|Illustration by Mr. Fish|
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
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
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