We've been hearing promises of "change" from the candidates, and with the election only a week away, it's time to ask an important question: Is this race really going to change us? Or are we going to quit paying attention to politics after Nov. 4?
All year, we've been hearing about how Sen. Barack Obama's historic campaign is changing the way young people think about politics. His campaign stickers dot campuses across the country. Observers say they haven't seen a campaign arouse such support from the young since the 1960s.
"I'm glad they're interested in something other than their own self-interest and partying," one mother of a college-aged Obama supporter told The New York Times back in April. But it's one thing to be interested in a campaign andanother to continue to be interested in politics after the election, whether your candidate wins or loses.
In 2004, it was widely expected that young voters would turn out in flocks to support Sen. John Kerry against George W. Bush. Yet only 47 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds showed up to vote that November, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
It's palpably different now. It's not simply that Obama excites so many young people. It's that we feel that even more is at stake now -- for students, in particular -- than four years ago.
A poll taken by MTV Networks this month found that the economy ranked first, second and third among 18-to-34-year-olds as themost significant election concern. They were notably untroubled by "experience" and other things that pundits knot their brows over.
Though he hasn't generated a movement of similar intensity among the young, Sen. John McCain alsopromises that he's different from the other candidates; he's a "maverick," a man who stands independent of the Washington establishment. He, too, is trying to appeal to young people by packaging himself as something fresh and different.
This tactic isn't particularly new. Every election year brings similar promises of a new start and a fresh beginning. Even Obama's emphasis of "hope" isn't new: In 1992, Bill Clinton packaged himself as the "man from Hope" (literally -- he was born in Hope, Ark.). It isn't a tactic exclusive to Democrats, either: In 1980, Ronald Reagan won by asking voters if they thought they were better off that year than they had been four years before.
In part, this is simply human nature. We like buying (or voting for) things that seem new and fresh. A candidate who simply promises more of the same isn't likely to win even in prosperous times. But it's also a sign of our continuing attitude toward politics. We mean to pay more attention, we tell each other. We keep meaning to read our candidate's platform, to watch the news more often, to figure out what this economic crisis is all about, but most of us don't have a lot of time to do it.
A candidate who wants to catch our attention needs to try extra hard or be exceptionally inspiring. When that happens, we're reminded of the concerns we all share and what we can accomplish when we realize what those concerns are.
What matters isn't so much whether the candidates are genuinely original. What matters is the reaction they provoke from the rest of us. If Obama -- or McCain, for the matter -- inspires us to feel that we matter and that it matters whether or not we vote, they've made an enormous difference in our politics.
Let's hope we don't forget that lesson no matter who wins next Tuesday.