Getting Out the Youth Vote (Not)
My progressive friends had different post-election coping strategies. Some refused to leave bed, others indulged in enough drugs to make a libertarian blush. Me? I roamed the UCLA campus, shooting angry glances at my peers and trying to figure out which ones had skipped voting the day before. It seemed logical. After all, they'd lost it for us.
This was supposed to be the year, the moment when the reliably disappointing youth vote finally emerged to reshape the political landscape. Not only would the kids vote, they were going to materialize in such overwhelming numbers that they would throw the polling off. After all, pollsters can't call cell phones, and a large percentage of young people rely exclusively on their mobiles. They weren't being polled; they were going to vote; and ergo, the polls were wrong. QED.
And then it didn't happen. Turns out youth made up no larger a proportion of the electorate than it had in 2000. While our numbers were up overall, they weren't up any more than any other demographic group, which is pretty pathetic considering our anemic quadrennial turnout affords us the most room for growth. Oh sure, there were bright spots. The young were the only age group John Kerry won; we alone went for progressive candidates. Even better, we did so in larger numbers in the battleground states. Kerry's 10-point nationwide margin among us increased to 14 percent in Ohio, 18 percent in Florida and 32 percent (!) in Pennsylvania. Were the franchise confined to those with fresh memories of puberty, Kerry would have enjoyed a landslide.
But he didn't, and we should feel partly responsible for it. Even leaving unchanged that combination of senility and greed that led older Americans to vote Bush, youth still could have swung some states. In Ohio, Bush's margin was 136,483 ballots. Not a very big number, and an even smaller one considering the state boasts 1,055,842 residents between 18 and 24. In Florida, Bush claimed a more comfortable victory, but with a bit of motivation, we could have made it mighty uncomfortable. Florida has 1,326,537 potential voters between 18 and 24, and Bush won by 377,216 votes. The closer the vote was, the more annoying the result. In Iowa and New Mexico, the margins were tighter than an indie scenester's painted-on denim; both lean toward Bush in the current count, but either could have been swung by an uptick in youth turnout. In Iowa, a state with 298,485 potential youth voters, Bush's margin was 13,216 votes. In New Mexico, home to 178,266 18-to-24-year-olds, Bush's tally was a mere 8,366 votes more than Kerry's.
With this final disappointment, this definitive proof that youth simply refuse to make good on the punditocracy's most informed predictions, it's time for the left to re-evaluate how to win the youth vote. And though it'll be tough, it may be time to admit that the tried-and-untrue appeals to celebrity and fear simply don't do the trick.
To be fair, the reliance on celebrity isn't the Democratic party's fault; it sprang from insipid celebrities themselves and the breathless reporters who follow their every move. When Puffy excuse me, P-Diddy emerged from the limo and promised a youth-voting revolution, his frustrated coterie of journalists scribbled furiously, grateful that the night's filing would hold a glimmer of social import.
Middle-aged newsroom executives coveting new viewing demographics followed suit, giving the rapper's foray into politics exponentially more airtime and column inches than it deserved. And so Diddy's "Vote or Die" campaign became an accepted powerhouse, a potentially transformative organization hyped up by hundreds of media outlets.
But "Vote or Die" was ridiculous on its surface was it promising immortality or threatening execution? and Diddy is even more absurd, having long ago outlived his moment and is now considered cool only by Sesame Street's "the letter D" and track-suit fetishists. For him to be the long-awaited messiah, come to lead youth back to the ballot box, doesn't just reek of inauthenticity, it's insulting.
Further alienating was the Democrats' "vote or get drafted" fear mongering. Rock the Vote grabbed the issue, sending out fake draft notices and prompting a "cease and desist" order from the Republicans; the talk shows began blathering about it; and the concern even filtered up into the second presidential debate. Unlike Puffy, the draft really is scary, take it from a 20-year-old. That young people didn't find the threat of military conscription motivating is surprising. Or not. Maybe they just wrote the threat off as an everyday confrontation with the political sphere. And maybe, just maybe, the fact that we do that is also why we don't vote.
Unlike some other demographics, youth has its primary governmental interactions with cops, a group that seems to exist solely to harass, at least until you turn 35 or so. But the unpleasantness extends even beyond badge holders. Politicians generally pay us just enough attention to scold; from Lieberman flipping out over violent video games, to Dole tripping out over obscene movies, to Biden legislating against raves, to Bill Bennett attacking rap music (presumably between sessions at the slot machines), politics is one never-ending nag session.
The bottom line is that most youth have an oppositional relationship to politics, and indeed to the government itself. Whether it's culture wars, threats of a draft or harassment from a cop, the public sphere seems generally arrayed against us, or at least hoping we'll delay our involvement for four more years. Never mind the calls for youth participation, complete with the solemn invocations of JFK. But if politicians are going to constantly refer to the motivation Camelot offered them, then they better be prepared to offer us similar inspiration. If that's not in the cards and judging by recent offerings, it's not they better fashion a more compelling, less hectoring pitch.
Fact is, the current strategy (such as it is) would never be attempted on another constituency. In hopes of mobilizing the Latino vote, legislators are tripping over themselves to pledge support for immigration reform and high-level appointments. Same goes for other interest groups: Union members are promised wage increases, evangelicals are offered cultural concessions, business owners get tax breaks, Cubans get anti-Castro policies. What promises are made to youth?
From the Democratic Party's perspective, the critical difference between young people and the constituencies just mentioned is that the others are being courted by both sides. This year, for instance, Kerry's share of the Latino vote dropped, mostly because Bush spent enormous amounts of time, money and political currency eating into it. But no one's making a serious effort to cater to and activate the youth vote, so whichever party gets there first will find easy gains. Most agree that if the Democrats are to recover from their recent defeats, they need to attract new supporters in the present and begin building a stronger voting base for the future. Maybe it's time they gave serious thought to trying. ?
Ezra Klein is a junior at UCLA. He is co-author of the blog www.pandagon.net.
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