Youth Hostile: To Win over Young Voters, Democrats Need to Stop Trashing Popular Culture. (Pop Culture)

By Goldberg, Danny | The American Prospect, July-August 2003 | Go to article overview

Youth Hostile: To Win over Young Voters, Democrats Need to Stop Trashing Popular Culture. (Pop Culture)


Goldberg, Danny, The American Prospect


BACK IN 1984, WHEN I PRODUCED THE first MTV voter-registration spots, a number of my liberal activist friends were worried about Ronald Reagan's popularity with youth. I asked then-Congressman Tom Harkin, the Democratic nominee for the Senate, if he thought increased youth turnout would hurt him in a state that, because of heavy cable penetration, had an unusually large number of MTV viewers."If I can't get young people to vote for me," Harkin said,"I don't deserve to win." Harkin did win, and he was re-elected in 2002 to his fourth term in the Senate. However, he turned out to be one of the very few Democrats who has shown any interest in younger voters since the Reagan era. 1984 was also the year that Congressman Al Gore of Tennessee was elected to the Senate. Soon thereafter, his wife, Tipper, began attacking rock lyrics and youth culture. In the final months of the 2000 presidential campaign, Gore chose to revive these attacks on teen culture, even in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention. Mario Velasquez, executive director of Rock the Vote, told me that the Gore campaign didn't even send surrogates to youth voter-registration events at which George W. Bush and Ralph Nader had representatives until a couple of months before the election. On election day, the Gore-Lieberman ticket merely tied Bush-Cheney among the 9 million people aged 18-24 who voted, a dramatic decline from the 19-point margin by which Bill Clinton had carried younger voters in 1996. If Gore had equaled Clinton's margin among that cohort, he would have added almost 2 million votes to his popular-vote count and he would have easily won Florida, Missouri and the election.

As Washington pundits start analyzing potential strategies for Democrats in 2004, there has been little or no discussion of ways to win back the youth vote, or, for that matter, how to craft a message for people of all ages who process information through the language of popular culture (as distinguished from the much smaller elite who are devotees of the political news subculture).

One obvious flaw in the culture of Democrats is the elitist language. While former House Speaker Newt Gingrich carefully researched the impact of various words to demonize his congressional opponents and George W. Bush told his advisers to make a speech on Iraq so simple that "the boys in Lubbock can understand it," national Democrats routinely go on TV and use phrases that resonate only with political insiders. What percentage of Americans understood Sen. John Kerry's recent references to Tora Bora or Gore's incessant mentions of the Social Security lock-box?

Another chronic problem is incoherent message. Democrats who blame Nader for America's current political woes ignore the fact that many people voted for him because they literally could not distinguish Gore's positions from Bush's. In 2002, a New York Times poll taken the weekend prior to the congressional elections showed that just 31 percent thought Democrats "had a clear plan for the country."

For younger voters, issues such as Social Security and prescription drugs are not as compelling as they are to older generations. It wouldn't kill candidates to also talk about college loans, the environment, the drug war or civil liberties. Younger people are attracted by idealism. Conservatives frame all of their issues in the context of a moral philosophy. Progressives believe that government should be a moral force in which the citizens collectively do for one another things that individuals and businesses cannot do. Why can't our leaders proudly convey this?

THE DEMOCRATIC ENTERTAINMENT bashing continued with the Media Marketing Accountability Act, co-sponsored by Democratic Sens. Joe Lieberman, Hillary Clinton and Herb Kohl. Not a single Republican signed on to the bill. Some say this syndrome is a reaction to the enormous defeat of George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election, in which the candidate's image was commingled with various 1960s protest and cultural movements.

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