The Magazine

Panting After the Youth Vote

From the November 17, 2003 issue: The Democratic candidates make fools of themselves.

Nov 17, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 10 • By MATT LABASH
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Boston, Massachusetts

French historian Jacques Bainville once said, "The old repeat themselves, and the young have nothing to say. The boredom is mutual." But then, he died in 1936, which means he never got a chance to see the vote get rocked. Rocking. Voting. Like chocolate and peanut butter, they're two great tastes that go great together. It's why kids who are potential voters in the Democratic primary packed historic Faneuil Hall in Boston on Election Night last week for the America Rocks the Vote Democratic presidential debate.

Faneuil Hall once saw Frederick Douglass rail against slavery and Susan B. Anthony thunder for women's suffrage. But on this night, a new chapter was written in its august history when--as the evening's moderator, CNN's Anderson Cooper, put it--it became the place "where America rocks the vote. And dare I say, rocks it pretty darn hard."

Rock the Vote is the ostensibly nonpartisan organization (its president used to head women's outreach for the Democratic National Committee) "dedicated to protecting freedom of expression and empowering young people to change their world." It turned 13 this year, and like most 13-year-olds, it is cocksure, convinced of its righteousness, and eager to tell its old man where to get off. Initially established by the music industry to uphold our forefathers' highest ideals--like the right of 2 Live Crew to sing potty-mouthed lyrics--it has become synonymous with its frequent collaborator MTV, and known for constant jabbering about the need for youth to get out and vote. As an American-flag-swaddled Madonna said in one of the many Rock the Vote public service announcements that have elevated our discourse, "If you don't vote, you're going to get a spankie."

Since its founding, it has run any number of high-profile campaigns. Who can forget how Rock the Vote almost stopped the war in Iraq by releasing, mid-conflict, the Lenny Kravitz song "We Want Peace"? Then there were the recorded get-out-the-vote phone calls from Rah Digga, the prestigious awards bestowed on statesmen like Destiny's Child and Queen Latifah, the Internet form letters members can sign, like the anti-political-intimidation missive that reads, "Dear President Bush, I want you to call off the dogs and stand up for free expression." And how could we omit the new Dixie Chicks-sponsored "Chicks Rock, Chicks Vote!" voter registration campaign, highlighting a new online tool under the tagline, "Print it and sign it, lick it and mail it." (While political sages have no idea how to turn out the elusive 18-to-24-year-old vote, market research shows that young people do like to lick things.)

The very term "youth vote," of course, is a self-canceling proposition. Since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1972, the young have voted in increasingly smaller numbers than every other demographic--even after a decade of turnout efforts from Rock the Vote and countless youth-fetishizing knockoffs. (In 2000, 54 percent of those over 24 voted, while only 29 percent of those 24 and under did.) These no-shows might be doing democracy a favor. As the National Conference of State Legislatures recently reported, of this age group, 8 in 10 knew the cartoon Simpsons resided in Springfield and 64 percent knew Ruben Studdard won "American Idol," while only 1 in 10 could pick Dennis Hastert's name out of a list as speaker of the House.

Still, in windy panel discussions like the one Rock the Vote and Harvard's Institute of Politics jointly sponsored for reporters before the Faneuil Hall debate, there is no end to the yammering about the kids. According to pundit boilerplate, they are a study in contrasts: apathetic yet involved, optimistic yet cynical, smart yet dumb, technologically savvy but unable to lay hands on the most basic information, young but with old souls.

It's one of the hazards of trying to define a generational voting bloc, as shown by a recent Institute of Politics study that found this age group is more likely than their elders to give President Bush a positive job rating and to support him in a match-up with a generic Democrat. Ten years removed from college myself, I seem to remember that the only "issues" that unanimously moved my classmates were the need to forgive all student-loan debt and to make medical marijuana available for head colds. This also may be why groups like Rock the Vote--who implicitly embrace what they call "progressive politics," but explicitly strive to move voters by age rather than ideology--struggle. Practicing politics without content is like dancing without music. It can be done, but there's not much joy in it.

Still, that doesn't stop MTV/Rock the Vote types from incessantly scolding candidates that they need to chase youth tail. Since nobody seems to know what young people want, the we-need-to-listen-to-our-youth cries reappear in every election cycle like a bad rash. What the youth have to say, if anything at all, is almost beside the point. As MTV's Walter Cronkite and longtime Rock the Vote collaborator Gideon Yago, himself a twenty-something, says at the pre-debate panel discussion, there is a "need to establish a dialogue, and the importance of this voter bloc." He adds that "politicians are not going out and aggressively trying to establish a dialogue with them," a tragedy, since the young are "profoundly engaged with politics, even if they don't know it." Better, Yago says, to "placate and discuss and engage in a dialogue now, than have us be a major oppositional bloc 15 years from now."

