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Suffer the (Political) Children

By From the October 2008 issue

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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.”

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.”

So, actually, young voters manifestly do not see through celebrity. Ultimately, this attitude toward the young showcases an epic lack of respect, yet since Millennials appear content to trade that respect for excessive praise, they probably don’t deserve it in the first place. Consider: We are lectured endlessly by these groups about the necessity of encouraging young voters to partake in the solemn duty of voting because they have socially conscious, relevant voices that must be heard, yet at the same time we are   ominously warned that any inconvenience whatsoever—if these young engaged citizens can’t roll out of bed on a Saturday morning, register day-of, cast their ballots at the mall, and be back in front of their X-Box half an hour later—that is tantamount to disenfranchisement.

Or as the Arab American poet Naomi Shihab Nye put it in a poem titled, sadly, without irony, “Making Aristotle Proud”:

Personally I favor early voting
So I don’t have to worry about breaking my leg
On voting day and not getting there

Easy voting for easier marks. No shame. Ultimately, though, whose interests do these young voters, raised to believe themselves so set apart from the cynical Gen Xers, serve? “In 2004, it would have only taken one dorm for John Kerry to have won the election,” Young muses. “When you think about it in that way, it’s almost mind-boggling.” Meet the new boss, same as the old…Karl Rove boss? Nevertheless, ask the Magic 8 Ball if Millennials are starting to believe their own orgiastic press and the answer will likely be “Signs Point to Yes.” In the introduction to Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out, for example, the young editors warn, “one might be lulled into thinking that our generation is apathetic, narcoleptic, peripatetic, lethargic, sophomoric, and generally soporific.” Well, yes, that and maybe a little too crazy with the online thesaurus sometimes. “The fact is that our generation is energetic, frenetic, epic, apoplectic, enthusiastic, and more precisely eolic.”

Right. Precisely. Eolic. Letters from Young Activists carries laudatory blurbs from Alice Walker and Mumia Abu-Jamal and a preface by former Weather Underground terrorist Bernardine Dohrn, who, with what we are left to presume is a well-developed sense of unintentional comedic timing, gushes that the book is a “clarion call of hope, defiance, critical, analysis, humor, irony, and self-conscious insistence that the queer, the Palestinian, the immigrant, the privileged, the children of prisoners and hip-hopsters have arrived.” Dohrn, having watched the reformed version of her old group Students for a Democratic Society replace the 50-page, philosophically laden Port Huron statement of 1962 with one- and two-page 2006 SDS communiqués and signs like THE WAR MACHINE EATS BABIES and IMPEACHMENT: IT’S NOT JUST FOR BLOWJOBS ANYMORE, must have by now lowered her standards considerably.

Even so, it is impressive she can so effusively praise a book that is intellectually sound enough to include a bizarre essay from 10-year-old “activist” Chloe Joy, who charges, “Some grown ups just don’t get it. They act like we’re still babies when we’re seven or something….I’m a big kid who knows stuff, and I want to be treated like a person, not a baby,” and endorses a picture book, Click, Clack, Moo, a parable about union organizing featuring “a bunch of cows [that] get together and use an old type writer to demand electric blankets,” mediated by a neutral duck. Eventually the cows and chickens go on strike and win. “When animals stick together, they get what they want!” the young girl writes. “So I think kids should get together and try to get what we want.”

Reading the pronouncements of Millennials one sometimes feels like Alice at the trial of the Knave of Hearts accused of stealing those tarts—“Stuff and nonsense!” she exclaimed. What other response could be better to young activists addressing letters to “Dearest Hip Hop” and “Political Prisoners of Racist and Sexist Sexual Politics: To Our Iraqi Sisters at Abu Ghraib,” and declaring things like “my revolution recognizes the gradations of sexuality and the power to engage in a dialogue of consent” (?) and signatures like “Stumbling in love and rage toward a solidarity worthy of the name.”

Yet nonsense merely precedes hubris for this generation raised on Kinderpolitics and mostly unearned You are special! pampering. “It’s easy to forget that a presidential election is in fact not about the candidates, but about us,” Ugly Betty star America Ferrera writes in Declare Yourself. “We are voting for ourselves, and for one another….This year when you go to the polls to cast your vote, you’re not merely voting for politicians, you’re voting for you.” MySpace founders Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson add, “For the MySpace generation, voting has become an important continuation of their selfexpression,” while actor Nick Cannon muses, “I helped make the decision and at the end of the day, I am the winner.” (Perhaps he’s confused the election here with something he clearly had much less say in—his marriage to Mariah Carey?) Having clearly caught the Barack Obama bug, Hill Harper, Harvard Law graduate, writes, “I know the time has come for you to truly live your life in the grand magnitude that you deserve. And if you live fully and embrace your power, the reflective light you shine on the world will never be as bright as it should be; unless you vote.”

Thankfully, other Declare Yourself authors have a more expansive view of elections. “It’s not just your vote that matters,” Hayden Panettiere, the cheerleader from Heroes, reminds readers, “but your vote when it is counted along with all the other votes cast by young people around the country." You mean someone actually adds all these tens of millions of votes up? How is my voice going to be heard that way?

The cheerleader aside, this spectacle of self-assurance hints at the degree to which Millennials have been successfully infantilized. Like infants, they expect Mama Government to drop everything when they cry for a little suckle time, even as they also require loads of fawning My, what a big boy you are! encouragement. “Do you need grownups telling you what to do?” Entourage star Adrian Grenier writes in Declare Yourself. “No you don’t!” This is the sort of civic engagement Norman Lear believes the Declaration of Independence has been begging for? A bunch of mad-at-their-dad man-and woman-children acting out? A B-list star telling us there are—yawn—too “many old white men telling us what to do” and “I’m just as cynical and jaded as you. I vote to rebel, sure, but I also vote because why the f--k not.”

Very incisive. Get this man and all his friends registered! Having trudged through this mess for several weeks, going to events, watching the admirably effusive and interminably shallow slowly intertwine, I finally asked Sara Benincasa, a 27-year-old reporter for MTV’s Choose or Lose campaign coverage, how afraid we non-Millennials should be.

“Youth voters are going to shake things up and definitely scare some people,” she mused. “Old white people in power are generally afraid of the youth, and especially minority youth, owning and exploiting their own power. But, you know, it’s always the younger generation’s job to frighten earlier generations and fight against the establishment. Then one day they’ll be the establishment.”

Kids these days…Can’t live with ’em, can’t disenfranchise ’em.

Shawn Macomber is a contributing editor to The American Spectator.

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