A year ago, Michelle Kremer couldn't have imagined voting for a Democrat, much less phone-banking for one. The 19-year-old Cornell sophomore was raised by parents on both sides of the political divide, but chose to register as a Republican in May 2007, as soon as she turned 18. But by September 2008, disappointed by Republican nominee John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate, she found herself looking for inspiration away from the party she'd always known. She cautiously began researching then–Democratic nominee Barack Obama, and, impressed by his thoughtful foreign policy and practical economic plans, decided to change her vote. Soon, Kremer was spending her nights and weekends volunteering for Obama's campaign; now, she's a writer for Generation O, a new NEWSWEEK blog that seeks to chronicle the lives of a group of young Obama supporters.
Stranger things have happened. Still, Kremer, who now considers herself a political moderate, sees her personal transition as part of an emerging trend. Her politically active peers no longer identify themselves by "party first," she says. Instead, she explains, "we're identifying as Americans first." In the months since Barack Obama was elected president, that refrain has been repeated by politicians and pundits alike, and to a subsection of voters, it rings surprisingly true. Young people ages 18 to 29 rallied around a 47-year-old first-term Senator last fall not only because of his ideas, but also for the generational change he ushered in. Their age cohort is often referred to as the "millennials," but a more apt term might be "Generation O"—short for Obama.
A new study from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University shows that today's youth vote in larger numbers than previous generations, and a 2008 study from the Center for American Progress adds that increasing numbers of young voters and activists support traditionally liberal causes. But there's no easy way to see what those figures mean in real life. During the campaign, Obama assembled a racially and ideologically diverse coalition with his message of hope and change; as the reality of life under a new administration settles in, some of those supporters might become disillusioned. As the nation moves further into the Obama presidency, will politically engaged young people continue to support the president and his agenda, or will they gradually drift away?
The writers of Generation O want to answer that question. For the next three months, Kremer and 11 other Obama supporters, ages 19 to 34, will blog about life across mainstream America, with one twist: by tying all of their ideas and experiences to the new president and his administration, the bloggers will try to start a conversation about what it means to be young and politically active in America today. Malena Amusa, a 24-year-old writer and dancer from St. Louis sees the project as a way to preserve history as it happens. Amusa, who is traveling to India this spring to finish a book, then to Senegal to teach English, has ongoing conversations with her friends about how the Obama presidency has changed their daily lives and hopes to put some of those ideas, along with her global perspective, into her posts. She's excited because, as she puts it, "I don't have to wait [until] 15 years from now" to make sense of the world.
Not all of the bloggers have come as far as Kremer, or plan to travel as far as Amusa. Some were initially skeptical about Obama, and others worked for months on his campaign, but for the most part they are ordinary students and professionals living in communities across the United States. To stay in touch, they rely on the same tools as their peers: e-mail, Facebook and Twitter. Generation O is meant to be its own online community; the primary site is hosted on Tumblr, a blog platform that emphasizes video and multimedia posts and encourages users to discuss interesting content by "reblogging" other users' posts. Eugene Resnick, a Generation O contributor and a student at the University of Virginia, says he's seen people "more engaged in their communities" since the election and thinks that surge in local engagement could translate into enthusiasm for a new community as well.
Henry Flores, a political-science professor at St. Mary's University, credits this younger generation's political strength to their embrace of technology. "[The Internet] exposes them to more thinking," he says, "and groups that are like-minded in different parts of the country start to come together." That's exactly what the Generation O bloggers are hoping to do. The result could be a group of young people that, like their boomer parents, grows up with a strong sense of purpose and sheds the image of apathy they've inherited from Generation X. It's no small challenge for a blog run by a group of ordinary—if ambitious—young people, but the members of Generation O are up to the task.