Young people are often characterized as idealistic free thinkers with big ideas centered around their utopian views of what society should look like. We’ve all heard people complain about lost dreams and the crushing reality of adulthood as they turn thirty. In claiming policy agendas were impractical I’ve been asked, “You’re 18, why aren’t you more idealistic?” I replied with a laugh, “You’re 36, why aren't you more pragmatic?”
We are approaching an election with a predicted record breaking young voter turnout. 62% of voters ages 18-29 have said they will vote, a coalition that could make or break the presidential race. With young people often falling victim to idealistic proposals, we must ask ourselves: does lofty optimism have a place in politics?
I’d argue that the vast majority of Americans, whether they be Democrats or Republicans, young or old, men or women, representatives or voters, share a common desire for the prosperity of this country. With malintentions aside, it’s fair to say that most people are often stifled by their ideological opinions. Every day, politicians refuse to compromise on critical issues like COVID-19 stimulus relief, environmental regulation, and healthcare, American lives hanging in the balance as they do so. Earlier this month, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called CNN host Wolf Blitzer and his colleagues “Republican apologists” for acknowledging the House’s failure to pass economic relief.
Even the terminology “conservative,” “progressive,” “libertarian,” and “socialist,” used to describe politicians represent a failure of the electorate. The job of politicians is not to be preachers of their respective ideologies or political philosophers. They are first and foremost elected representatives and policy makers, a role which used to include passing legislation. Today, an average of only 3.6% of US Senate bills are passed, even less in the House at 1.9%.
If the legislatures are so inefficient, why do we regularly have representatives who remain in office for upwards of thirty years? The answer is that people are complacent in a lack of government efficiency and a bureaucracy filled with ideologues. However, rather than fixing the mistakes of our parents, the young people of today are falling farther down the rabbit hole of empty promises and expansive plans with mysteriously high price tags.
More young voters are finding disillusionment with the two party system, describing themselves as “progressives” or “conservatives”, “right-leaning” or “left-leaning,” rather than Democrat or Republican. While this can be good in providing diversity to political identity outside the realm of the parties, it can often lead these buzzwords to be used against young voters who have an academic understanding of what these ideologies are.
With a compelling portion of the youth electorate being made up of people who may not have even paid their own income tax yet, let alone owned or rented a home, it’s easy to see how wide reaching proposals would be attractive. Plans like the proposed “Green New Deal”, “Medicare for All”, and student loan forgiveness, while attractive in the possibility of equity they promise, come with drastic economic implications for taxpayers. These plans, despite having altruistic intentions often fail to make traction because of the extent of change their plans call for in one bill. The Green New Deal, a proposal with a lot of media attention, only has 101 co-sponsors, all Democrats, out of the 435 members of the blue majority House of Representatives.
The goal should be to pass policy, not argue over whose ideological stance has more merit, as was done during Amy Coney Barret’s Senate confirmation hearings or during senators’ campaign speeches. If this is the case, then politicians need to be willing to compromise to make that goal a reality. Without bipartisan support, not only will bills not be passed, but they will not be good legislation. Diversity of thought is critical in making laws that benefit everyone.
With this realization comes a necessary pragmatism in the eyes of voters, particularly young voters. Instead of asking whether a policy supports your beliefs, ask how a politician plans to enact it. Your questions should be: how much does it cost, what will it’s impacts be, who benefits from this, and will people on both sides of the aisle be able to agree upon this and pass it. While it may be attractive to hop on the coattails of populists who tout benevolent morals and trendy ideas, if you truly care about change you have to use the system to make a difference. That means voting in politicians who are willing to put aside complete solidarity in their beliefs to write laws when necessary.
If we as Penn students want to act as a force of change in this country, the youth vote cannot afford to be one of idealism. The "Civic Ivy" must value action over ideological superiority, and practicality over impractical moral righteousness. Rather than embody the romanticizing counterculture of the 1960s, we must be a counterculture for today, one of pragmatism, centrism, and compromise.
Facts matter, collaboration matters, passing policy matters, and your vote matters. Use it wisely.
LEXI BOCCUZZI is a College first-year student studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.