An Open Letter About The ‘Youth Vote’

Dear Young Voters of America,

I’m writing to you today to apologize.  Not for doubting you – the way that some journalists and pundits did prior to this election.  No, instead I’m writing to apologize for the way the media so often talks about you, rarely talks to you, sometimes talks at you, but almost never talks with you.  I want to say sorry that you are discussed as a homogenous group that moves through the world and acts according to some programmed chip implanted in those aged 18-29 (as these are the completely random ages assigned to ‘youth’ voters).  I am sorry that you are defined solely by your age and that your opinions, perspectives, personalities and other identities (like race, geographic location, sexuality and socioeconomic position) are strategically erased so you fit more easily into your assigned category.

In this sense I could apologize to all the essentialized identity-based “groups” that pundits discussed in the days leading up to – and after – the election, allowing for people to make sweeping generalizations about the “Latino Vote” the “African American vote” or the “Female Vote” etc. as though sharing (to varying degrees) a skin color, a religious affiliation, a sexual orientation, or a set of reproductive organs is a defining attribute in the sense that it will define what you think is important and (in this case) who you will vote for.  Indeed this reductivist approach to identity is problematic because it ignores the social construction and fluidity of identity, the ways in which many of us fit into multiple (and often overlapping) categories, but most importantly – it ignores the more pertinent issue: that these “groups” do not coalesce through the superficial markers of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, religion, etc. but rather because of a shared history of oppression and disenfranchisement.  It is the political and social ‘othering’ of these peoples that marks us as ‘groups’ (in any sense of the word).  If I still inhabited the academy I would insert here some brilliant quote about the social construction of identity and its relationship to systems of power by some obscure theorist – but I kicked that Ivory Tower to the curb so instead, here’s the same idea in 140 characters or less, from the night of the election: “Fun Fact: The blacks and Hispanics you are hearing pundits say are winning it for Obama are also known simply as Americans” (@pourmecoffee).

So, I’m sorry to all Americans who found themselves reduced to one-dimensional straw men in this election coverage as well – but this letter is a special dispatch to those millions of people who find themselves between the ages of 18 and 29.  You are the youth vote (even if you didn’t know it).  As an anthropologist who specializes in collaborating with young people, I know some of you quite well: you are my friends, my former students, my co-researchers, my co-authors.   You lent me your voices and stories for my dissertation, and I know some of you pretty well – so I also know that many of you did not vote at the polling place in November – but you have been voting with your feet and your voices as part of the revolutionary (and thus systematically ignored) Occupy movement.  And that gets my vote.

But for all you youth voters who turned out on November 6th, you get a special letter just to you.  Because I heard you won the election for Barack Obama.  Nice job.  And you also get this letter of apology because I read what people wrote about you both before and after the election and, well, it bugged me.  As Lizzie Crocker & Abby Haglage noted in their article about the youth vote for The Daily Beast, “[t]his year, America lost faith in the youth vote, bemoaned a lack of enthusiasm on college campuses, deemed youths ignorant on policy, and invalidated their opinions altogether”.  And they are totally right…except for one important detail.  This exclusion, marginalization and invalidation didn’t just happen this year – or in this election – rather there is a long history of this kind of dismissal of youth’s opinions and perspectives in U.S. politics (and just about everywhere else).  And so the themes I noticed in the articles and blogs about the ‘youth vote’ are ones that I’m sure you – my young friends – are quite used to by now, having long experienced adults reducing you to stock characters.  Still, the tropes evident in political musings about the ‘youth vote’ belie some deeply entrenched ideas about young people, and thus they deserve our attention.  Allow me to explain.

In the myriad articles and posts I came across about the ‘youth vote’ a certain theme emerged.  This theme reduced you to online zombies defined by social media use, an addiction to anything with a lower case ‘i’ in front of it, and a tragic (yet inevitable) enslavement to The Cool – or whatever is ‘trending’.  This “iVote” motif assumes that, as youth, you vote for president like you vote for Prom King.  Furthermore, it portrays youth voters as not-yet-fully-formed people and your views are either 1) dismissed as inherited from your parents and accepted blindly, or rejected blindly in that ‘rebel without a clue’ kind of way or 2) dismissed as the naïve optimism of those who have yet to enter the ‘real world’ (and I’m trying hard here not to quote John Mayer).  So join me, if you will, on a quick tour through the iVote media landscape.

In the National Review Online, Jason Fertig blames the Republican’s loss on “the education system for failing to teach civics…and for spending precious class time on fashionable, left-leaning topics like sustainability”.  Right – because ensuring that we don’t destroy the planet for future generations is certainly not a real area of academic concern so much as it is a ‘fad’.  We might as well call it iSustainability – to really tap into the heart of this voter demographic – a demographic that Fertig assumes is stuck in the social mores of junior high when he agrees with Herman Cain in saying that Obama won because he was “more popular”.   Because we all know that, for the ‘youth vote’, presidential elections are just popularity contests.  I mean, c’mon – folks aged 18-29 don’t really care about the economy and social policy – they’re way more into how pretty you are, or what kind of music you listen to.  Sound silly?  Well, Fertig himself posits that, “Mitt Romney’s iPod playlist may have hurt him in the general election more than we realize”.  Does no one else take issue with this idea?  And, on that note – can you imagine any other voting ‘bloc’ having their pick of president dismissed in such a way?  While every “minority” group was essentialized and homogenized in this election discourse, no other group is assume to vote based on things like musical preference.  As for the young voters I feel confident in saying that this was not a case of Jay-Z versus Meatloaf (or the insane Ted Nugent) – it wasn’t about taste in music or any kind of aesthetics for that matter – it was about issues important to all Americans, regardless of age.

