The sullen attitude of most Democratic politicians toward young people is reflected in Hillary Clinton’s memoir, Living History, in which she laments that people between the ages of 18 and 21 “still [have] the lowest registration and voter turnout of any age group. Their apathy makes it less likely that our national politics will reflect their concerns and safeguard their future.”
In other words, it is not the job of older people to inspire younger people. It’s their own fault if they don’t appreciate what their elders did for them in the 1960s and ’70s, not the fault of Democrats who made Social Security and prescription drugs their principal issues in 2002, and who communicate in language comprehensible only to devotees of C-Span while periodically indulging in attacks on youth culture. (Senator Clinton also praises Tipper Gore’s moralizing about rock and hip-hop.)
Howard Dean and John Kerry, who are running neck and neck in early polls for the New Hampshire primary, would be well advised to avoid such nonsense. Not only do young people represent a sizable segment of undecided voters, their energy and enthusiasm influence many older voters, just as their taste in fashion and entertainment influences the larger pop culture.
The way for politicians to counter youth “apathy” is to take some responsibility for changing it. This includes picking youth-oriented issues (see Thomas Geoghegan, “Dems–Why Not Woo the Young?” July 21/28), using contemporary cultural language instead of Washington-speak (following the lead of Rock the Vote, which is regrouping for 2004) and expressing a coherent moral vision, not merely a shopping list of issues (see George Lakoff’s book Moral Politics).
Dean’s “surprising” surge has been fueled not only by his antiwar stand but also by a conscious youth-inclusive strategy. In his announcement speech Dean said his campaign is for “young people and the young at heart.” He has empowered his campaign to create a dynamic and inclusive Internet strategy, which has won the admiration of many netizens. If Kerry, or any other potential candidate, is going to have a chance of stopping Dean’s momentum, he’ll have to compete for younger voters, not ignore them.
This is anathema to members of the hawkish and culturally conservative Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), who are trying to psych out progressives by warning them that they could be perceived as un-mainstream, like George McGovern in 1972, and suffer a similar landslide defeat.
According to the “no new McGovern” advocates, McGovern’s campaign was doomed by his militant antiwar stance, which they associate with young protesters. (On the contrary, Hunter S. Thompson, in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, suggests that McGovern’s mistake was that he abandoned the populist energy that got him the nomination and ran in the general election like a cautious political hack.) But the debate about Iraq is occurring in a different cultural context: It does not come in the middle of a generational culture war in which even one’s hair length could be the cause of barroom violence. Nor does it come in the context of a left-right argument about the cold war. Advocates of the Iraq war do not own the national security issue, nor do they own the ability to say that they alone care about the troops and their families.
The DLC seems to imply that it is impossible to attract young people without alienating older ones. This certainly isn’t the outlook of George W. Bush, who tries to look hip to younger voters, whether it’s his faux daring landing on an aircraft carrier, his banter with Ozzy Osbourne at the White House correspondents dinner or his studied use of ordinary vernacular like “bring ’em on.”
The truth is that McGovern’s campaign left powerful footprints precisely because of its youthful energy. For most of the 1970s and ’80s, the McGovern contributors list provided the backbone of countless progressive organizations, and many prominent Democrats, including Bill Clinton, cut their political teeth on the McGovern campaign.
It is John Kerry who seems most hobbled by the McGovern psych-out. The more relevant cautionary example for him, however, is Al Gore. In 2000, Gore ran away from his genuine progressive views about the environment and the Clinton policy legacy and in the debates was unable to convey his beliefs in a way that was comprehensible to the voters he needed. If Kerry is going to draw young people and their energy away from Dean, he has to evoke not only his military service but his birth in politics as a protester. He has to tune in with his pre-Congressional intensity. He has to balance his Washington gravitas with a twinkle in his eye.
If there is any McGovern-baiting in primary debates, progressives can deal with it the way Ronald Reagan handled Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that he was too right-wing. They can take a deep breath, shake their head ruefully, smile unthreateningly and say, “There you go again.” It’s amazing what a few wistful smiles can do.