Through the Looking Glass: A Political Education

by Madeline Cooper | 2/18/16 7:42pm

I was “that kid” who loved politics as a child. I received my first civic education around my grandparents’ dining room table, discussing local and national politics with my parents, grandparents and cousins, which required me to keep up with the news if I wanted to be able to participate in the discussions. I remember staying up long past my bedtime to watch the returns of the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore and asking my mother what would happen if the election was a tie, a question that was probably a tactic to delay sleep, but one that is humorous and ironic in retrospect. In third grade, I developed an interest in labor history and in middle school, the feminist movement, attempting to understand history to understand the world around me. In short, even as a child, you could call me a political nerd.

I came to Dartmouth excited to be in the state of the New Hampshire primary, but decidedly convinced that single issue campaigns were the way to create real change, focusing all my energies on specific issues of importance to me. Growing up, I had developed a significant interest in issues of economic inequality, stemming from volunteer work that I had done with my parents and with my synagogue. I decided to spend my freshman summer in Washington, D.C., working on a local campaign to raise the city’s minimum wage to a living wage and guarantee paid sick leave, particularly to those employed in the food services industry. I became interested in community organizing as a strategy, using the power of organized people to create real and incremental change.

At Dartmouth, I also developed a significant interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Growing up as a Jewish American, I felt somewhat inundated with the issue. I remember being asked at 12 or 13 to explain the conflict to my class, a task for which I was not remotely qualified, but one that I was expected to understand based on my identity. Throughout high school, I had been disengaged from the issue, feeling frustrated by the seemingly intractable nature of the conflict. But after arriving at Dartmouth, I decided to engage, becoming involved with J Street U and working to promote discussion of the issue on campus and action within the federal government.

My sophomore spring, I attended a J Street U conference in Baltimore. The United States led peace negotiations that had been announced the year before and had gone on throughout the first part of 2014 were seemingly coming to a crashing end that week. By the end of the conference, I was exhausted from three long days, and I felt somewhat hopeless and without direction, unsure of what I could do to push for progress. But before the long drive back to New Hampshire, I attended one last lecture, this time with Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards from Maryland.

Edwards spoke for a while about Middle East foreign policy and about the state of the Congress. Yet, there was palpable, restless energy in the room. During one heated moment, a student stood up and asked her why elected representatives do not take the voices of young people seriously. The congresswoman responded that elected officials do not feel responsible to “young Americans,” or constituents of legal voting age under 30, because they do not vote.

The entire nine-hour drive home from Maryland, I continued to ponder what Edwards had said. I had been politically engaged with a number of causes during my first two years at Dartmouth, but I had never really stopped to think about the efficacy of my work. By the time that we returned to campus, I had made a decision to change course, beginning to devote my efforts less to specific issues and more towards ensuring that students vote in an attempt to combat this roadblock that Edwards had described. With the 2014 midterm election rapidly approaching, I decided to join the Dartmouth College Democrats, hoping that there I would find an avenue to work to broadly engage Dartmouth students in the democratic process.

During the past two years, the College Democrats has worked very hard to increase the number of Dartmouth students who vote in an to attempt to combat the lack of serious consideration that officials give to young Americans. We organized and held termly voter registration drives on campus over the course of which we have registered approximately 700 students. Last fall, during the 2014 midterm elections, over 1,000 students voted in Hanover, a record-breaking number and a significant increase from previous midterm elections. I am incredibly proud of what we have been able to accomplish in increasing student turnout.

Dartmouth students have truly come together during the past few election cycles. We have worked with various issue oriented groups and even across party lines with the Dartmouth College Republicans to coordinate voter registration drives, outreach efforts and rides to the polls. The recent efforts to get out the Dartmouth vote in the 2016 New Hampshire primary were truly collaborative, with groups with varying interests coordinating what we could to promote our shared goal of ensuring that Dartmouth students who were eligible to vote did so.

In this primary election cycle, college students across the nation are getting involved: attending rallies, volunteering and getting out the vote. As a result, people are beginning to take us seriously as a demographic, proving that if we are an engaged, involved and organized voice, those who represent us will take us seriously. I am excited to see what seems to be the beginning of a national shift in attention to the youth vote, with the media paying attention to the political involvements of students. In the weeks leading up to the primary elections, campus was flooded with journalists, interviewing students and showcasing student efforts to get out the vote. This year is an incredibly exciting time to be a young person involved in politics, and I am optimistic that this is a trend that will continue and grow.

Although I do not plan to continue with a career in campaigns or in the government, I believe that being involved in political work at Dartmouth has taught me something valuable. I have learned the power of community organizing: that coordinated voices are much louder than a single one. At Dartmouth, we are incredibly lucky to be in a place in which so much attention is paid to our views and opinions on the political process. The challenge is to leverage that power to amplify our voices to create change.