Thursday, November 4, 2010

Note to Politicians: Ignore the Young

Is it finally time to end our fascination with the youth vote?

During the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, I had an ongoing friendly debate with an Obama-supporting friend. I, a Clinton supporter, argued in favor of Hillary's experience, pragmatism, and general outlook. My friend was smitten by Obama's newness and optimism.

A recurring theme in any such discussion of Obama's 2008 campaign is its strong appeal to young voters. I acknowledged that at the time, but I warned my friend that young people are fickle in their political involvement. The real test for them would not be if they could stay sober enough and put down the Wii controls long enough to head to the voting booths in November 2008, but it would come two and four years later, when their naive assumptions about how Obama would govern would be tested by the necessary compromises and inevitable defeats along the way.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I was correct. Sadly so, because I think Obama's a very fine president and I fully expect vote for him again in 2012. But young voters were one of the heavily underrepresented populations in the recent midterm elections.

So is it finally time to stop worshipping at the alter of youth? I know that's a terribly un-American thing to say, but if your campaign (and eventual re-election) is based on getting support from people who ultimately don't believe in the responsibilities of voting and representative government, then doesn't that suggest a flaw in your strategic governing approach?

During the 2008 Democratic primary season, The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier wrote a rather good short essay entitled "Forever Young." Responding to the Obama supporters' desire for newness, freshness, someone untainted by actual experience, he argued that there can be something as too young:
"False hopes?" Obama told a crowd in New Hampshire. "There's no such thing." How dare he? There is almost no more commonplace trait of human existence (and of African American existence) than false hopes. … After Bush, who is not for a fresh start? But there is something unfresh about Obama's movement for freshness. … [C]an we agree on a ground between cynicism and myth? Or must we have Camelot once more? After all, being young again is also a way of living in the past. There was something mildly farcical about the Kennedys' endorsement of Obama – of this candidacy that is alleged to signify an alternative to the dynasties, and a break with ideological antiquity; but worst of all was its brazen delight in mythologization. (Thanks to the Obama campaign, millions of Americans now hold that John Kennedy was a great president and that Lyndon Johnson was not responsible for making civil rights and voting rights into law.) I understand that no one, except perhaps Lincoln, ever ran for the presidency on a tragic sense of life; but if it is possible to be too old in spirit, it is possible also to be too young.
It's not that young people don't vote. It's that you can't talk about young people (let's just roughly define them as people from 18 to 30 years of age) without piling on the qualifiers. They don't vote much. They don't vote consistently. They aren't informed enough when they vote. They lack long-term perspective about the effects of their votes. Even if you try to qualify the qualifiers by pointing out the dreadful ignorance of most voters, it doesn't help to correct it even further and say that young people are even worse.

I don't mean to hold up Wieseltier as any great sage; I think he's gone over to the demagogic side of life in recent years, which puts the nail in the coffin of my former reverence for The New Republic (my political bible during the 1980s). But I think he puts it nicely about the deficiencies in this endless (and groundless) belief in the virtues of newness and youth. I would take that line of argument further and say there's a related problem: the American faith in the virtue of fast decisions, in fast results.

People who don't vote often and are only induced to vote when they're unnaturally angry or unnaturally inspired are also people who will not stick with the political process for their problems to be sorted out the way problems have been sorted out for centuries in civil societies: slowly, patiently, frankly conservatively, and usually the fairer for it.

Corina Casanova, the federal chancellor of Switzerland, recently compared California's love of citizen initiatives with her own country's famed use of such direct democracy. There were many similarities between the two political systems, she noted, but Switzerland is willing to invest more time in considering each initiative and trying to come up with alternatives, counter-proposals, and compromises that suit everyone. As a result, many of the initiatives are ultimately withdrawn, many more have compromises and counter-proposals debated and voted on by the government, and fewer than 10 percent win voter approval. Compare that to California's more do-it-now, don't-consider-the-alternatives system, in which one-third of initiatives are voter-approved but there is no system to work out compromise and deal with the underlying difficulties that created the citizen demand for the initiative in the first place. "The essential consequence of this cultural difference is that considerably longer periods of time are allotted in Switzerland for the handling of popular initiatives," Casanova said.

Time is a buzz-kill. You can't keep people with short attention spans interested when problems move beyond the emotional chest-beating stage and turn into committee hearings and legislative wrangling. Sooner or later, you need adults to do the hard work, and if you've only voted in people who are "forever young," then you're in trouble.
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