Cliff, a high school senior from Minnesota, shared his DNC experience. “I think at the high levels, there’s a lot of talk about youth, which is excellent. But once you get down to the community level, I hear from lot of other youth delegates say there’s not much respect for youth in the party.” Calling it “ageism” he described how “adults use us more as a tool, for a picture with a politician…not because I have good ideas.”

Some junior delegates were far more ticked off than Cliff.

“I have left the party today, for Occupy!” Through the darkness at Marshall Park, I made out the crisp gray suit and wavy blonde hair of Daniel McKenzie, a certified youth delegate from Minnesota who had stumbled upon the Occupy DNC encampment after storming out of the convention.
Despite, well, many things, the Occupiers generally welcomed McKenzie as he explained the cause of his defection. According to McKenzie, the President had flouted procedure to insert God back into the party’s platform, ignoring “obvious dissent” in the voice vote. After attempting to find a parliamentarian and exact recourse, he realized “it was impossible,” and departed.

The next morning, I sloughed off my backpack and took a seat at the “Youth Panel,” which was not technically part of the convention but organized by the Young Democrats for America. The panel included Anne Johnson, Director of Campus Progress, former Congressman Patrick Murphy (who, at 38, conceded that he was more of an “advisor” to youth), and Lee Storrow, a twenty-three year old UNC graduate who serves on the Chapel Hill City Council.

To my great refreshment, the panel spoke with substance. Murphy explained that he got into politics as a young veteran in order to speak out against the Iraq War, “I felt like my generation needed a voice.” Storrow, who represents the large but transient student population in his district, echoed the sentiment. Storrow went on to describe the arduous process of convincing fellow councilmen to be future-oriented, fondly relating a refrain of a colleague during a decision to construct an expensive light-rail transit system for Chapel Hill: “We’re not building this for me. We’re building this for Lee.”

Storrow also pondered what differentiates Millennials politically. He discussed a controversial incident when Occupiers claimed a vacant building in Chapel Hill, and were forced out by police bearing assault rifles. “We have to have a different standard for people who are engaging with civil disobedience,” said Storrow of our generation, who compelled the council to send a formal apology for the inappropriate use of force.

Finally, Johnson refuted the claim made by older folks that youth don’t care about politics. “Maybe young people don’t care about what you’re talking about,” she said, emphasizing the need to demonstrate to young people that electoral participation is a useful way to contend for power. In contrast with the lectures at the “caucus,” Johnson’s claims were grounded in the actual experience of young people. In fact, the youth delegate Cliff had told me that his “passion lies in community-based change” since politics “is too influenced by money.” And don’t forget, we did grow up with the 2000 debacle as a model of an American election.

No doubt, the Democrats have policies that help us out, from capping student loans at 10 percent of income to extending healthcare coverage under our parents’ plans until we’re 26.  But it’s still shameful to exploit youth participation without sharing power. And it’s bad for policy. This is true for education policy when politicians ask teachers for feedback on proposals and then disregard them in due course. It’s true for labor, immigration, religious communities, and any group that has the irreplaceable knowledge of living their lives. If the Democrats are serious about helping youth, then they can’t just listen because it’s a nice thing to do and it looks good, but because young people can contribute in invaluable ways.

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