Young Activists Care About Race, Gender, and the Economy—But Not the Election

A new report reveals Millennials want social change, but don't believe the election can make it happen.

A new report from the Applied Research Center concludes that young progressive activists care about racial justice, class divides, and gender issues. They're worried about widespread ignorance, complacency, and the danger of unchecked capitalism. They also don't have much faith in Obama—or much use for the upcoming election.

The report was compiled using information from several focus groups of progressive activists in Portland, Oakland, Atlanta, Baltimore, and New York. The ARC chose participants (about half of them white, half people of color) with "experience as a paid employee, volunteer, or small donor of a social justice or community organization," or who had participated in the Occupy movement.

Responses to several questions were divided along racial lines; for instance, 81 percent of people of color said their activism was influenced by a personal or family experience, as opposed to 52 percent of white participants. Some answers were also split according to whether or not people were OWS-affiliated. Occupiers ranked racial justice as a lower priority than non-Occupiers. But one sentiment was virtually universal: The 2012 presidential election wasn't a major motivator for their work.

Whether or not participants planned to vote in 2012 often depended on whether or not they identified with Occupy Wall Street: Fewer OWS protesters said they would vote in the election. And the movement's participants were more likely to associate the words "corrupt" and "fraud" with the word "election" (see the word cloud above), whereas non-Occupiers had a more neutral reaction. But even the participants who do plan to show on Election Day aren't strongly backing a candidate. They uttered the famous line, "there is a lesser of two evils," or they think it'll prevent things from "becoming far worse." Some expressed more of an interest in voting for local politicians, because "you can go to the city council meeting and yell at them."

Perhaps the most ardent argument for voting in the entire report came from Manish, a 28-year-old South Asian-American non-Occupier, who said activists need to "take small steps to push the Democrats," like how "the Tea Party pushed the right to the right." Nobody seemed to have much faith in the system as it stood.

Back in November, we visited New York's Occupy Wall Street site and asked some of these same questions...and received many of the same answers. "He hasn’t done what he said he would, but he’s better than the other candidates," one person said of the president. "Obama will be easier to change than any Republican,” another hoped. But this was when the election was a full year away, before the president had a clear opponent and before we had to really think about our vote. It turns out the initial election effort hasn't swayed us much.

If this admittedly limited report is any indication, even (perhaps especially) the most politically aware and informed Millennials feel burned from 2008—maybe not by President Obama personally, but by the realization that federal politics are maddeningly stagnant and predetermined. We still hold the same values as we did four years ago, but the changes we hoped for seem impossible on the federal level. One of the participants, 26-year-old Chris, may have said it best: "We can't just put this guy in charge and forget about it. If we want things to change, we have to take it into our own hands."

Photo via (cc) Flickr user david_shankbone; word cloud image courtesy of the Applied Research Center.