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A (Brief) History of the Youth Vote: An Interview With Author Michael Connery | The Nation

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A (Brief) History of the Youth Vote: An Interview With Author Michael Connery

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This article was originally published by WireTap magazine.

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Kathleen Barr

May 12, 2008

Youth to Power: How Today's Young Voters are Building Tomorrow's Progressive Majority by 29-year-old blogger Michael Connery is one of the first books to chronicle the incredible reinvigoration of youth activism that began before the 2004 presidential election and has come to a fore in 2008. Given the impact young people are having on electoral politics and grassroots activism today, it's about time we had a book like this.

Connery notes that today's young adults--the Millennial Generation -- are taking charge of their politics by organizing on the ground and online, leading new and established organizations dedicated to youth activism, and taking their concerns directly to political leaders, demanding action. The book pays particular attention to how youth-led, youth-focused organizations--from the Oregon Bus Project to the League of Young Voters--played a role in this resurgence. In 2004 and 2006, young voters turned out to vote in record numbers and made the difference in tight races that determined control of the U.S. Senate, seats in Congress, and statehouses.

While the book focuses too narrowly only on work done by new (what the author calls "Dot Org" boom) organizations, the overall theme--that the work of nonpartisan and partisan groups' youth mobilization is central to building youth political power--is crucial for anyone trying to understand what's happening today. In 2008, numbering 44 million, 18-29 year olds will be one in every five voters, and are on track to make a bigger impact at the polls--and beyond elections -- than at anytime in the past thirty years. WireTap's Kat Barr caught up with Michael Connery about this growing constituency, and what it might mean for our collective future.

WireTap: Your book begins by describing how conservatives built power strategically, and were successful for quite some time. Do you believe progressives are beginning to be successful to similar ends? What else needs to happen?

Michael Connery:

We're definitely making gains. Before 2003, we had nothing. Now there are a wide variety of training and leadership institutions. Young People For (YP4), the Center for Progressive Leadership (CPL), the Movement Strategy Center, Campus Camp Wellstone, the Young Elected Officials Network (YEON)--these groups are all new or scaling upwards and they are creating a leadership pipeline that can match the conservatives. We're already seeing the results. We're seeing graduates of YP4 start their own institutions or get elected to office. YEON is helping more of those young elected officials stay elected and work more effectively with their fellow legislators.

The two most pressing problems are funding and scale. Many of these new progressive leadership training organizations are surviving year-to-year with little or no financial stability. These organizations still have budgets that are just a fraction of the yearly budgets of their conservative counterparts, and in some cases, conservative organizations have more money "in reserve" than progressive organizations spend in two or three years. This imbalance creates huge disparities in the scale of the work that progressive institutions can achieve, and it means that we're training far fewer new activists each year than conservatives.

Smaller scale and less dependable budgets also mean that for all the help that these new progressive institutions provide to young talent, financial help is still limited. The conservative movement totally subsidizes the training of its young, making it a true meritocracy. The progressive movement, on the other hand, tends to offer far less financial support to its young talent. The side effect of this is that the progressive movement tends to be far less of a meritocracy and far more "clubby." The people who get entry-level jobs and training tend to be rich or connected kids, whose parents can afford to support them during an unpaid internship or a partially-subsidized training program. Those who can't afford that get left out in the cold. Some new organizations, like DMI Scholars, are working to correct that imbalance, but these groups typically have the smallest level of funding and the most trouble keeping their funds or increasing their yearly budgets.

The other problem is time. The conservatives have been doing this for 30 years now. We've been doing it for less than five. They've trained over 50,000 activists. We've trained a few thousand. We've got a long way to go to catch up. More money will help, but we also need to recognize that this is a long-term strategic shift that won't fully come to fruition for ten or 20 years. People are going to need to be patient.

Is it possible/important to frame anything as a "youth movement," or would be better to organize an intergenerational movement around specific issues or policy goals?

MC:

It's not an either/or choice, and one can't exist without the other.

Many of the problems we face--energy policy, climate change, health care, the economy--these will only be solved with an intergenerational commitment, but those solutions must address the problems of all Americans, not just a few. For decades now we've tinkered around [with] the health care system, but benefits have largely gone to the very old or the very young. "Young people" in the sense that I'm talking about, 18- to 30-year-olds, haven't seen any improvements. We're the most uninsured age demographic in the country. Similar arguments could be made for a whole host of issues from jobs and the economy to education reforms and skyrocketing tuition costs.

The problem is that there is no lobbying group or strong voting constituency sticking up for our perspective on policy issues. To correct that, we do need a youth movement that is highly self-aware and that turns out in great numbers at the ballot box.

As I wrote in the book, issue organizations spent years ignoring the ballot box to focus solely on policy reforms or protest politics. That didn't get us anywhere. The problem is even worse among young people dedicated to party politics. Within the party, youth are typically denigrated as a second-class constituency. If you organize young voters, you are in the minor leagues. Problem is, everyone wants to play in the majors. Young, aspiring operatives want to be taken seriously, not looked down upon. So as a result, you get a lot of young people who ignore the very important work of organizing their peers because they want to get ahead in their careers. That hurts us and hampers the work of groups like the Young and College Democrats.

We need a youth-movement framework (in the electoral sense) to keep issue groups on tasks, turning their members out to the polls. We need a youth-movement framework to make sure that within the party there is a concerted effort among young people to organize their peers. Without that framework, I don't think we can get a significant enough seat at the policy table. Without that strong seat at the policy table, I don't think we'll see policy that accurately reflects the concerns of our generation.

