This is a work in progress, and I am posting it in the hope that people will read it and react to it. Tell me where I’m right, and tell me where I’m wrong or missing something.
I teach Political Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and in years past I taught at a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania and a large state university in California. Among other courses, I teach big introductory classes in American Government that are full of first and second year students, so I have been talking with a lot of young people about politics for 25 years. As a political scientist, I have also been reading what little is available in our literature about their attitudes toward politics and their political participation. Add to that the fact that I have three children between the ages of 17 and 23, all of whom are interested in politics, and I’d say I have a solid base to offer some opinions on young people and political participation.
Here is what I know about how the 18-29 demographic views political participation. I think it means that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are in trouble in 2016 unless they make some changes in their approach to young people. I am intentionally oversimplifying here and overstating the differences between young and older people in order to sharpen the contrast. If I seem to be saying “all,” please understand that I mean a disproportionate amount. But as a practical matter these differences are determinative of election outcomes, and these are reasons why young people must be appealed to differently or they will not vote.
How are young voters different than older voters?
Compared with older voters, the 18-29 voters are different in these ways:
1. They don’t identify with either political party. They see themselves as independent voters. Partisanship is not a motivator for them. They are disenchanted with politics in general, which they equate with senseless partisan conflict. They do not understand the differences in public policies that flow from having one or the other party in control.
2. They are not ideological. They do not see themselves as liberal/progressive or conservative/libertarian. While it is true that they are high on social tolerance, this does not flow from any ideological commitment. It is really a reflection of low attachment to traditional religious morality (see 3, below).
3. They are not religious. They do not subscribe to conventional religious morality and are not motivated by appeals to religious traditions. They are moral relativists who have a firm commitment to laissez faire with respect to other people’s choices of how to life their lives. This is because they believe in reciprocity--they place a high value on their own freedom from the demands other people might place on them to live in a particular way.
4. They are not motivated by appeals from interest groups. Even though they may agree with the positions some groups take, they are not joiners. They don’t identify with labor unions, nor do they believe in working within the interest-group dominated, existing political system to bring about change. They are suspicious of appeals from these groups.
5. They are not motivated to participate in politics by conventional patriotism, citizenship, or civic duty. They do not regard voting as a responsibility and will vote only if they know why they are voting and what they are voting for, and it matters to them. They must feel they understand what the election is about, and that their vote will bring about positive change in the near term.
6. They don’t regularly visit web pages regularly, and they don’t use email unless they have to. They go to web sites to connect with social media, and that’s the way they expect to be informed and stay in touch with whatever and whoever matters to them. The medium has to be good and lively or they will tune out, because they have many choices. Even Facebook is fading for them. They favor Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat, Pinterest, Flickr, and other even newer apps that are loaded with photos and short comments. They cannot imagine that there was a time without smart phones and instant connectivity.
7. They do not read much, and they have short attention spans. They don’t read newspapers or books about politics. They live in an ocean of images and short, evocative phrases.
8. They don’t watch TV news programs. News has to be packaged as entertainment or they will ignore it.
9. They have almost no sense of recent political history. Things that are enormously meaningful to baby boomers are non-events for today’s 18-29 voters. They know practically nothing about the 1960s culture wars, Viet Nam, Watergate, Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, the Iran-Contra scandal, the first invasion of Iraq in 1991, or even Bill Clinton. This is largely because K-12 education steadfastly avoids recent political history.
10. They do not understand how public policy decisions in the past built the world they live in. Lacking any sense of the past, they have no historical perspective on major trends that began years ago and are affecting their lives today, such as the decline of labor unions, increasing income inequality, and globalization. They are intensely concerned about problems they see around them in their lives, especially their prospects for a career and a family. However, they don’t understand that these problems have been developing for decades, and they don’t understand how public policy decisions set all these trends in motion.
11. They are individualistic consumers, who do not understand that political change happens only through sustained effort by organized formations of political institutions. They want problems solved, and they have some awareness that political change could do that. Yet they lack perspective about the sustained and concerted efforts by organized groups—parties, interest groups, and social movements--that are necessary for that to happen. They equate politics with partisan bickering, that somehow both parties are equally to blame, and that if they could meet in the middle they could solve the problems. Competitive individualism and the rhetoric of individual responsibility have been drilled into them. They do not grasp that they need to become involved in organized and sustained political action or their life circumstances will not change.
If all this is true—and it is—then what are the political implications?
