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Opinion: This election could destroy whatever faith Gen Z has left in American institutions

People protest the presidential election results in New York in 2016. One sign reads "Not my president."
People protest the presidential election results in New York in 2016. Protesters filled 5th Avenue for five blocks, essentially closing down part of midtown Manhattan.
(Alba Vigaray / European Pressphoto Agency)

Nobody knows what will happen on Nov. 3.

The American people could elect a basically mainstream, moderate Democrat who helped extend healthcare coverage to 20 million uninsured adults and is really, really clear on the fact that he won’t ban fracking (except on federal land). Or we could reelect a man who tear-gassed peaceful protesters for a photo op, botched the response to a pandemic that has killed more than 220,000 Americans, and lies almost constantly. We could find out who our new president will be, or we could not find out for days. The votes we cast could, perhaps, not determine the election results at all — there is too much anti-democratic noise, coming from too many people in power, for such a possibility to be discounted. (And that’s without even getting into the baked-in problem of the Electoral College.) For the first time in my life, I’m not confident that the current president will concede if he loses. For the first time in my life, violence on election night seems plausible.

What I am confident of is this: Whatever happens in this election will have a profound effect on how much faith my generation — the teens and twentysomethings who overwhelmingly disapprove of Trump, and who are increasingly fed up with an ineffective political establishment — retains in American institutions.

That faith has already undergone a prolonged attack. I was born in 1997. The first presidential election I was alive for and the first one I was eligible to vote in were both won by Republican candidates who lost the popular vote. My childhood and adolescence were defined by 9/11, the Iraq War, Guantanamo, Hurricane Katrina and the botched federal response to it, the 2008 financial crisis, the years-long Great Recession, student debt horror stories, medical debt horror stories, stagnating real wages, a steady increase in global temperature, countless mass shootings, countless police killings, apocalyptic wildfires, the Trump administration’s cruelty toward migrants and blatant self-dealing, and a worldwide pandemic.

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I’m not trying to suggest that today’s young people are uniquely accustomed to hardship. Nor are we politically monolithic. But we are justified in being fed up. With COVID-19 threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans, with a grim economy pointing toward an uncertain future, and with climate change an existential threat, we have a sense of living at the end of something even as our own lives are only beginning.

Moreover, we came of age in a kakistocracy: government by the worst. The past four years have made it not just naïve but pretty much impossible to believe that the people running this country are either competent or well-meaning.

Which brings me back to the election.

If Trump retains power through some combination of active voter suppression, a deeply inequitable electoral system and/or the intervention of a politicized Supreme Court, American democracy will be irrevocably damaged — and so will millions of young people’s faith in the institutions that are supposed to protect it.

I am not particularly romantic about America. This country has been good to me; to many others, both at home and abroad, it has been relentless in its violence. Its Constitution enshrined enslavement as well as liberty; its population carved out new territory by taking it ruthlessly from the people who lived there first. It has undermined democracy in foreign countries to suit its own interests. The accident of birth that made me both an American and a privileged one — white, middle-class, comfortable — has never struck me as a compelling argument for any inherent national virtue.

Still, democracy is worth believing in. But America’s claim to being the world’s oldest democracy holds up only if a universal right to suffrage is deemed surplus to the definition. (Otherwise, New Zealand, which granted the right to vote to women and ethnic minorities in 1893 as a self-governing colony, has an edge.) If you date the true beginning of egalitarian, representative democracy in America to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, then our democracy is younger than anyone on either presidential ticket. It is newer and more fragile than many are prepared to admit.

And if the outcome of this election hinges on repressive, anti-democratic tactics perpetuated by the ruling party, then can American democracy really be said to exist at all?

I hope that we don’t have to grapple with that question.

But if we do — if the effectiveness of the ballot box to enact change is called into profound question, or if a majority of Americans vote against Trump and that fact, once again, does not matter — then don’t be surprised if the lesson America’s young people take away is this:

Working within the system is pointless. Voting doesn’t matter. My government doesn’t listen to my voice. I wonder what it would listen to?

Nobody knows what will happen on or after Nov. 3. Whatever does, though, could shape American civic life for a very long time.


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