I grew up in New Hampshire, a state that, despite being right next to Maine, many Bowdoin students know shockingly little about. This is what is known about New Hampshire: Our state motto is “Live Free or Die.” We are the only state in the nation that does not require anyone over the age of 18 to wear a seatbelt and the only place in NH where you can get hard liquor is one of our state-run stores. But what most people don’t know is that we pick presidents.
There is a long and complicated process that determines how the presidential nominees of each party are picked that I won’t bore you with (Google it if you are interested). But the point is that in order to become your party’s nominee, you have to win in the early voting states, where Iowa goes first, and New Hampshire goes second.
This brings us to 2019, where at one point more than 25 democratic presidential candidates descended upon New Hampshire en masse. For me and my friends, it was political nirvana (read: we were massive nerds). Senators and governors from all across the nation came to our communities. Senator Elizabeth Warren was at my middle school, President Biden spoke at the town park and Senator Bernie Sanders held a rally in a local church. By day, we attended school and learned about the United States government and history, and by night, we got to witness grassroots democracy in action all around us. My friends and I had a contest to see which one of us could confront the most senators and governors and ask them why they routinely failed to address the climate crisis or gun violence. It was easy to corner a politician when they were on our home turf, especially the low polling ones (thinking of you, Hickenlooper, Inslee, Bullock and Gillibrand).
The politicians would take us seriously, typically assuming we were 18. At the age of 16, we all thought that confronting politicians and pressing them on their inability to address the radical disparities in healthcare coverage or higher education costs fulfilled the civic idealism we had been taught since kindergarten.
A campaign staffer would then follow up and ask us if we wanted to volunteer or get involved in the campaign. A conversation would follow, and we would usually be offered an internship. Half of them were unpaid (we were glorified volunteers, and the title was for our egos), and the other half paid us New Hampshire’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour—pretty ironic considering many of the candidates were advocating for $15 minimum wages. But one by one, we all ended up accepting jobs with one campaign or another.
By the summer of 2019, we had all found our ways to join different campaigns—I was team Klobuchar. We knew every policy, every position and followed the news cycle like addicts, waiting for the dopamine rush that would accompany a Politico push notification (we weren’t cool in high school in case you couldn’t tell). Throughout the entire process everyone kept telling us how impressive we were, a group of 16 year olds who couldn’t vote but still were fighting for the future we believed in. Older campaign volunteers would tell us how they marched for civil rights, protested the Vietnam War or called for women’s rights. Our generation would do something similar, and we were going to be leaders in those movements.
I remember a lot from that summer: how high the stakes seemed, a few crazy people’s doors I knocked on, but also how we always talked about how when we became 18, the country would be different. Our generation would vote. We would run for office and change our nation. We would be different. We would be better. We would be a tidal wave reshaping the political landscape helping our nation pursue achievement of our highest ideals. We would be the change we had waited for.
Over break I caught up with friends from back home. We talk about politics a lot less, and we aren’t news junkies anymore. It’s probably better that way, yet when the topic of the presidential primary arose, we talked about who we were going to vote for.
There were some surprises, but the bigger one was that half of my friends weren’t planning on voting. The reasons loosely came down to the fact that they felt their single votes wouldn’t matter, so it wasn’t worth the effort.
The same kids, who spent all their spare time pouring their hearts and souls into campaigns four years ago, begging every voter to turn out and explaining the importance of voting in primary elections, couldn’t be bothered to vote.
My years of training kicked in; I spat out the same talking points about why they needed to vote, the importance of civic duty, how democracy would collapse if no one voted, etc. Nothing worked. They weren’t going to vote.
I still don’t entirely understand what happened. All I know is that we were supposed to be the future of democracy, and it appears that the youthquake was just a mirage. We were supposed to be the generation that ushered in a new type of politics. Our generation was supposed to be different, but it looks like we will just be more of the same. In the midterm elections of 2022, Gen Z had a collective turn out rate of 27 percent, which is technically higher than previous generations but still pathetic. I don’t get it. My friends—dedicated, smart adults—couldn’t be bothered to vote.
All I know is that we are now part of the problem. Our political system may be gridlocked, but that’s why voting is more important than ever. If we do nothing, nothing will change. Something happened that turned us from idealistic dreamers who believed in the possibility of change to cynics who simply don’t care. The problem is that we the people don’t seem to care. Our country faces a plethora of seemingly intractable problems, but the best hope we have depends on us, the people. To paraphrase the Lorax: Unless (we the people) care a whole awful lot nothing is going to get better, it’s not.
Sam Borne is a member of the Class of 2026.