Left Out: Young People and the Democratic Party

To win, Democrats need young voters. To win young voters, they need to stop trashing pop culture.

| November-December 2003

No wonder young people are apathetic. With politicians focusing on issues like Social Security, Medicare, and prescription drug benefits-as well as decrying the influence of pop culture on our youth-why should kids care? Political candidates, especially Democrats, says music industry leader Danny Goldberg, must learn the language of popular culture in order to reach 18- to 24-year-old voters. And many young people aren’t waiting for politicians to make the first move, reports youth organizer Billy Wimsatt. He’s part of the team that’s founded the League of Independent Voters to make kids’ concerns known to politicians and the public.
—The Editors

Back in 1984, when I produced the first MTV voter-registration spots, a number of my liberal activist friends expressed fears about Ronald Reagan’s popularity with younger voters. I asked then-Congressman Tom Harkin, Iowa’s Democratic nominee for the Senate, if he thought increased youth turnout would hurt him since his state had an unusually large number of MTV viewers. “If I can’t get young people to vote for me,” Harkin said, “I don’t deserve to win.” Harkin did win, and he was re-elected in 2002 to his fourth term in the Senate. He also turned out to be one of the very few Democrats since the Reagan era to show any interest in attracting younger voters.

Witness Al Gore, who as a congressman from Tennessee was elected to the Senate the same year as Harkin. Soon thereafter, his wife, Tipper, began her infamous attacks on rock lyrics and youth culture. Inexplicably, Gore chose to revive these attacks on teen culture in the final months of the 2000 presidential campaign—even in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention. Mario Velasquez, executive director of Rock the Vote (rockthevote.org), a nonprofit organization that uses pop culture to mobilize young people, told me that the Gore campaign didn’t even bother to send anyone to youth voter-registration events at which George W. Bush and Ralph Nader had representatives until immediately before the election.

On election day, the Gore-Lieberman ticket merely tied Bush-Cheney among the 9 million people aged 18-24 who voted—a dramatic decline from the 19-point margin by which Bill Clinton carried the same group in 1996. If Gore had equaled Clinton’s margin among younger voters, he would no doubt be president today.

Washington pundits have started to analyze potential strategies for Democrats to take back the White House in 2004, but there has been little or no discussion of ways to win back the youth vote, or, for that matter, how to craft a message for people of all ages who process information through the language of popular culture.

One obvious flaw among Democrats is their fondness for elitist language. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich carefully researched the impact of various words to demonize his congressional opponents, and George W. Bush told his advisers to make an Iraq speech so simple that “the boys in Lubbock can understand it.” In contrast, national Democrats routinely go on TV and use phrases that resonate only with political insiders. What percentage of Americans actually understood Gore’s incessant references in 2000 to the Social Security lockbox or Senator John Kerry’s recent mentions of Tora Bora?

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