As thousands of teenage girls queued up in a gargantuan line snaking around the Glendale Galleria mall, many quivered, shed tears, and whooped with joy at the very thought of delving into the intricacies of Social Security, health care policy, and the PATRIOT Act before casting a ballot in a mock presidential election.
Okay, fine. If you prefer to be cynical about this moment of civic transcendence, sure, a goodly portion of this undulating army of mini Susan B. Anthony incarnates likely as not journeyed to this upscale shopping oasis just outside Hollywood, California, to meet UR Votes Count! Spokeswoman Selena Gomez, the 16-year-old star of the Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place. “She’s also dating a Jonas Brother,” a twenty-something UR Votes Count! female staffer added when I marveled at the massive crowd a petite television wizard could conjure. The Jonas Brothers, I soon learned, are not a hillbilly clan running a dilapidated gas station in West Virginia, but teen pop music sensations.
“Nick Jonas was dating Miley Cyrus before Selena got him,” the staffer continued, raising her eyebrows and pursing her lips in sassy, exaggerated signification of import. I glanced over at Selena chatting on her cell a few feet away with new respect. If this young lady could snatch Hannah Montana’s boy toy, who knew what she might ultimately be capable of in the political arena? A gaggle of girls began screeching Selena’s name from the balcony. One held aloft a sign that read Vote for Nick! Another, Buh-Bye Miley, Selena is First Lady! Selena shot them a thumbs up and snapped a picture with her cell phone camera. The staffer, gazing on with me, murmured, “Selena is beyond hot right now.”
A little celebrity heat is apparently necessary if you want to rev kids up over public policy these days. As the UR Votes Count! website notes, at first blush “the electoral process looks like snore-central in Boring Town, U.S.A.”—a place where the squares doubtless fail to even abbreviate excessively long words like your. So you bring in a wizard, throw out a few free T-shirts, and then dangle a $5,000 shopping spree and post-voting coupon books to the mall’s major retailers like a matador taunting a bull with pigtails. (“You not only help shape UR country’s future,” the group’s website gushes: “You could win a sweet, sweet prize.”) If that’s what it takes to gauge teens’ interest in federal laws to “direct citizens to change personal habits to become greener” or ask if they believe “health care is a right for citizens or a privilege” or determine whether they could differentiate between Bob Barr and Barney the purple dinosaur in a police lineup, so be it. Don’t forget to spin the SoBe prize wheel on your way out, lest you miss out on the UR Votes Count! temporary tattoos or dogtags!
“I think it’s really important we’re educated on who’s going to be our next president and things like that,” Gomez briefly counseled the crowd before sitting down at the signing table. “Definitely let me know…who you guys think would make an awesome president!” The emotional hordes, unleashed, began to file by, clutching memorabilia for Gomez to autograph.
An 11-year-old girl who had gotten in line before dawn sobbed as she read aloud from a homemade card for Selena. “I met you at the Wall-E premiere and you were seriously the sweetest girl ever…” A nearby 13-year-old loudly argued to nobody in particular that she’d make a better best friend for Selena than Demi Lovato (another Disney Channel star).
Her mother urgently whispered in her ear, however, and she quickly got with the political program, at least momentarily. “Selena is a strong Latina role model for me. Hispanics rule!”
Post-Selena, star struck and dazed, woozy fans were corralled into a series of “education stations”: Americans are wantonly slurping up the world’s natural resources and blowing gobs of money on private health care that’s free in other rich nations, kids, but did you know “less than one percent of the money paid into [Social Security] is spent on administrative costs”? Bargain! They’re asked to sign the Declaration of Involvement, a pledge to speak out to “make sure that the issues that matter to you get the focus and the funds.” Teach them early, politics is the art of getting paid off. Wasn’t it Nick Jonas who wrote, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle”?
An hour later pandemonium erupted as Selena was escorted out of the building to a waiting SUV by grim-visaged security guards, and soon after both the tears and the faux voters evaporated.