A. They cannot be reached effectively by conventional political campaigns.
B. Special efforts must be made to connect with them, educate them, and organize them. If this is not done, they will form a lifetime habit of non-participation.
C. Republicans do not need to connect with them, but they are making efforts. Instead they have developed an electoral strategy that relies on mobilizing older voters and making it harder for young people to vote. Yet, as I explain below, they are actively fielding young candidates and media figures. They know that young voters went disproportionately for Obama and other Democrats in 2008 and 2012 and they don’t want that to happen to the same degree in 2016. But Republicans can win in 2016 if young voters just stay home as they did in 2010 and 2014.
D. Democrats need young voters desperately and they are not connecting with them. The dominant view within the party is that young voters do not turn out in midterm elections, but can be counted upon to come to the polls in presidential years. This is wrong, as I explain below. Young voters cannot be taken for granted—they must be won over and mobilized. If Democrats do not make special efforts to turn out those expected numbers of young voters, it will cost them the 2016 election and give total control of the national government to the Republicans, along with even greater dominance in state politics.
E. It is possible for Democrats to connect with young voters. If they start now, and field younger candidates and advisors, and create the proper campaigns, and use the right methods, Democrats can mobilize the 18-29 voters in support of their candidates. If they do not make those efforts, youth turnout will probably be so low in 2016 that it is hard to see how the party can retain control of any branch of the federal government. It would take at least a decade for Democrats to become a presence in state politics across most of the country, but that could be done as well.
What is wrong with the Democratic Party’s approach to young voters?
Democrats need to begin by understanding why young voters turned out in large numbers to vote for Barack Obama; why they stayed home in 2010 and 2014, facilitating the Republican takeover of the US House and Senate and many state governments; and why the party’s current direction heading into 2016 is guaranteed to produce low turnout among young voters yet again.
1. Young voters have a connection with Barack Obama, not the Democratic Party or anything it stands for. In 2008, young people not only voted, they volunteered and they contributed money. They did this because the Obama campaign connected with them, educated them, and mobilized them for political participation. Obama connected with them for several reasons:
a. Youth: he was only 47 years old when he was elected.
b. A charismatic public image: he is handsome, engaging, has a compelling personality and life history, projects optimism about the future, and is one of the best public speakers in the world.
c. The promise of positive change in the immediate future: the slogan of the campaign, “Hope and Change,” captures perfectly the message that motivates young voters.
d. He appealed to young voters on issues. He was perceived as anti-war; he advocated for increasing taxes on the rich while cutting taxes for everybody else; he favored government regulation of financial markets; he advocated for health insurance reform that would make it affordable for everybody; he favored immigration reform; and he took relatively progressive positions or evidenced progressive sympathies on abortion, gay rights, diversity, gender equality, and criminal justice.
e. Grass roots empowerment: the Obama campaign styled itself as a bottom-up campaign that would depend on the efforts of volunteers and small contributors, who would be seen as the core of the campaign and highly valued. At the same time it raised vast sums from Wall Street, but there was an unprecedented and path-breaking effort to collect small contributions, recruit volunteers, and run labor-intensive get-out-the-vote drives.
f. Wise use of social media: the campaign intentionally reached out to young people using every electronic platform they could access.
g. Creation of a social movement atmosphere around what was in fact a well-organized political campaign. Participating in the Obama campaign was fun.
h. Letting young advisors run the campaign. David Plouffe was 41 when he managed Obama’s 2008 campaign. David Axelrod was 53 in 2008. Robert Gibbs was 37. Jim Messina, who managed Obama’s 2012 campaign, was 43 at the time.
2. But gradually many young voters began to believe that Obama either would not or could not transcend partisan politics and deliver the changes he promised. This is not to discount his many accomplishments. It is just to say that many young voters became somewhat disillusioned with Obama. They still liked him, and they blamed his failures on an inability to overcome a political process about which they were already cynical. They are turned off by the partisan gridlock in Washington, although they do not understand that creating gridlock t was part of the Republican strategy. They came to believe that, perhaps despite his best efforts, he was not able to give them the results they hoped for. These results include ending wars, making higher education affordable, producing good jobs for them, solving environmental problems, ending racism, bringing about immigration reform, securing equal rights for rights of gays and lesbians, advancing the cause of social justice, revolutionizing energy generation and transportation, or even making the government run smoothly. These are matters of real concern to them. On some of these issues, things have gotten worse instead of better. They turned out for Obama in 2012, but this does not mean they turned out to support the Democratic Party. In fact, post-Obama it is likely that young voters will find politics uninspiring.
