Parenting & Families

Teenagers and the Political Process

When teenagers tell me that they feel cynical about the political process, I remind them that teenagers in our country have always influenced and affected the political system. It was the adolescents and young adults in our country that protested for civil rights in the 1960s and peacefully marched on Selma, Alabama with Dr. Martin Luther King. This led to a change in the law and helped to end segregation. In 1964, it was these very same young adults who protested for equal voting rights, and once again changed the law. Then in 1965, teens protested for health care and once again these young activists changed the existing law. In 1968, teens moved to change the political process once again and protested for fair housing, and as a result created new law. Finally, it was the teenage and young adult population that felt the injustice of the Viet Nam War, and marched on Washington. In fact, it was those very young people who actually became the strongest force to end the war, and the strongest force for peace.

So why the cynicism? Well, teens are disillusioned by the very thing their adult counterparts are: corruption in politics, out of control spending, lobbyists, special interest groups, favors owed and pay-offs made as well as the general hypocrisy in the re-election process, which keeps politicians, on both sides of the aisle, expending goods and services for the constituency that will get them re-elected. Never mind all the spinning, compromises and plays for sheer unadulterated power. It’s no wonder that some of today’s teenagers would rather quit than fight. They drop out of the political scene, they don’t vote, and they don’t participate in the discussion.

However, there is hope for both the system and the youth that are discouraged by it.

Education is the answer. School curriculums can be changed to include classes in civics, political science, current history, and just plain old citizenship. Clubs on and off of campus can bring students back to the table, by investing them in the debate as well as in the development of strategies for peaceful activism. Mentoring and interning in both community government, as well as national government, can change the lament of frustration, by pointing out positive action for change, such as learning about the issues and voting. Because this is a win-win approach, it can lead to an interesting apprenticeship for teenagers, as they transform from adolescence to responsible adulthood. This is a constructive way to not only bring future voters into the forum, but also an interesting way to teach them how to change the system by first understanding the system.

It was John Stewart Mill who said, “It is important that everyone of the governed have a voice in the government, because it can hardly be expected that those who have no voice will not be unjustly postponed to those who have.” Therefore, it is imperative that teenagers become both activists as well as voters. Clearly this would give them the potential for influence in the discussion as they could theoretically change the course of an election. In the final analysis, to be educated, to learn about the issues and to act by voting can empower the teen voice and make it heard. It is in this way, that teens cannot only participate in the political process but how they can also transform the political process. As you can see, teens have changed the world and by exercising their voting rights, they can become a political force unto themselves. Activism teaches that history is not what we see on the television, but rather what we do.