Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey dialed in on Zoom Thursday evening to share his political insight with students across the Pittsburgh area — all while driving home from a late congressional meeting.
The Resident Student Association held its final town hall to discuss civic engagement and advocacy with Casey. The event was open to the public, with a majority of the audience made up of students from Pitt, Duquesne University, Carnegie Mellon University and Pitt’s School of Law. Guests could submit questions throughout the hour-long event for Casey to answer. Danielle Obisie-Orlu, president of RSA, and Anneliese Harp, vice president of administration of RSA, served as co-moderators for the event.
Questions came from the RSA moderators and audience members via a Q&A chat. Casey’s comments focused mainly on the significance of youth involvement in politics. Casey, a Democrat, said he believes this time in history is pivotal for youth engagement, due in part to the “tools that other generations didn’t have,” particularly social media.
“I do not think there could be a more important time in recent American history for young people to be active, but also not a more opportune time. The likelihood of substantial change is much greater this year than it has been in at least five or 10 years,” Casey said. “Young people have utilized well the tools that your generation has to connect with each other, to stay connected, to mobilize.”
Harp, a sophomore pre-pharmacy major, said she agrees with Casey’s statement on youth actively engaging politics and staying up to date on current issues in the world, such as structural racism, climate change and xenophobia. Harp asked Casey how issues like these “relate to advocacy among young people,” and how Casey would advise them to get more involved in such topics.
Casey said he could compare the work being done by young people now to any other critical moment in history — the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement. In terms of guidance, Casey had only a little advice to offer.
“One thing that is clear is that young people have probably never been more active. I would compare it to any other period in American history, any other generation,” Casey said. “You are aggregating a lot of voices and bringing people together much more quickly and in a much more accelerated fashion than you would in previous years. I don’t really have any advice because I would just say to keep doing what you have been doing. You already know how to be active.”
Jack Ruotolo, an RSA member and first-year politics and philosophy major, submitted a question from the audience and asked Casey what he would say to those “skeptical of civic engagement” and the value of their votes.
Casey said he can turn to recent elections to counter anyone who says their vote doesn’t matter. He said the presidential election and Georgia’s Senate elections in particular show how small margins determine crucial races.
“In Pennsylvania, President Biden carried the state by just a little bit more than 80,000 votes. That’s only about 1.2 percentage points,” Casey said. “There is so much more evidence that every vote does count. If you have a number of Americans thinking along those lines, that their vote doesn’t count, you can very easily see how that small group of Americans could change the outcome of an election. I would always argue against the idea that someone’s vote doesn’t count.”
Obisie-Orlu, a sophomore political science and international and area studies major, said everyone’s voices and their ability to vote is the “core message of civic engagement.” She said young people especially must use their voting power because it is their “voice in the political arena.”
An anonymous audience member asked Casey to comment on political divides, specifically comparing the divide among members to congressional divides. The audience member asked how young people can learn from this to make productive change in the future.
Casey said political divides manifest frequently, citing a recent passage of the American Rescue Plan in which Vice President Kamala Harris had to cast the tiebreaking vote. Casey said even though the race was close in the Senate, he does not believe these votes accurately reflected public sentiment.
“You would think that if the Rescue Plan was a 51-50 or a 50-49 vote, that would likely have reflected the country better. But, it really didn’t because the Rescue Plan was popular on the upside probably 70-30 across the country,” Casey said, “I think there is often a disconnect, and I think even more so today, between popular sentiment about an issue and how elected representatives vote.”
The event also discussed involvement in community outreach and political organizations, especially for students on campus. Harp asked Casey his advice for students looking to pursue political careers, specifically where students “would need to build resilience.”
Casey said he believes there is no question that entering politics “requires a degree of resilience.” He said he would advise students to consider all the options available to them in the public service sector before deciding which path to pursue.
“Sometimes, people want to get involved in government but they don’t want to run for public office. Others may run for public office,” Casey said, “I would say if you choose that pathway, just think long and hard. I would recommend it because I don’t think there is much you can do in American life that would give you a greater exposure.”
Casey said he is grateful for any opportunity to talk with young people about politics and engagement, and he is confident in the activism he has seen in the generation thus far.
“You have inspired a lot of people in my generation. You have held us accountable and you have motivated a lot of us to do even more than we thought we were capable of,” Casey said. “You are staying active and engaged in the great public debates that we are engaged in right now. Thank you for being so active in our democracy.”