3. As for 2010 and 2014, the Democratic Party has failed to educate young voters concerning why mid-term elections matter. By contrast, Republicans have successfully mobilized their older base in one mid-term election after another since the election of 1994. Their voters know exactly why they need to vote on these elections and they can be counted upon to do it.
4. Despite these failures, Democratic Party baby boomer leaders refuse to step aside and make room for a new generation. The Democratic Party lumbers on with the same baby boomer leaders who presided over their electoral catastrophes, and with the same mindset. It is as if there were a life tenure system for Democratic Party leaders in which there is not only no obligation to ever step down, but also no obligation even to cultivate and foreground the leaders of the future. By contrast, the Republicans clean house after electoral losses, and they are consciously grooming younger candidates and giving them prominent roles in Congress and state governments.
a. Congress: Normally when party leaders lose their majority they cede party leadership to others. Not former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, age 74, who continues to preside over House Democrats despite three disastrous elections in a row. In the debacle of 2010 the Democrats lost an incredible 64 seats. Democrats regained only 8 seats in 2012 despite Obama’s re-election, and then in 2014 Democrats lost 13 more seats. Senate minority leader, 75 year old Harry Reid, has a similar record. He continues to rule Senate Democrats despite losing 6 seats in 2010, regaining only 2 in 2012, and then surrendering control of the Senate in 2014 by losing 9 Senate seats in 2014.
b. Potential presidential contenders: Hillary Clinton will be 69 years old on election day in 2016. Joe Biden will be 73. Bernie Sanders will be 73. James Webb will be 71. Elizabeth Warren would be the baby of the possible candidates at 67. But the major Republican candidates include Scott Walker, who will be only 49 on election day, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who will be 45, and other candidates who were born after the baby boom.
c. The judiciary: Within Democratic and progressive circles there is an effort underway to build a cult of personality around US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg, who apparently delights in the nickname “Notorious RGB.” She is 81 years old, and should have retired when Obama could still get a successor confirmed by a Democratic Senate. Now that is impossible, and if a Republican President is elected in 2016, she will be replaced by a right-wing Republican. By contrast, Sonia Sotomayor is 60 and Elaine Kagan is 54, so they can hope to be on the court for decades, but they are resolutely ignored by Democrats in the media, who are infatuated with Ginsburg instead.
d. Party leaders: In 2004, Howard Dean was 54 and ran a remarkable and dynamic youth-oriented presidential campaign that laid the groundwork for what Obama did in 2008. As head of the DNC from 2005 to 2009, Dean successfully implemented a 50-state strategy that saw Democrats take over Congress in 2006 and helped Obama win red states in 2008. But Pelosi and Reid and other party leaders want no part of Dean, who has not held any elective or appointive office in government or with his party since 2009.
5. The Democrats will not have contested primaries in 2016, which will prevent any sustained effort to connect with, educate, and mobilize young voters. Hillary Clinton intends to bypass the primary season entirely and sail to an uncontested nomination. While she will avoid losing the nomination as she did in 2008, she will do nothing more than lose in the general election campaign. Hillary Clinton may be replaying the recent political career of Mitt Romney, who lost the Republican primary battle to John McCain in 2008, won the nomination in 2012, and lost the general election.
How can Democrats connect with young voters, educate them,
and motivate them to vote in the 2016 election?
If all these things are true, then how can young voters be reached? That will be in another essay that I am developing, and I hope I will be showered with good ideas from people who read this one. The answer, I believe is to be found in two places:
A. The ways Howard Dean in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 succeeded with young voters. To connect with them, educate them, and mobilize them, the Democratic Party and its candidates need a coherent and consistent approach.
1. Give them an exciting, youthful, energetic candidate they can identify with.
2. Show them how you will deliver positive change in their lives in the immediate future.
3. Run against militarism in foreign policy. Show them how war has made their lives worse, and how international cooperation works.
4. Run against economic, political, and social inequality in domestic policy. Show them how government can solve these problems.
5. Let young advisors run the campaign
6. Run a campaign that empowers the grass roots
7. Create a social movement atmosphere
8. Make intelligent use of social media
B. Premise their campaigns on cognitive science instead of 1960s era strategies for mobilizing voters. Linguistics professor George Lakoff has been striving valiantly for over a decade to get Democrats to listen to him on this issue, with little success. In the next essay, I will talk about this issue.
To be continued…