Did the kids rock or suck?

Breaking down America’s rising youth vote.

Alex Standish

Topics Politics

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According to which version of events you read, young people’s contribution to the US presidential election either Rocked or Sucked.

For Michael Moore and other youth vote campaigners, the increase in young people voting was a historic achievement and a kick in the teeth for George W Bush, and a tribute to the various campaigns to mobilise the youth. Being the only age group in which more people voted for John Kerry, Moore offers the following to the ‘slackers’, as he calls them: ‘Congratulations, 18- to 29-year-olds – you rocked.’ (1)

Yet another report on the youth vote suggests that when it came to polling day, ‘America’s 18- to 29-year-olds didn’t turn out to be as decisive as predicted’ (2). In the New York Times, Alissa Quart argued that the media onslaught failed to deliver and that ultimately parental voting remains the best predictor of how young people vote.

So what are the facts? Young people did turn out in record numbers. According to exit polls (the full figures will be released by the Census Bureau next year), the number of under-30s voting was up 4.6million on the 2000 election campaign, to nearly 21million. The percentage of young people voting rose from 42 per cent to 51.6 per cent, eclipsing the last previous high of 1992 (3).

However, voting was up across the board – so the youth vote, starting from a smaller proportion of the vote, needed to increase more than other age groups just to remain at 17 per cent of the electorate, the same as it was in 2000. Hence, young people’s overall impact on the outcome of the election was the same – and when only half of them turn up to vote that is not especially historic.

The under-30s were the only age group where a majority voted against Bush, which they did by 55 percent to 44 percent. In 2000, there was a smaller 48-46 margin for Al Gore.

While it might be seen as a positive development that more young people are taking an interest in electoral politics, unfortunately this does not show a renewed commitment to political affairs. In fact, the opposite is probably the case. It is their estrangement from the political process that has fuelled young people’s high levels of emotional anxiety, and a disproportionate reaction to what was largely a vacuous election contest.

The rise in young people voting for Kerry was not a positive endorsement of his policies. Many of the students I spoke with at Rutgers University in New Jersey did not have any well-considered political strategy, but instead were motivated to vote simply to get Bush out of office.

For many young people Bush has become a focal point for their anxiety and sense of powerlessness. That Bush is viewed as a ‘scary’ and unpredictable figure says more about the state of mind of young people than it does about the president (see The politics of fear, by Frank Furedi). This was a sentiment that Kerry successfully tapped in to, with his scare stories about the ‘war on terror’ putting Americans at greater risk of terrorism, a potential draft, loss of jobs, shortage of flu vaccine, and so on. Kerry’s scepticism towards Iraq was also an issue that many young people identified with.

As for Moore, his ‘most uplifting moment of the week’ was when some school students staged a sit-in at their high school in Boulder, Colorado, to protest against the election result (1). This is an apt depiction of Moore’s level of political engagement. He sides with the children (who can’t even vote) in gestures that more closely resemble a tantrum than a political act. Young people should not feel flattered by the attention they have received from Moore or campaigns to rock the vote. All take a condescending attitude in their attempts to make voting cool (‘you rocked!’), emptying it of political content in the process.

Young people should have higher expectations of their political representatives than just showing up and expecting to win, which was pretty much Kerry’s strategy. Conversely, those disappointed with the election outcome should stop finding straw men to blame. Instead they should look at what they stand for. Young people will take politicians seriously only when they offer them policies that can transform the condition of America and make a real difference to peoples’ lives.

Improving job opportunities and the quality of education would be a good place to start. In the meantime watch out for more symbolic gesture protests through which young people will express their disillusionment and frustration.

Alex Standish lectures and is a PhD candidate at Rutgers University, New Jersey.

(1) The Kids are Alright, Michael Moore, 7 November 2004

(2) ‘They’re Not Buying It’, Alissa Quart, New York Times, 6 November 2004

(3) Big Voter Turnout Seen Among Young People, Associated Press, 8 November 2004

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Topics Politics


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