Outside Faneuil Hall, Rock the Vote produces Casey Affleck, Ben's much less famous brother, so that he can register to vote. But either nobody recognizes him or nobody cares. Howard Dean and John Kerry supporters are hip-checking each other and commingling signs so that at first glance it looks like an unruly mob is striving to "Elect John Dean." Here, I grab five Rock the Vote street team members, ranging in age from 19 to 26, and ask them what issues young people want to see addressed. One of them abstains, another says the environment, two say education, and one says defense. It occurs to me that these aren't young-people issues, they're people issues. But it doesn't matter. A dialogue has been established.

DURING THE DEBATE, another dialogue goes off under the stewardship of Anderson Cooper, whom TV critics frequently mistake for "edgy"--though in fairness to Cooper, it's an easy mistake to make since he shares a line-up with Aaron Brown. Over the last few months, candidates have attempted to make inroads into the youth vote: Howard Dean has identified himself as a metrosexual, John Kerry has gigged with Moby, and Dennis Kucinich has consorted with rappers like Noyeek the Grizzly Bear, picking up endorsements such as "Yo, I love this fool."

Throughout the debate, it's clear that young people like to be pandered to, and politicians like to pander--the perfect marriage. This is evident in the 30-second candidate videos (Wes Clark, never known as the class clown, is actually seen having an earnest discussion about the potential break-up of Outkast, before bumping knuckles with a young voter). But it is more evident in the candidates' dress. While a good portion of the young audience are in coat and tie, Dean comes out with no jacket and rolled-up sleeves. John Edwards wears a coat, but no tie. Joe Lieberman and John Kerry, perhaps feeling overdressed, both ditch their jackets before the debate gets started. By the first commercial break, Edwards loses his jacket and rolls up his sleeves. Later, Al Sharpton sheds his jacket and unbuttons his vest. Wesley Clark, in jacket and black mock turtleneck, looks like he's on his way to a humanities professor party. And Dennis Kucinich, wearing the exact same rig, looks as if Clark's mother laid out his clothes. (Clark, perhaps not wanting to be outdone by Lieberman, Kerry, Edwards, and Sharpton, also ends up ditching his jacket.)

That settled, they get onto the issue young people care about most: antebellum racism. An audience member pounces on a tempest-in-a-teapot, Dean's lazily phrased attempt at outreach to southern voters with Confederate flags on their pick-up trucks (allowing grandstanders Edwards and Sharpton to establish, once and for all, that the Democratic party is no longer pro-slavery). There are plenty of non-youth-vote-type questions, on everything from the Cuban embargo to Iraq. But all the questions that are unorthodox, and could only be asked by Rock the Vote-ish audience members, tend to remind observers how painful it is when presidential candidates try to "keep things real," as Cooper implores them to do. (Even Bill Clinton--who was better than anybody at keeping it real in a fake way--let slip to the kids that his favorite musician was Kenny G.)

During the obligatory pot-smoking question, several candidates seem willing to drink bong-water if it would establish their credentials. When one woman asks which of their fellow candidates they'd most like to party with, Lieberman creeps-out the room by saying, "I hope my wife understands this. I'd like to party with the young lady who asked that question." Sharpton takes it further, saying he'd like to party with John Kerry's wife. Kerry sheds his long-faced Easter Island mask, adopts a self-conscious smile, and says he'd wanted to party with Carol Moseley Braun, but now he'd better stick with Sharpton "so I can keep an eye on my wife." Sharpton and Kerry then clasp hands in what is the first, and it is to be hoped last, soul-brother handshake of this election.

Back in the spin room after the debate, the candidates enter one by one. On a TV platform, Gideon Yago is complaining to Paula Zahn that the candidates failed to "really open up a dialogue." Yet they are willing enough to talk freely about their youth-vote outfits. When I ask Wes Clark what was going through his mind when he showed up in the same clothes as Kucinich, he looks as startled as a possum in the high beams, but regains his composure, and answers, "I thought Dennis Kucinich had excellent taste." When I ask Edwards why he stripped down during the debate, he seems to have trouble keeping it real. "Sometimes, formality...can push people away. Especially young people. Sometimes they feel uncomfortable. I want them to feel comfortable."

Outside, I run into a group of middle schoolers from Newton. "You're the children, you're our future, get in there," I say to them, in the interest of establishing a dialogue. They can't get into the party, they complain, because alcohol is being served. The youth issues that concern them most, they tell me, are gay rights and birth control. "It happens every day in our lives," says one 11-year-old girl. I have to admit, I'm taken aback. When I was 11, the only issues I cared about were football cards and "Gilligan's Island" reruns. Ihadn't yet formed my political worldview, unlike the junior-high boy who told me, "I like Al Sharpton. He's awesome! He's not, like, boring."

Being not boring is what it's all about. As Rock the Vote president Jehmu Greene says, "Now that we are done rocking the candidates on live television, for the next month we will keep on rolling and build on the energy and excitement . . . with a Rock the Video contest"--in which youths can select their favorite candidate video--the "perfect way to keep the party going." It gives them, she says, "a direct way to provide feedback." Establishing dialogue is, like, a two-way street.

Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.