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.