Naomi Wolf Doesn't Get America's Youth

By Rob Anderson
Tuesday, November 27, 2007; 8:58 PM

In Sunday's Washington Post Outlook section, Naomi Wolf argued that most young people today don't understand how democracy works and that even those who do are too cynical to get involved in our country's democratic process.

We'd all have something to worry about if Wolf's argument were true. America's youth today are coming of age at a time when one group of extremists has launched a violent attack on liberal values abroad, and as another seeks to roll back our civil liberties at home.

Fortunately, Wolf's depiction of my generation is supported only by anecdotal evidence, off-topic research and a faulty analysis of recent history. In reality, we young Americans are reshaping the political landscape with our activism and innovation. And we're working to increase our influence on the issues we care about most.

To prove her claim that young people today "are baffled by democracy's workings," Wolf musters some rather weak evidence. She points to two conversations and to a list of unattributed quotes from "otherwise smart, well-meaning young Americans." Of course, a few anecdotes do not a sound argument make.

When Wolf does offer statistics, she cites the wrong ones: three surveys of high school students. While high schoolers do make up a subsection of American youth, they don't represent an entire generation. And they certainly don't represent the most politically aware and active among us -- those of us who actually have a vote to wield.

If Wolf were really paying attention to America's youth, she'd know that young people are having a significant impact at the voting booth. In 2006, for instance, more than 10 million voters under 30 cast a ballot, marking the highest youth turnout for a midterm election in at least two decades. Their votes, which overwhelmingly favored Democratic anti-war candidates, played a prominent role in changing the makeup of our Congress.

Wolf, who idealizes youth activism of years gone by, might also better recognize the issues young people are organizing around today. America's youth were behind two of the most impressive demonstrations in recent years: the immigration rallies that swept the nation in 2006 and the protests against the treatment of the Jena Six. Students have also been at the forefront of the crusade against genocide in Darfur. And, earlier this month, some 6,000 young people from across the country converged at the University of Maryland to lay the foundations for a renewed movement to fight global warming.

Young Americans are organizing these campaigns and spreading their messages with the help of new technologies they have unique mastery over. And, although today's youth didn't invent the Internet, they did create YouTube, Facebook and countless blogs that are transforming the political debate.

Wolf argues that young Americans believe democracy is "magically self-sustaining and doesn't need to be defended." But there's a critical group of young people she fails to mention: those who are fighting and dying in Iraq. Young people account for more than half of U.S. casualties in Iraq -- a war justified by a desire to promote democracy. While Wolf (and a majority of Americans, for that matter) may not support President Bush's handling of the war, she can't honestly argue that thousands of 18- to-25-year-olds have volunteered for the military, and in some cases died, for ideals they didn't understand or concepts they didn't care about. If that's not political engagement, I don't know what is.

The writer is the editor of Campus Progress.

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