I'm not calling for intergenerational warfare on policy issues, but anything short of a full-fledged youth movement at the polls won't give us the leverage we need as a constituency to be a full partner in such an intergenerational alliance.

You devote one chapter to what you view as a split in the progressive youth movement between those who prioritize the ballot box and those who prioritize community organizing. Do you view that as a problem in terms of achieving real progress? If yes, what needs to happen to narrow that gap?

MC:

Of course it's a problem. One of the things I note in that chapter is that community organizing, and youth groups that arise out of that tradition, are increasingly engaging in electoral politics. That's where some groups like The League of Young Voters draw a lot of their energy. The problem is that these groups are often the first to lose their funding after an election, making it near impossible for them to sustain their work, let along scale up.

Without these groups, there are a whole host of policy concerns that won't be addressed. [Hurricane] Katrina, poverty, criminal justice reforms, the drug war--these are issues that are pushed by these groups far more than [by] any other [organizations]. If we want to achieve real progress on these issues, then the constituencies for whom these issues resonate need to be a greater force in the electorate. That means there needs to be an even greater focus on electoral organizing. Voter registration and ID programs to start earlier and go longer and deeper. Without more sustained funding for the work of groups like the League of Young Voters, the Hip Hop Caucus, and dozens of locally-based organizations, that won't happen and the gap will only get wider.

[Getting] sustained funding from more than a few kindly millionaires is the biggest problem facing progressive youth organizing at the moment, and in no area is this more keenly felt than in the work of groups that focus on underserved communities and communities of color. There is no shortage of activism. What's missing is a greater commitment from the donor community--in terms of amount given and the number of overall donors. That is the key to making more progress.

When you talk about groups that work on social justice, you mention that they are mostly young people of color, but seem to focus primarily on organizations that prioritize black youth. What about youth of other backgrounds--Latino, Arab, Asian American? Do they prioritize community organizing over voting too?

MC:

The groups that I write about have their roots in the post-civil rights movement in the African American community. Many of their members are black, but their memberships are also very diverse. So I don't think that dichotomy necessarily holds. The United States Student Accociation, The League of Young Voters, Young People For, DMI Scholars--these are all very diverse organizations.

If you are asking if there are similar groups rooted in the organizing traditions of the Latino, Arab and Asian communities--not that I'm aware of. There's Voto Latino, a nonprofit voter registration group aimed at young Latinos, but they are more like Rock the Vote -- a media organization and online GOTV (Get-Out-the-Vote) program--than a community organizing outfit. The fact that the pro-immigrant student rallies a few years ago were organized online in a decentralized fashion via MySpace seems to be evidence of a real lack of institutionalized youth organizing in the Latino community. As for the Arab or Asian American communities, I can't say I've seen anything, though it is certainly needed. Asian Americans, particularly Asian-Pacific Islander Americans are one of the least likely groups to vote.

Where do you see young activists making the biggest impact in the next two years? In the next ten?

MC:

In the next two years, first at the ballot box in November, and then again in 2010. We're still in the primaries, when turnout is typically lower among all sectors of the electorate. What we've seen so far is just a taste of what is to come in November, and that's going to have long-term repercussions on how campaigns and the parties treat young voters. By and large, campaigns still ignore young people as a constituency, which creates a cycle of neglect that depresses turnout.

High youth turnout in November, particularly if it ushers in a Democratic president, could radically alter the relationship between young voters and the two-party system. That will have a significant long-term impact in how young voters will be able to influence the policy debate on a range of issues. I expect that skyrocketing turnout rates will continue into the midterms, particularly if a Democratic president has a hard time passing legislation that they feel lives up to promises made on the campaign trail--or if a Republican president obstructs such policies put forth by a Democratic Congress. That in turn will continue to change the way the parties and campaigns view young voters, and radically increase the influence of young people in the debate.

Beyond that, I really see Millennials driving the climate change movement. If we're going to see a real reversal in our nation's energy policy, I think that young people are going to be at the forefront of that change. It's one of the issues around which young people today are most active, and the country is gradually coming to an awareness that this may well be the great challenge of the 21st century. If young people are turning out in large numbers to vote, and being vocal about their support for a new, cleaner energy policy, that can be the political capital that progressives need to push through real policy change.

The 2008 elections have engaged young adults in tremendous ways. On November 5th, what needs to happen to truly bring this youth energy to power, and to continue to take action on issues with newly elected and reelected individuals?

MC:

If young voters turn out in record numbers, that will be a huge step in and of itself. The problem has never been a shortage of youth activism on the issues of the day. Young people have always been involved in taking action on those issues. It's that their voices could be (and were) discounted in Washington because there was nothing behind them. There were no votes to back up their concerns and make politicians take them seriously. That's about to change.

Beyond that, I'd like to see the Obama campaign take the massive list it has built and all that youth energy it has harnessed to create something lasting and sustained to channel that voting power into a vehicle for policy change. Just like Howard Dean created Democracy for America (DFA) after his primary campaign ended, which has since elected many local officials and helped propel [him] into the chairmanship of the Democratic Party, I hope Senator Obama--win or lose--will create his own version of DFA to harness and continue all of this new youth activism. Failing that, I hope that he will try to channel all these new activists [his campaign] has created into existing youth organizations so that they will have an increasingly powerful voice, [so] they can hold politicians accountable and push forward real policy change.

Kathleen Barr is the Deputy Political Director at Rock the Vote and has worked in youth politics for the past eight years.

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