What’s rocking the youth vote?
A British lecturer in America finds his students committed to voting in the presidential election, but lacking in political commitment.
The proportion of young people voting in the American presidential election has declined since 18- to 21-year olds were given the vote in 1971. Early indications are that this may be the first election that sees more young people get off the couch and make it to the polls.
A recent Harvard University study found that 62 percent of young people intended to vote, compared to 50 percent four years ago (1). In my geography class of undergraduates, between 70 and 80 per cent of the 300 students told me that they intended to vote. While promises differ from ballots in the box on election day, there are already several reports of registration offices being overrun with applications.
The Rock the Vote campaign was launched in 1990 to register young people by ‘making voting cool’. But by the 2000 election, the number of young people voting had dropped by one third (2). Other attempts to engage young people in electoral politics have included using pop stars such as Madonna and offering free Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
This election has seen the largest ever mobilisation, with many non-partisan organisations such as the New Voters Project recruiting young volunteers to sign up their peers. Other campaigns have been organised by MTV, rapper Russell Simmons and the World Wrestling Entertainment Roster. There has also been a ‘vote for change’ tour by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. A new internet campaign, Votergasm, is asking young people who vote to pledge to withhold sex from young people who do not vote until the next presidential election in 2008.
For many of these campaigns, getting people to vote seems to be an end in itself. But only a small number of my class said that they had been ‘Rocked’ into registering by a campaign. It would seem that some young people have their own motivation for voting in this election.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that after 9/11 and a controversial war in Iraq, young people are more politically motivated. However, I see few other indications of a return to political engagement among students at my university. Rather than putting up posters for political debates on campus, most students seem deeply engaged in their private lives.
When I inquired why students wanted to vote, many responded that this was the most important election in a long time, and that the future direction of the country is at stake. Others felt that because the last election was such a close call, each vote was important. For many, however, there was a strong anti-Bush motivation, feeling that it was their ‘moral duty to get Bush out of office’. Others were determined not to let the ‘wimp’ John Kerry become the next president.
While I admire my students’ commitment to voting, I am sceptical about the depth of their political commitment. It would seem that there is a disjuncture between the low interest in politics and public life in general, and the high level of emotional engagement in the election debate.
Many have noted that there are only tiny differences in policy between Bush and Kerry. This is particularly true over foreign policy, which dominated the first two debates and seemed to be the main reference point for my students. On the day of the first debate between the two candidates, the New York Times noted that most of the differences between Kerry and Bush on Iraq and the war on terror are retrospective (3). Yet when the debates began they have been heated and divisive. Both Kerry and Bush have questioned each other’s credibility to lead the nation during a time of war as commander-in-chief, bickering about the past and each other’s character.
Rather than a debate of substance, the pre-election discussion of Iraq and the war on terror has become a vehicle for expressing insecurity about the current state of America, with the focus on how this will affect people personally. 9/11 and subsequent events have accelerated a political crisis at the heart of the US establishment, with Bush himself coming to be seen by many as a personification of all that is wrong with America today.
Many students seem patriotic, expecting their nation to stand for good in the world. Bush is blamed for the negative PR that America has received abroad, even though this sentiment existed prior to 9/11. Conversely, supporters of Bush see him as being proactive in the war on terror, offering a stronger sense of right and wrong, and don’t want a ‘soft’ leader in his place. More women are reportedly keen to vote for Bush than in 2000, sighting security as a primary concern (4).
What both sides share is a pervasive sense of American decline and internal turmoil, combined with an exaggerated fear of terrorism. Voting offers them an outlet for their frustrations and anxieties. Unfortunately, it is a personal act, with little connection to any broader movement for or sense of change.
Finally, there is the boredom factor. In an article discussing renewed interest in the election among school students, Damien Cave of the NYT describes the election as the latest reality TV show (5). When many American communities offer nothing more than sport to get excited about, the highly charged emotional and personal divide in the election debate carries a certain appeal.
Whether or not young people decide to go to the polls on 2 November remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the void between political discourse in Washington and the everyday lives of the young remains intact. Many school students continue to show little interest in civics classes, and college students are still more likely to volunteer to clean up a local watershed than to join a political organisation.
Alex Standish is a PhD candidate and lecturer at Rutgers University, New Jersey.
spiked-issue: US election 2004
(1) The Youth Vote: Hard to tell how it will turn out, Rick Hampson, USA Today, 19 August 2004
(2) US Youth Vote, 2004: Unpredictable, newsVOAcom, 3 October 2004
(3) In Debate on Foreign Policy, Wide Gulf or Splitting Hairs? James Bennet, New York Times, 30 September 2004
(4) Bush, Kerry Plead Case for Women’s Vote, Tovia Smith, npr morning edition audio, 27 September 2004
(5) ‘Democracy Geeks’ Join the Fray, Damien Cave, New York Times, 10 October 2004
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