Back in 1984, when I produced the first MTV voter-registration spots, a number of my liberal activist friends were worried about Ronald Reagan's popularity with youth. I asked then-Congressman Tom Harkin, the Democratic nominee for the Senate, if he thought increased youth turnout would hurt him in a state that, because of heavy cable penetration, had an unusually large number of MTV viewers. "If I can't get young people to vote for me," Harkin said, "I don't deserve to win." Harkin did win, and he was re-elected in 2002 to his fourth term in the Senate. However, he turned out to be one of the very few Democrats who has shown any interest in younger voters since the Reagan era.
1984 was also the year that Congressman Al Gore of Tennessee was elected to the Senate. Soon thereafter, his wife, Tipper, began attacking rock lyrics and youth culture. In the final months of the 2000 presidential campaign, Gore chose to revive these attacks on teen culture, even in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention. Mario Velasquez, executive director of Rock the Vote, told me that the Gore campaign didn't even send surrogates to youth voter-registration events at which George W. Bush and Ralph Nader had representatives until a couple of months before the election. On election day, the Gore-Lieberman ticket merely tied Bush-Cheney among the 9 million people aged 18-24 who voted, a dramatic decline from the 19-point margin by which Bill Clinton had carried younger voters in 1996. If Gore had equaled Clinton's margin among that cohort, he would have added almost 2 million votes to his popular-vote count and he would have easily won Florida, Missouri and the election.
As Washington pundits start analyzing potential strategies for Democrats in 2004, there has been little or no discussion of ways to win back the youth vote, or, for that matter, how to craft a message for people of all ages who process information through the language of popular culture (as distinguished from the much smaller elite who are devotees of the political news subculture).
One obvious flaw in the culture of Democrats is the elitist language. While former House Speaker Newt Gingrich carefully researched the impact of various words to demonize his congressional opponents and George W. Bush told his advisers to make a speech on Iraq so simple that "the boys in Lubbock can understand it," national Democrats routinely go on TV and use phrases that resonate only with political insiders. What percentage of Americans understood Sen. John Kerry's recent references to Tora Bora or Gore's incessant mentions of the Social Security lockbox?
Another chronic problem is incoherent message. Democrats who blame Nader for America's current political woes ignore the fact that many people voted for him because they literally could not distinguish Gore's positions from Bush's. In 2002, a New York Times poll taken the weekend prior to the congressional elections showed that just 31 percent thought Democrats "had a clear plan for the country."
For younger voters, issues such as Social Security and prescription drugs are not as compelling as they are to older generations. It wouldn't kill candidates to also talk about college loans, the environment, the drug war or civil liberties. Younger people are attracted by idealism. Conservatives frame all of their issues in the context of a moral philosophy. Progressives believe that government should be a moral force in which the citizens collectively do for one another things that individuals and businesses cannot do. Why can't our leaders proudly convey this?
The Democratic entertainment bashing continued with the Media Marketing Accountability Act, co-sponsored by Democratic Sens. Joe Lieberman, Hillary Clinton and Herb Kohl. Not a single Republican signed on to the bill. Some say this syndrome is a reaction to the enormous defeat of George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election, in which the candidate's image was commingled with various 1960s protest and cultural movements. "Don't get stuck in the '60s," snapped Sen. Barbara Boxer at a friend of mine who'd complained about Lieberman's selection as Gore's running mate in 2000. As Tom Hayden sardonically says, culture bashing has become "the cultural equivalent of a drug test. As if they're saying, 'I have been cleansed of the '60s because I have attacked those lyrics.'" Besides being morally dubious, this is politically irrational. Why lump everything from the '60s together? Violent groups such as the Weathermen were very unpopular with millions of the very same people who loved the Beatles and romanticized Woodstock.
Ralph Nader is not much better on the subject of popular culture. In December 1999, The Nation recounted a speech in which Nader said that television teaches children "that violence is a preferred solution to life's problems, they are taught to value cheap sensuality in everything from sex to self image to food, and they become addicted to entertainment that shortens their attention span." When I complained about this outburst, Nader told me he thought kids would grow up better "if they performed their own versions of Eugene O'Neill plays or Romeo and Juliet instead of watching movies or TV." I answered that given the depressing themes of those works, I was much happier that my kids have memorized large sections of Austin Powers. It was clear from the dead silence on the other end of the phone that Nader had no idea what Austin Powers was.
Meanwhile, it was George W. Bush, not any leading Democrat, who bantered with Ozzy Osbourne at a Washington correspondents' dinner, and it was Bush's then-Treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill, who brainstormed with Bono about Third World debt relief. While Democrats were misinterpreting the legacy of the 1960s, Ronald Reagan used entertainment-business savvy to bond with a broad range of Americans. Even on a very serious occasion such as his 1986 State of the Union address, the former actor quoted from the film Back to the Future ("Where we're going, we don't need any roads."). First lady Nancy Reagan kissed TV star Mr. T on the head at the White House and appeared as herself, preaching against drugs, in an episode of the sitcom Diff'rent Strokes. When Ron Reagan Jr., parodying a scene from the film Risky Business, danced in his underwear on Saturday Night Live, President Reagan said, "Like father, like son." And in 1983, President Reagan posed shirtless while pumping iron for a cover story in Parade magazine that stated in the first paragraph, "Move over Jane Fonda, here comes the Ronald Reagan workout plan."
What can the Democrats do to win back their youth and pop-culture base in 2004? They can start by not putting Joe Lieberman on the national ticket. An oft-quoted section of his campaign book, In Praise of Public Life, claims that "traditional sources of values in our society -- such as faith, family, and school -- are in a life and death struggle with the darker forces of immorality," referring specifically to the "entertainment culture." Moreover, Lieberman is just too conservative across the board, and more so now than he was in 2000. Millions of otherwise Democratic voters would abstain from a Lieberman-Bush contest. As TV comedian Jon Stewart described him, "Joe Lieberman is for people who really want to vote for George Bush -- but think he's not Jewish enough."
A surprising role model for culturally impaired Democrats is the late Tip O'Neill, who was speaker of the House during most of the 1980s. When Reagan became president, O'Neill was an overweight, aging and old-fashioned machine pol with no previous connection to mass media communication. But O'Neill was not a snob. He cared more about winning political victories than about looking good to Washington insiders. He gathered around him media-savvy advisers such as the young Chris Matthews, and at the height of Reagan's popularity, O'Neill crafted powerful, unambiguous messages in opposition to the president. O'Neill recast himself as the proud voice of New Deal compassion, but he was hip enough to appear as himself on the hit TV show Cheers.
Most importantly, he spoke in emotionally powerful, unambiguous and easily understandable terms. Under O'Neill's leadership, the Democrats prevented Reagan from getting the United States into a war in Central America. Fighting successfully to prevent cuts in Social Security, O'Neill said of Reagan, "He has no concern, no regard, no care for the little man of America ... . Because of his lifestyle, he never meets these people. I think he'd do much better if he had brought in some people from the working force of America, who have suffered along the line ... not those who have made it and forgotten from where they've come."
Bill Clinton was able to reach younger and working-class voters because of his own working-class background, his authentic affinity for American pop-cultural touchstones and his believable idealism. But without Clinton as the messenger, Clintonism doesn't reach outside the Beltway, and it certainly doesn't touch young people. If Democrats can't speak the language and address the aspirations of the young, they can forget about retaking the White House.