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OPINION: How young people are shifting America's center to the left



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Marchers work their way down Seventh Street past the Indiana Memorial Union on Sept. 20, 2019, as part of the Bloomington Climate Strike. IDS file photo and Matt Begala

Global Shapers, an international group of activists under 30 affiliated with the World Economic Forum, met in January to discuss sustainable development and the power of youth activism. They emphasized the role of young people in modern political affairs.

“My call to action is to young people everywhere — we have so much power!” said Wanjuhi Njoroge, a young Kenyan environmental activist, according to Global Shapers

Young people have always been a dominating force in politics worldwide, whether politicians like it or not. From the Greensboro sit-in in the midst of the civil rights movement to the pro-democracy uprisings of the 2011 Arab Spring, it is hard to quantify young people's worldwide effect throughout history. 

But even smaller movements can make a significant change by pushing the national and international political center toward progress.

This phenomenon is best understood using the Overton Window.

Developed in the mid-1990s by think tank leader Joe Overton, the Overton Window is a theory that only certain political ideas exist in a “window” of acceptability. Imagine a from left to right with various policy ideas for a political topic. On either end of the line, there are the extreme policies for the issue, with anything between being more moderate. The window in the center determines what ideas are comfortable enough to talk about in mainstream politics.

The further young activists push an issue toward the center of the line, the more that viewpoint is considered mainstream and the alternative is considered antiquated. Similarly, it opens up the door for new, previously untouched subjects to be part of the discussion and considered radical.

Young people in America today are shifting the Overton Window and influencing presidential candidates' platforms.

One prominent example is Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Young activists have helped to rapidly shift the Overton Window toward abolishing the agency through high-profile protests. Young Jewish activists, for example, proclaimed “never again” during a march in Washington, D.C., in June, and some protesters were even arrested.

The event garnered national media attention and helped shift the mainstream conversation. A Pew Research Center survey in September found that Americans had a more unfavorable opinion of ICE than any other federal agency.

Democratic presidential primary candidates now address ICE's role in their immigration plans. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has called for the agency to be abolished, and the other remaining candidates, except former Vice President Joe Biden, plan to redistribute duties of the agency or restructure the agency entirely.

So what else can youth activists do to shift their cause’s Overton Window? 

IU offers a hub of organizations and groups to stay vigilant and get involved in activist causes. The Feminist Student Association dedicates itself to fighting for feminist causes while working to educate its members and the community on the many types of oppression faced today. The Bloomington hub of the Sunrise Movement organizes young people to participate in climate change activism and seeks progressive reform in climate policy.

Reporters Without Borders at IU raises issues about the freedom of press across the world and fights against oppressive censorship laws. The group organized a candlelight vigil in October honoring journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the one-year anniversary of his assassination by Saudi government agents. The event brought in IU provost Lauren Robel and New York Times journalist Carol Giacomo and served as a solemn reminder of the importance of free press and protecting journalists.

IU chapter president Ann Lewandowski said the organization is an important resource for defending free press.

“If it's just one person who comes and learns something new or even is inspired to do something or even care a little bit, then it was worth it,” Lewandowski said.

Change is not easy. You cannot expect instant results for your activism. But just know that when you fight for your beliefs, you move that Overton Window a tick your way, a tick toward your truth and a tick toward creating a snowball effect.

Max Sandefer (he/him) is a sophomore studying Spanish and political science. He is currently a legislative intern on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

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