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Well, that’s reassuring. Honey, maybe we should find another babysitter. This one’s trying to rewire our kid’s brains. This unflattering, unshakable belief in the ideological pliability of young people—ironically enough most closely held by those who loudly claim to be stalwart allies of youth—neither abates nor gains much sophistication as these children near voting age. It nevertheless took on a more substantial degree of import when Time magazine, in its infinite wisdom, recently declared 2008 the Year of the Youth Vote: “Whatever the future, the young, by their sheer numbers…have profoundly altered the chemistry of American politics. Committed, surprisingly professional and potentially volatile, they are a huge, insistent presence in the Democratic Party.”
Oops! Actually that was Time circa 1972, warning of the McGovernite tidal wave that was set to wash across America but on Election Day hit only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. This year’s Time magazine prophecy begins with an anecdote about how Missouri senator Claire McCaskill came to endorse Barack Obama. “You have to do it, or I’m never talking to you again,” her 18-year-old daughter Maddie reportedly threatened.
Democrats are now working to expand Maddie’s familial extortion to the electorate at large: “Obama is counting on a wave of Democrats experiencing their own McCaskill moments, roused to his banner by the fervent, if sometimes vague, urgings of youth.” Presumably this story stands as an implicit retraction of Time’s August 2004 feature “The Right’s New Wing,” which breathlessly reported the “world of young conservatives…brims with surprises—not least that just a few months after the Deaniac moment, college students are returning this month to campuses being transformed by the right”— ridiculously off-base unless the College Republicans were infiltrated by Obamacans while Obama was still finishing out his glorious stint in the Illinois State Senate.
In fairness to Time, no one in the media has yet correctly predicted the date the coveted youth vote will (if ever) answer the fervent prayers of left-wing activists and mainstream reporters. The Millennial generation, however, has ignited their imaginations in ways the Republican-leaning cynics of Generation X never quite could. Even a brief perusal of the seminal text on the cohort, Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, makes it easy to see why. Authors Neil Howe and William Strauss paint a laudatory portrait that will nevertheless make the blood of any member in good standing of the Leave Us Alone Coalition run ice cold.
Millennials, Howe and Strauss gush, reject the “scrappy, pragmatic, and free agent Gen-X persona” as well as the “narcissism, impatience, iconoclasm and constant focus on talk (usually argument) over action” of the Baby Boomers. These kids supposedly witnessed “the triumph of individualism over community, and of markets over government”—if only!— and are eager to rein in pesky individual choice and human freedom. They yearn for strong authority figures to impose order and favor a centralized federal government powerful enough to make Alexander Hamilton say, “Whoa, Nelly!”
In a 2003 Pew survey, 63 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds said the “government should do more to solve problems,” overwhelming the anemic 31 percent who believed “government does too many things better left to businesses and individuals.” Millennials are more likely than any other generation to support redistributive economic policies. Fifty-eight percent of 18- to 29-year-olds told Gallup in 2005 that the federal government should protect the environment “even at the risk of curbing economic growth.” Howe and Strauss envision “team-oriented” Millennials creating a form of compulsory service, “trampling libertarians under an emerging consensus from both sides of the culture wars,” creating “a more conformist peer culture” and an atmosphere where “…little social argument will be tolerated.” Income and class disparities “will narrow, as Millennial unionism and corporatism rise in power” and add “stress-reducing structures” to the workplace “even at the cost of innovation.” Millennials will “clean up the elder ‘mistakes’ of their youth era, in ways that might today seem authoritarian and intensely anti-individual.”
The future belongs, then, to Jonas Brothers-worshipping authoritarians. Sounds like as close an approximation to Hell as this human mind can conjure.
And Millennials aren’t exactly being encouraged to respect constitutional limitations or the views of those who prefer to be left alone once they attain power. “I feel like my voice is about as loud as an ant’s sometimes,” one young woman writes in the Antidote to Disempowerment Toolkit on Youth Noise, a raucous political website for those under 27. “However, the amazing thing about ants is that together, they kick all kinds of ass. Ants can destroy house foundations, build enormous hills, and kill and harvest the bodies of animals much larger than themselves.”
