Left Out: Young People and the Democratic Party

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?

Another chronic problem is incoherent message. In 2002, a New York Times poll taken the weekend prior to the congressional elections showed that only a third of potential voters thought Democrats “had a clear plan for the country.” Democrats who blame Nader for America’s current political woes ignore the fact that many people voted for him because they literally could not distinguish Gore’s positions from Bush’s.

Younger voters are attracted by idealism. Issues such as Social Security and prescription drugs are not as compelling to youth as they are to older generations–and it wouldn’t kill candidates to talk about college loans, the environment, the drug war, or civil liberties. Conservatives do a good job of framing their issues in the context of a moral philosophy. Progressives should do the same. They ought to be more vigilant about conveying their core belief that government should be a moral force by which citizens collectively do for one another what individuals and businesses can’t do.

Some say the Democratic hangup with pop culture is a reaction to George McGovern’s resounding defeat in the 1972 presidential election, in which the candidate’s image was commingled with various 1960s protest and cultural movements. For many progressives, says Tom Hayden, culture bashing is like taking a drug test. “[It’s] as if they’re saying, ‘I have been cleansed of the ’60s because I have attacked those lyrics,'” notes the former California state senator and Chicago Seven member. Besides being morally dubious, this is politically irrational. Why lump everything from the ’60s together? Violent groups such as the Weathermen were very unpopular with millions of the very same people who loved the Beatles and romanticized Woodstock.

Meanwhile, it’s George W. Bush, not any leading Democrat, who bantered with Ozzy Osbourne at a Washington correspondents’ dinner last year, and it was Bush’s then-Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, who brainstormed with Bono about Third World debt relief.

So, what can the Democrats do to win back the youth vote in 2004? They can start by not putting Joe Lieberman on the national ticket. An oft-quoted section of his campaign book, In Praise of Public Life, claims that “traditional sources of values in our society–such as faith, family, and school–are in a life-and-death struggle with the darker forces of immorality”–namely, he writes, “entertainment culture.” Moreover, Lieberman is just too conservative across the board, even more so than he was in 2000. As TV comedian Jon Stewart described him, “Joe Lieberman is for people who really want to vote for George Bush–but think he’s not Jewish enough.” Millions of otherwise Democratic voters, I think, would abstain from a Lieberman-Bush contest.

A surprising role model for culturally impaired Democrats might be the late Tip O’Neill, who was Speaker of the House during most of the 1980s. When Reagan became president, O’Neill was an overweight, aging, old-fashioned machine pol with no previous connection to mass media communication. But O’Neill was no snob. He cared more about winning political victories than looking good to Washington insiders. O’Neill surrounded himself with media-savvy advisers such as the young Chris Matthews (the current host of MSNBC’s Hardball), and at the height of Reagan’s popularity, he crafted powerful messages in opposition to the president. O’Neill not only recast himself as the proud voice of New Deal compassion, he was hip enough to appear as himself on the hit TV show Cheers. Most importantly, he spoke in emotionally powerful, unambiguous, and easily understandable terms. Under O’Neill’s leadership, the Democrats fought successfully to prevent cuts in Social Security and prevented Reagan from embroiling the United States in a war with Central America.

Bill Clinton is another role model widely renowned for his ability to reach younger voters because of his authentic affinity for American pop-cultural touchstones and his believable idealism. But without Clinton as the messenger, Clintonism doesn’t reach outside the Beltway, much less touch young people. If Democrats can’t speak the language and address the aspirations of the young, they can forget about retaking the White House.

A former music journalist, Danny Goldberg is CEO of Artemis Records, which represents artists as diverse as Steve Earle, Susan Tedeschi, and the late Warren Zevon. From 1997 to 2001, Goldberg and his father, Victor Goldberg, published the liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun and last year edited with Robert Greenwald the anthology It’s a Free Country, a collection of essays on civil liberties written in the wake of 9/11. Goldberg recently wrote his first book, Dispatches from the Culture War: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit (Miramax, 2003). From The American Prospect (July/Aug. 2003). Subscriptions: $39.95/yr. (6 issues) from 5 Broad St., Boston, MA 02109.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.