Ur votes count! was a six-week, 150-mall partnership between the owners of the malls, General Growth Properties, and Declare Yourself, a nonprofit formed by Norman Lear to register young voters after he and his wife traveled the nation with their $8 million Dunlap broadside of the Declaration of Independence. “When the Road Trip concluded, we wondered what the Declaration of Independence might wish us to do to help advance its vision,” the uber-liberal television producer writes in the introduction to Declare Yourself’s eponymous celebrity essay collection. “The answer we intuited was: celebrate the blessings of citizenship and voting.”
Thus, the Telepathically Speaking Declaration enters progressive lore alongside the Living Constitution. Perhaps the Declaration, having discovered its ethereal voice and an aging television producer to translate, will one day soon cut a PSA on behalf of Lear’s People for the American Way, a conspiratorial left-wing advocacy group as frantic over Republicans in America as a John Birch Society board member deported to Havana. For now, however, we’re left to ask ourselves whether the grand claims of nonpartisan civic altruism made by someone who goes about railing against the “neo-cons,” “theo-cons,” and “big business,” as Lear did at this year’s Take Back America conference, ring true. (Apparently, General Growth Properties, “one of the largest U.S.-based publicly traded real estate investment trusts based upon market capitalization,” somehow doesn’t look like evil big business once you’re in bed with it.) Or could there be a partisan ulterior motive to the proceedings?
Unfortunately for the endlessly self-aggrandizing youth voter registration movement, there is no evidence that the ability to brag, “Our voter turnout is bigger than your voter turnout,” is an unalloyed benefit to the nation. Sweden, after all, has lower rates of voter turnout than the United States, but that fact hasn’t taken the shine off it as the left’s model utopia. “While the average voter has very low levels of political knowledge today, it is true people who know more about politics are probably at least somewhat more likely to vote now,” Ilya Somin, a George Mason University law professor and author of the eye-opening study When Ignorance Isn’t Bliss: How Political Ignorance Threatens Democracy, said. “If you greatly increase voter turnout, especially among the young, who have particularly low levels of political knowledge, you will have an electorate that is on average even more ignorant than the one we have now.”
Ignorance, it just so happens, skews in Lear’s partisan direction, with new young voters overwhelmingly voting for Democrats. “The American people may not be the best educated, but they’re very wise at heart,” Lear told the A.V. Club in 2005—not sounding very much like a man preparing to make a comprehensive intellectual case for anything. The Declare Yourself celebrity essay collection provides ample further proof for this hypothesis, including a telling glossary with definitions to both some legitimately confusing terms—pro tempore, whips (not the kind partnered with chains), suffrage (might be confused with gnarly?)—but also several others that are less so. Maybe we shouldn’t be hustling those who need a cheat sheet for definitions of terms like, you know, “United States Congress” and “representative democracy” into the voting booth.
If the past is any guidepost to the future, young voters may not turn out in the extraordinary numbers necessary to warrant their inclusion as yet another special interest group to be paid off with taxpayer dollars. Considering its size (bigger than the Baby Boomers, 100 million eligible voters by 2012) and policy predilections (Stalinism with cheerier PR), those of us who prize individual freedom and self-reliance and advocate Big Brother being safely locked (back) away in the pages of 1984 ignore the arrival of the so-called Millennial generation— roughly, those born between the early 1980s and mid- 990s, and now so heavily courted by a raft of progressive “nonpartisan” groups—at our own peril.
The youth of today are well acclimated to overt solicitations for their political favor. In an age of slim political victories, partisans are eager to impress upon the impressionable a worldview that will serve their cause in the future. This is how we end up with Baby’s First Propaganda volumes like I Don’t Want to Blow You Up!, a coloring book designed to “counter the terrifying messages transmitted in the name of the ‘War on Terror’” by convincing children there is more to fear from Karl Rove than Islamic terrorism, and the toddler picture book Why Mommy Is a Democrat (sample page: “Democrats make sure we all share our toys, just like Mommy does”) written by Jeremy Zilber to “reflect my passion for progressive politics, my sense of humor, and my academic training in fields such as political psychology and socialization.”
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