As the last campaign of Barack Obama drew to a close last night, I found myself emotional, not for the candidate or even the presidency, but for the campaign. As a young activist in the 1990s, I would dream of an America in which everyday people believed that politics mattered – mattered like a sports team matters, mattered like a religion matters. Progressives take it as gospel that the voting and civic engagement gap between the wealthy and everybody else is a major reason why our policies are so often skewed to their benefit. When the deals are cut in Washington, it’s the 99% whose lives are wrenched, but so often only the 1% and their lobbyists were paying any attention at all.
Then came 2007. The Obama campaign took democracy – deep, representative, no-voter-untouched democracy – as a core principle, and it has been transformational. Before 2007, never in our wildest dreams would we have imagined that the Americans whom our politics typically neglects at best and abuses at worst — minimum-wage and jobless teenagers, community college kids, working-class folks of color, black and brown youth — would become a powerful political force on a presidential scale. African-American youth have actually led the youth vote since 2004, and in 2008, a record 58% voted — the highest youth turnout rate in history.
This bodes well for our generation’s future. There’s a saying in Washington: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” On issues like students loans, decent entry-level jobs, the criminalization of poverty and the failed war on drugs, racial segregation and the future of our climate, we now have an opportunity to turn the campaigns that ignited a generation into an enduring force for change. We will have to transition from organizing for a campaign to organizing for an agenda that we set. That’s what begins on Nov. 7. But last night, I was able to appreciate what the campaign did to show us that in a democracy, politics belongs to all of us.
Heather McGhee joined Bill Moyers on Moyers & Company in February to talk about the millennial generation. She is the director of the Washington office of Demos, a New York-based non-partisan research and advocacy organization that focuses on economic equality, democratic participation, and strengthening the public sector in an effort to find public solutions to shared problems.