Like many Americans, I think I will remember the night of November 4 for a very long time. My kids and I made nachos (usually reserved for Super-Bowl Sundays) and sat glued to the television from the moment the pundits began opining. When the results were called, less than a second after California’s polls closed, we heard a spontaneous roar break out along Broadway. Without thinking, my son and I dashed out the door and headed for the street. Outside the gates of Barnard, a huge crowd had already formed. People were screaming and crying, hugging strangers, and dancing along the pavement. Without a leader, without a destination or plan, an impromptu parade started marching—running, skipping, cartwheeling—south of 116th Street. Police officers entered the crowd and gave high fives to all who passed; night cleaning crews at Tom’s Restaurant and the Deluxe literally put down their brooms and started to dance along. When security crews hastily closed off patches of the street, taxi drivers got out of their cars and gleefully joined right in. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.
The next evening, I sat down with a group of students for my first official Town Hall. The topic was the election, and the excitement in the usually staid Sulzberger Parlor was palpable. Without exception, every woman there spoke of how the election of 2008 had changed her life. Not only because it was the first presidential election in which this generation of young women could vote, but because they all sensed that their views—whatever they were—had been expressed in an explicit, tangible way. As they sat in a circle around the parlor, the students glowed with pride in describing how it was their own work, and those of thousands of young people like them, that had led to a new president heading for Washington and to the enthusiasm that had poured itself along Broadway the night before. Some of the students had spent the summer working on the campaign; some had led political organizations in their high schools or communities. Several foreign students spoke of the frustration they felt, caring so deeply about the U.S. election results yet unable to do anything about them. Many reflected on the thrill they experienced in seeing two women—TWO!—come so close to the highest tiers of power. And all reminded me of what my own 19-year-old son had said to me that morning: “You know, Mom, “ he gushed, “I know you’re excited about this, but you can’t possibly understand how I feel. Because this whole election was about people my age. We were the ones who grew up with the world a certain way, and we were the ones who fought to make it change.”
As our students happily revealed to me that evening, they had all voted for Barack Obama, so their reflections on the election were undoubtedly tinted by their personal pleasure. But I suspect that the election of 2008 brought joy, or at least a new energy, to Americans across the political spectrum who saw it, as did my son and our students, as an ideological baptism for the next generation. In both the primaries and the general election, 18–22-year-olds voted in staggeringly large numbers. Rates were impressively high among black youths, rural youths, poor youths—across all sectors of the youth population that have historically been disaffected by and distant from the political process. From the star-driven “rock the vote” campaign to will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” video and Sarah Silverman’s “Great Schlep,” young celebrities played into the energy that young non-celebrities had already been pouring into the political campaign since the earliest days of the achingly long primary season. More than 6.5 million people under the age of 30 participated in the 2008 primaries and caucuses, pushing the national youth turnout rate from nine percent, in 2000, to 17 percent.* And the candidates they helped to nominate were, by any measure, an extraordinary lot: one black man, one woman, one war hero, and one hardscrabble senator. Not one of them rose to power by birth, or marriage, or fame. Not one was born wealthy or well connected. Instead, all four of this year’s candidates rose to prominence through decidedly old-fashioned means: they worked for it. This signaling was in many ways more important than all the civics lessons our students absorb in high school, or all the times they’ve heard their parents proclaim, “Yes, of course, you can be President!” Because until the election of 2008, children who were born poor or black or female or unlucky found it hard to believe that indeed they could.
It is impossible to predict, of course, how the outcome of 2008 will go down in history. The Obama administration faces challenges that are nearly as unprecedented as the election: a crisis of credit in the financial markets, rising unemployment, and risks emanating from Russia, China, and the Middle East. The generation that cheered for Barack and identified with him could sour quickly on a President Obama whose easy confidence can’t deliver miracles in health care, education, and the environment. Like the last generation to march along Broadway, this group could also see some of their ideals crushed and their ideas watered down by time. Yet, like the students who joined me on the evening of November 5, I believe in hope. And I believe that we will once again see the students of Barnard and Columbia dancing down Broadway, reveling in their power to bring about change.
*The rate is calculated for states that had both a Republican and a Democratic exit poll in 2000 and 2008. See Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE), Fact Sheet: The Youth Vote in the 2008 Primaries and Caucuses, June 2008.
Photograph by Margaret Lambert