Quote Card by Opinion.

American democracy is failing, and people know it. Last month Americans with confidence in government institutions and democracy hit the lowest levels on record. Young Americans have felt this way for a while: 52% of young Americans reported negative feelings about the state of democracy in the U.S. last year. As the next generation to take over these institutions, it is up to us to decide how we want the next stage of American democracy to look. 

The discontent among younger generations comes as no surprise. Different age groups have different priorities, and those in power are generations apart from the youngest voters — and even a generation from the median voter. Despite the median age in the U.S. being 38, the average age in Congress is 59 years old. Coupled with the fact that members of Congress routinely receive large amounts of money from vested interests and PACs, as evidenced by the 2020 election cycle, the average young voter has almost no voice when it comes to policy making. 

Young people do not have the same influence in Washington as these groups, and yet, despite the still-growing cynicism in our political system, they are poised to come out in record-breaking numbers in the upcoming midterm elections. This begs the question: If youth feel their participation in the system is futile, why are they coming out at all? The answer is because they have no other choice. Faced with skyrocketing inequality, the climate crisis and racial and gender injustice — among many other issues — the youngest Americans cannot just sit by idly. The option to be apathetic is not one most young people can afford. So, despite their lack of faith in the system, they cast their vote and hope for the best. 

But we don’t have to relegate ourselves to hoping for the best. While we may not have influence in Washington, our universities do. The education industry spent over $80 million on lobbying in 2020 alone. According to OpenSecrets, the University of Michigan has spent over $8.6 million in lobbying efforts since 1998, with $160,000 directed so far to lobbying in 2022 alone. The University of Michigan is just one example of the tremendous influence universities have in our political system and on policy, but that influence, and some of the money they use, come from their students. Because of this, students have a great influence on universities — and we should use it. 

This is why organizations such as Un-PAC, a voting rights non-profit focused on youth empowerment, has shifted its focus from national voting rights policy to campuses across the nation. They know youth can influence their universities to enact a slew of policies on campus that protect the voting and political rights of students, such as canceling classes on election days and being more transparent about their lobbying efforts.

The effort to pressure the University of Michigan might seem redundant given that the University already does more work with regards to voting than most universities, such as having polling places on campus and providing resources on election information. But the University falls short in other areas: There is no guarantee of being excused from class to vote and polling places are only available on the Ann Arbor campus. 

There is always room for improvement, and the timing for improvement at the University of Michigan could never be better. The Board of Regents recently appointed Santa Ono as the 15th university president, who will officially assume office this October. In addition, two regents, Katherine White (D) and Michael Behm (D), are up for reelection this fall. As a new administration gets ready to settle in, and two regents seek to remain in power, the chance to demand change and apply meaningful pressure on leadership is available to the University of Michigan community. 

Money talks, but so do people. And while most legislation reflects the grip that money currently has on our system, history has shown the power that collective and organized action can have. Weekends and the forty-hour work week only came after organized American labor tore down the barriers standing before them. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” but that arc only bends under pressure — not from only recognizing justice, but from those taking action to seek it. That starts with young Americans aspiring to take back control for our future’s sake. It starts with our universities telling our government that we won’t let you continue to ignore us. It starts with students getting their universities on board. It starts with you.

Peter Matarweh is a Senior in the Residential College working with Un-PAC and can be reached at pmatarwe@umich.edu.