Teens are marching, they’re screaming at the top of their lungs demanding action and justice, and they’re trying to cut through the “BS” of our political discourse in the process. These teenagers are driven by anger, driven by fear, and, in the case of the Stoneman Douglas survivors, they’re driven by grief and outrage that they lost friends in yet another American mass shooting.
On Wednesday night, CNN hosted a live town hall event featuring some of the students from Stoneman Douglas, as well as faculty members, the families of some of those who were killed, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, U.S. Senators Bill Nelson (D) and Marco Rubio (R), and Congressman Ted Deutch (D). But despite the polish of the officials in attendance, the teenagers (as well as the family members and faculty) absolutely owned that stage while dunking on people who make a living dodging tough questions and reframing debates to suit their talking points. The whole thing made something very clear: teenagers are ready, willing, and able to take the reigns of this country. We just need to put them on TV regularly to make it happen.
Teenagers have more riding on the trajectory of this country then our 71-year-old president does or members of Congress — whose average age hovers around 60 — do. America’s penchant for reckless borrowing, our inattention to environmental crisis, and our willingness to go to war at the drop of a hat are just a few of the things that should concern teens because those are the debts and f*ck-ups that they’ll have to pay for with their money and their lives, long after our elder ruling class has dusted out. And yet, despite that, teenagers are often written off, talked down to, or blamed. And they certainly don’t have an equitable seat at the table in the press when it comes to holding politicians accountable or asking them questions.
Politicians assume they can get away with ignoring young voters because statistics show that millennials (in the 18-29 age range) don’t vote at the same rate as other older groups, only casting approximately 50% of the votes that they could have in 2016 (which was a slight improvement over 2012). But according to youth activist experts, these potential voters aren’t apathetic, they just need a seat at the table and to feel like they’re being heard.
Wednesday night was powerful. Teens like Emma Gonzalez, Ryan Deitsch, and Cameron Kasky jumped into these conversations without vanity or thought for what people might think about them. They just wanted answers and commitments for action absent the usual song and dance and, in a couple of instances, they actually achieved that goal. That’s the benefit that comes from putting a microphone in the hands of a teenager. They understand the rules of decorum, but they also know they were written forever ago and they’re not interested in following for the sake of following. Especially if it leads to a dead end. Teenagers (and other millennials) have been raised with the resources to question everything, and so they do. Because they’re curious and filled with passion that hasn’t been totally rotted out by cynicism. We could all take a lesson from them. And maybe we actually could if their voices were more routinely heard. Maybe it would ease the cynicism and lack of faith that Gen-Xers and baby boomers feel toward government if it seemed like somebody was able to get through.
It’s a politician’s natural instinct to hide behind hollow promises of transparency while answering carefully selected questions from people who want more access or want to curry their favor for this or that. They’re risk-averse and career minded above all else. But that’s bad for those politicians, it’s bad for the country, and it’s a stance that crumbles under enough pressure. We saw that at town halls across the country during the healthcare debate when people let their displeasure be known, but those opportunities have been too infrequent or tightly controlled. And they haven’t gotten enough attention.
You know what will generate attention? A pissed off pack of teenagers from across the ideological rainbow who get to go at glass-jawed bureaucrats on both sides of the aisle with their questions (no matter where those questions lead) and their absolute lack of give a f*ck about stature, protocol, or anything not tied directly to the issue that is on their minds. Let them hold people’s feet to the fire on national TV in such a way that it’s not a badge of honor for going on, but a mark of cowardice to not. Maybe that’s how things start to get done and how we get youth voter turnout to climb upward. Maybe that’s how we get debate to improve. Maybe, or maybe not.
But if nothing else, it’ll never not be great to see politicians getting called out for their gross inaction by kids who, by the ultra limited estimation of these politicians, should be twittering their snapgrams and bitbooking their blogs while eating avocado toast.