Still Fertig contends that the cultural shift that reelected Obama is one about being “cool”.  I wouldn’t even bother responding to this notion except for the fact that Fertig isn’t the only one out there floating the idea that Mitt lost because he wasn’t as “cool” as Obama.  In an article on Forbes, Stephen Richer (a fitting last name for a Forbes journalist) tries to figure out why the “Obama Zombies” (a pejorative label that deserves its own critique) once again voted Obama into office.  He lists three possible reasons, the first being that, in his own words, “Obama is just the man”.  This is Richer’s label for the idea that “young voters are infatuated with Obama not just because of his ideas or party label but because of his personality, dulcet voice, jump shot, cool vibe, etc.”.  Sound dismissive to you?  Interestingly, it is Richer’s second possible explanation for why the Republicans lost that I think is the most reasonable (but gets lost in the article) and that is the idea that, “Our policies no longer jive with the youth”.  Now I would argue that even his use of the word ‘jive’ belies the reality of this situation.  Still (and maybe I’m guilty of some naïve optimism myself here) this sentence hints at another ‘youth vote’ theme that should be the most common but in reality is quite rare, and that is the theme of “The Knowledgeable Youth Voter” – where one (perhaps begrudgingly, or in spite of oneself) actually attributes at least some level of rational thinking to you, our young voters.  Yet it is amazing how rarely one sees this theme in articles about the youth vote.

On USNews.com Elizabeth Flock notes that “several groups that study the youth vote say they are confident Romney’s lack of appeal to youth lost him the presidency”.  And in an amazingly ill-advised conference call to campaign donors on Wednesday November 14th, Mitt Romney himself addressed the issue of the ‘youth vote’ and reduces them to swag seekers vying for the policies and programs (“gifts” in Mitt’s phrasing) promised by the Obama administration.  As he said, “with regards to the young people, for instance, a forgiveness of collage loan interest was a big gift,” and “free contraceptives were very big with young college-aged women” because apparently young men don’t care about that issue (sorry, “gift”).  However, if we read through the dismissive tone of what Romney actually said, or re-worded the sentence altogether, we may come away with the radical idea that young voters took a good hard look at the policies and programs of the prospective Presidents and made thoughtful decisions about what would best benefit themselves, the economy, the nation, and the world.

Now, I’m not going to deny that Obama has a ‘cool’ factor that we haven’t seen in a President…well, ever, but I will say that the iCool and Swag Seekers themes likens the youth vote to a popularity contest – stripping youth (as they are so often stripped) of being actual thinking, reasonable, people with well (in)formed ideas and opinions.  Because that is, actually, the reality of the situation – to which a few journalists have finally caught on.  In a rare example, US News article author Flock notes that “while Romney and running mate Paul Ryan occasionally reached out to struggling college graduates in the campaign, the Obama camp did a better job of addressing their concerns” (my emphasis).  Concerns like affordable higher education, the reduction of college debt, and possibilities for being able to get a job (Obama even has a website devoted to these – and other – concerns of young Americans).  Finally, a journalist notes (in not so many words) that it wasn’t about social media campaigning, or how well the candidates tweeted – it was the substance of the message that mattered to young voters.

The same is true of the Daily Beast article where Crocker & Haglage spoke to a young woman from D.C. who attributed the GOP’s loss to their “archaic social mores”.  The authors also include in their article a very thoughtful quote from one young voter – Katie Lazares – who said, “Obama’s views are certainly more aligned with the majority vote on social issues than those of his Republican counterpart…And given the way our society continues to shift over time, he sure as hell is more equipped to lead our nation than Mitt Romney”.  Finally, an article about the ‘youth vote’ talks to an actual ‘youth’!  And guess what – she’s not talking about him being ‘cool’ – she’s not talking about what’s on his goddamn iPod – she’s talking about social mores and the cultural shifts that change them in society.  It’s pretty smart stuff.  And thank goodness, because this is the reality.  In an article in the Christian Science Monitor, ‘Rock the Vote’ president Heather Smith states, “Young people are savvy, and they’re committed to this idea that their participation is how they take back power in this country”.

So my young friends, while I’m sorry about how much of the media has discussed your participation in the election, I’m happy to tell you that I think there is hope – hope that people seeing you as rational thinking individuals will be a given, rather than an exception – because this is how it should be. And know that every time you vote and change the political course of the nation, every time you give a quote to media outlets that makes people stop and think – you help change the discourse about you(th).   So keep it up – keep surprising people, keep building coalitions with other (& othered) identity-based groups, keep Occupying, keep resisting…keep everyone on their toes.

With admiration & in solidarity, Kaila

2 thoughts on “An Open Letter About The ‘Youth Vote’

  1. Frankly, I am amazed that the Republican Party hasn’t embraced the idea that “Our policies no longer jive with the youth.” Young people generally vote based on social issues, and the Democrats are the party of social issues.

    I have heard and read several stories since the election. More often than not, it seems like the losing candidate is blaming the “cool” factor for their loss and analysts are blaming the Republican’s outdated (and in some cases completely moronic) views.

    When Generation X becomes larger than the Baby Boom generation (which I think is not far off), they are in serious trouble. As someone who votes social issues (regardless of no longer being young), I am encouraged by that idea.

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