Sounds a bit ominous, no? Like maybe libertarians and conservatives are about to become another source of alternative renewable energy? There are fleeting moments when even Howe and Strauss sound less like gushing admirers than a pair of appeasement-urging Neville Chamberlains. Imagine, they write, “an unstoppable mass hurtling down the track in the opposite direction, a cadre of young people so cohesive and so directional that, if their aspirations are thwarted, they might overwhelm the political defenses of their elders and mobilize around a risky, even destructive national agenda.”
Assimilate or be destroyed, puny individualists. To hear Jane Fleming Kleeb, the executive director of Young Voter PAC (“Helping Democrats Win with 18–35”), tell it, Generation X leaned Republican mostly thanks to big money and the nefarious influence of a College Republican Nation Committee scheme headed up by—who else?—all-purpose bogeyman Karl Rove, while it only dawned on Democrats to similarly focus on the youth vote in 2004. “In 1980s [young voters] weren’t Democrats because Democrats weren’t talking to them,” she told TAS. “Generation X didn’t see politicians as problem solvers. This generation—even with the disaster of 9/11, the disaster of the Iraq War, the disaster of Hurricane Katrina—even with all of that, which you would think would turn this generation off politics, they’re turned more on.”
So it’s settled. Millennials are naïve. Alas, it is of course impossible to build a political movement in the United States on the premise that it will be fueled by young voters representing that perfect mix of gullibility, susceptibility to platitudes, and domination fetishes progressives so clearly prize. And so a mythology about young voters must and is being carefully cultivated: “This generation is very informed, very educated,” Stephanie Young of Rock the Vote said. “They’re activated and politically engaged. They aren’t sitting on the couch watching videos as the world goes by….This generation sees through a lot of that celebrity stuff and they just want candidates to be real.” Diana Nguyen of Declare Yourself concurred: “This generation is among the most educated, the most engaged, ever. They are soaking up information faster than anyone ever has. And it isn’t all useless information.”
Yet for all this supposed informed social consciousness, ask representatives of these groups why, if Millennials are such motivated brainiacs, they need actors and rap stars to convince them participating in an election is worthwhile. Well, this activated, engaged generation suddenly morphs into a bunch of kids sitting on the couch watching videos as the world goes by. In a 1908 lecture, “Politics as a Vocation,” German sociologist Max Weber urged young idealists to believe, “Age is not decisive; what is decisive is the trained relentlessness in viewing the realities of life and the ability to face up to such realities and to measure up to them inwardly.”
Progressives in the new millennium, on the other hand, make their civic pitch almost strictly on the basis of unreality—and do not apologize for it. “This is the culture we live in—people watch E!, they read People magazine,” Young said. “They are totally engaged in celebrity. That, for lack of a better term, is what’s hot now. If that’s where people are, that’s how you’re going to have to reach them, especially young people.” It’s a short fall, indeed, from empowered super-citizen to helpless babe in the wood. “If you’re a young voter you have messages coming at you from all fronts and it’s cluttered,” Nguyen sighed, adding that some of the biggest voter registration windfalls Declare Yourself has captured have been after the organization was mentioned on popular reality shows like The Hills and So You Think You Can Dance. “It would be naïve to say you could reach millions of voters by simply putting the message out there. Voting for the first time is at the very least overwhelming. Initiatives like ours will always need to be there to simplify the process.”
Yes, well, let the record show she said it. Still, such admissions are no real surprise. Rock the Vote’s first big splash, readers may recall, came in the form of a 1990 commercial starring Madonna wrapped in little but a red bra and an American flag as she offered her stream-of-consciousness argument for voting: “Dr. King. Malcolm X. Freedom of speech is as good as sex. Abe Lincoln. Jefferson, Tom. They didn’t need the atomic bomb….If you don’t vote, you’re going to get a spanky.” Recently Rock the Vote has been working with the WWE on the Smackdown Your Vote campaign at professional wrestling events—frequent gathering place of many sage young philosophers, no doubt—along with a slew of commercials by today’s stars.
Even this form of pandering may soon be passé. The trite 30-second commercial is in danger of being usurped by personalized text messages, Twitter updates, and e-mails, personalized by machines. “Reaching down to young people’s level through Facebook and MySpace, that makes you more personable to them because that’s the way they communicate in their world now, and for you to do that, you come out looking cooler, like a rock star,” Young said. “You’re totally relatable.”
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