How The Democrats Can Reclaim The Youth Vote

If the Democrats don't get the youth vote, they're toast. That happened in
Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, where young Obama voters stayed home
in droves. It's an ugly conceivable future portended by a new Harvard poll that shows forty-one percent of young
Republicans planning on voting in November, compared to 35 percent of young
Democrats and 13 percent of independents. A recent Pew poll showed a similarly disturbing pattern:
Young voters still prefer the Democrats, but their margin is slipping and their
enthusiasm level is worse.

Some reasons and some solutions:

The Democrats need to tackle youth joblessness. They've passed important
changes in student financial aid, like income-contingent loan repayment. Most
students and recent students don't know about them, and they need to. But with
youth unemployment at near-record levels, it's understandable that young men
and women would feel angry and frustrated. If the Democrats want to keep this
generation, they need to pass major jobs bills, probably through
reconciliation, since the Republicans seem to be only too eager to leave young
voters demoralized and unemployed. It would be nice if the Obama administration
were leading on this more strongly, but since aren't leading strongly enough,
the push to make jobs the top priority has to come from the grassroots. This
happened in the 1930s under Roosevelt. Seventy-five years later, I can visit a
Works Progress Administration-created library or go for a run on a Works
Progress Administration-created boardwalk, and reap the benefits of programs
that also gave millions of people desperately needed jobs. We need to make
equivalent investments now, targeted at those who need jobs the most.

Dashed hopes also matter. Politics may be the art of compromise, but from
health care to Guantanamo to Afghanistan and the bank bailouts, the compromises
of the Obama administration have added up to belie the image of a candidacy of
change. To reverse this trend, the administration needs to stand up more
strongly, and with less apology and with less apology and deference toward
those who have no interest in solutions, on all the other issues that matter.

But we need more than specific programs or even Presidential initiatives. We
need to give people a renewed sense of why involvement matters. Absent a sense
of how social change has occurred in the past and can again, it's tempting to
give up when you've barely begun, all the more in an instant attention and
instant gratification culture. Given that few of us know the stories of how
previous citizen activists persisted and prevailed, it's understandable that
many who were acting so passionately just over a year ago feel adrift and
unable to make an impact. That's true of more experienced activists, but it's
particularly true of those for whom the Obama campaign was first step into
trying to create a more humane common future. Those of us who've been involved
longer (including veteran youth activists) need to offer this perspective, to
help those more recently involved avoid cynical resignation and withdrawal.

We need these lapsed activists and particularly lapsed youth activists,
because they're the ones who will reach out to their peers. During the 2008
election, you could go anywhere in battleground states and find efforts to
engage young voters. In the Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts elections,
the campaigns largely ignored them and the parallel independent efforts that
might have filled the gap didn't exist. Without being reached by these more
personal approaches, young voters were left more isolated, more readily
manipulated by 30-second ads, and more likely to simply stay home. As I explore
in my Soul of
a Citizen
book, change works best when people approach those they already
know, within familiar contexts. And when campaigns, movements, and their
supporters reach out in ways that offer a chance for genuine dialogue. Some of this
can be through social media--we need the texting, Facebooking, and other
networking that helped the Obama campaign bloom. But these approaches work best
when complemented by more visible public actions and more direct personal
dialogue. If we're going to enlist those who once acted and speak to their
legitimate discontents, we're going to need to recreate this one-on-one reach,
and begin to recreate it now, not just in the last two weeks of the campaigns.

As the recent surveys imply, the stakes in this are huge--not just for now
or for November, but for the ongoing allegiance and participation levels of a
generation. Whether citizen activists can help the Obama administration and the
Democrats reengage those who carried them to victory in 08 will shape American
politics not just in the coming year, but for decades to come. The Obama
administration can play a critical role in demanding action on issues that
affect young voters' lives. The Congress can use all available options,
including Reconciliation, to pass them. But it's up to the rest of us to offer
the examples of connection, context, and continued commitment.

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