Since 1968 the Democrats have been shut out, more or less, as majority party. But with a small bump in left-of-center turnout, they’d be running the country. The dropoff in voting has been greatest among the young. This is the biggest what-if in American politics: What if the Democrats pitched an issue to the young?
For example, student loans. Declare an amnesty. Or let college grads off the hook if their incomes fall below a certain level. Or at least let them discharge the loan in bankruptcy.
But is there a single bill in Congress from any Democrat to this effect? No. Instead, the Democrats over and over pitch their issues to the elderly–only, in the last election, to see the old people, hardhearted, reject them again. Isn’t it better to woo the young?
Yes, being middle-aged, I now scoff at the kids too. They don’t vote. Or read the papers. Most of the time I think they’re slugs. I see them on the El and not reading anything at all. Headphones, not for an album, but just a single song, over and over. That look in their eyes: no look. Just: click. Off. Prozac would be a wake-up call.
A very young person I know (he’s 33), said to me, “You look at the ’60s, the young people who were leaders then. National leaders. Changing history. Like Stokely Carmichael–he was, when you read about him, only, like, 24! Now I look around, at people even my age, and what are they doing? Nothing. Nothing at all!”
Now it’s true, back in the 1960s, we dropped out too. But the way we dropped out is diddly squat to the way kids drop out now. Here’s a comparison:
Turnout percentage, of all 21- to 24-year-olds:
What’s shocking is that in 1968 kids were trying to sit out the election. Humphrey, Nixon–both were for the war. Since 1968, the numbers in college have shot up. But newspaper reading has dropped. (So are they more educated?) And voting is now–even in Bush-Gore, a cliffhanger–about a third.
In 1968 half the kids voted: Now that’s the rate nationwide. In 2000, it was 35 percent of kids. So won’t it, one day, also be 35 percent nationwide?
We Boomers love to say, “There are no issues now, like Vietnam, that directly affect the young!” Or, materially affect the young. But is that true? What strikes me about Vietnam is that, in a certain way, it did not affect many of us in a direct or material way. We weren’t going to be drafted. We knew it. We protested for the sake of others. Or take civil rights. The kids who were on the freedom buses to the South in the early 1960s had no material stake in it at all. Kids turned out for precisely the issues that did not affect them materially.
By contrast, kids in college today have issues that do affect them materially. The average loan debt for a college student now is $30,000. Some have twice or three times as much. And the debt is going up. Colleges, with their now-deflated endowments, are cutting back. State governments are running deficits. Already, kids are turning away from the better schools. They go to junior colleges. Hope to transfer over. In other words, in terms of living the American dream, they have already begun, defensively, to scale back, go for less. Just ever so slightly mutilate their futures.
And where’s the party of the left?
Chasing after old people. When Clinton offered tuition tax credits, he pitched it to the parents. We’re afraid to say, out loud, directly to the kids:
College should be free. All of it. Harvard on down. In Germany a few months ago, the high court declared any tuition above cost in a German university to be unconstitutional. Sound socialist? But that’s what our ancestors believed when they set up the public schools. Back then, even the founders more or less dropped out of college, so college didn’t count the way it does today. But why shouldn’t it be free?
At least one candidate, John Edwards, seems to get it. He says freshman year should be free. But Senator: If we want the kids over 18 to vote, shouldn’t we make it senior year?
Or maybe just forgive the loans. Now my corporate buddies grump, “Hey, those kids get those loans on Very Good Terms!”
And one of the terms happens to be: an army of repo men, and repo women, to go after kids, like the Furies went after Orestes, if they fall behind in paying. On phones. Shouting. Pay up. It’s all over America, the phones are ringing. No wonder kids have learned to go Click.
If kids start dropping out, or going to junior college, like the children of my clients, then all of us will be paying the debt that comes from that. We will pay in lost skills, lost productivity, lost engagement in the country’s life. Click.
And meanwhile, the Democrats, always out of office by a whisker, go on chasing after the old. Even if they did run ads on MTV, they’d have nothing much to say. For that matter, where are the unions? If I were the AFL-CIO for a day, I’d send out organizers to every campus and organize for the Democrats around the issue of student loans.
Maybe any attempt to court the young is doomed. But what if we Democrats dared, for one election, to talk directly to the kids? Not the elderly. Not the parents, who pay tuition. What if the young, being wooed, fell into our arms?