As the 2020 presidential election heats up, so does discussion about the political behavior of young people. Students in particular – their votes and their activism – are often depicted as necessary to democracy, but challenging to mobilize. On the other hand, older Americans are more likely to vote, and their voting patterns, as well as their leadership in many activist organizations, can give them an outsized voice in American politics. Furthermore, the political concerns of young and older people, as well as the strategies and tactics that they prefer, often diverge. How might generational divides influence activism, and with what consequences for politics in the U.S. and elsewhere? How might generational divides inhibit coalition-building that could effectively mobilize the youth vote?
This month, we have five outstanding contributors. Many thanks for their contributions on this topic:
Editors in Chief,
Rory McVeigh, David Ortiz, Guillermo Trejo, and Grace Yukich
We are pleased to announce the Cambridge University Press Elements series on Contentious Politics, which we are co-editing. Cambridge Elements are a new concept in academic publishing and scholarly communication, combining some of the best features of books and journal articles. They consist of original, concise, peer-reviewed scholarly research of approximately 20,000 to 30,000 words. Contributions are published digitally (with bound paper copies supplied on demand), giving authors the ability to regularly update the work and providing a dynamic reference resource for students, researchers, and practitioners. The format will allow authors to include visual elements such as video links, color pictures, and graphs as well as other innovative features.
This week, the death toll of Americans who have died from COVID-19 surpassed 50,000. To put that number in perspective, it is more than twenty times the number of Americans who died in hurricane Katrina, thirteen times as many who died in 9/11, and about three times the number of Americans who died from all forms of gun violence in 2019. And, this is when COVID-19 is still peaking. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicts that by August 2020 the death toll could triple, making the coronavirus deadlier for Americans than the Vietnam War.
It was an unseasonably warm December evening when around 60 of South Bend’s Black citizens, council representatives, city employees, clergy, and their family members, gathered to express their support for then Presidential candidate, and now former mayor, Pete Buttigieg. Lining the back of the room, however, stood a group of around 25 protesters wearing Black Lives Matter shirts and stern facial expressions, while holding posters questioning the mayor’s concern for the homeless. This collective of protesters, myself among them, flanked a large Black Lives Matter banner. A host approached the podium at the front corner of the room, looked at the crowd and then at the group of protesters in the back, and offered a warm welcome. She asked that people respect the speakers. Recognizing tension in the room, she clearly wanted to respect free speech while still having an orderly meeting. The event, not surprisingly, did not proceed the way the host had planned.
Generational divides are not new, though perhaps every generation thinks it is the first to experience one. In the 1960s, the saying was “Don’t trust anybody over 30;” today, the generation that did not trust even the middle aged recoils when younger folks say “OK, Boomer.” These divides reflect both cohort effects and age effects: older people have had years to refine their perspectives on activism and politics, perspectives forged through experiences in movements ranging from anti-War to second-wave feminism, from gay rights to anti-nuclear power, while younger people are filled with energy and enthusiasm and sometimes have little perspective on how their vital work fits into the histories of activism they encounter. So how do these divides matter for the work of political activism today? And what might activists do to bridge them? My answers to these questions draw on both my scholarship in the sociology of social movements and my experience as part of coalitional work in activism and local politics.
Emma Gonzalez tweeted out a picture of herself after she voted in Florida’s primary election. Along with 1.5 million other followers, I saw Emma smiling, displaying the “I voted” sticker that came with her first in-person vote. Emma started on Twitter when she and some of her classmates organized March for Our Lives in response to the horrific mass shooting at their high school. The Parkland kids brought a new energy and visibility to a growing movement for gun safety regulation, running through a full range of social movement tactics: a local demonstration where Emma gave a stirring “We Call BS” speech; a bus trip to lobby Florida legislators in Tallahassee; a national demonstration in Washington, DC, that drew more than one million people — and featured no speaker over the age of 19; a coordinated series of school walk-outs across the country; and a speaking tour in the summer of 2018 to encourage young people to vote.