The Youth Vote, the Culture Wars, and Barack Obama

It seems that every four years, someone pops up to say that this will be the election determined by the young, that they will mobilize and vote as never before, forcing the candidates to look not to the nursing home and the Elks Club for the crucial votes, but to... well, to wherever it is the kids hang out these days. And after the election, graying commentators note with a contemptuous chuckle that once again, the young stayed home, too busy with their video games and their clubbing and their youthful indiscretions to bother to vote.

There's a fundamental fallacy in any analysis that says that one particular group is the "key" voting bloc, whether it's soccer moms or NASCAR dads or whoever. In a close election, every group is a key group whose votes determine the outcome. We'd now be winding down the Gore presidency had he only been able to persuade 537 more of Florida's Lithuanian haberdashers to come to his side.

But young voters are in fact particularly important in this election, not because they alone will pick the next president, but because of what their attitudes and alliances suggest about the evolution of politics in the next few decades.

Young voters did actually have a great impact in 2004; while overall voter turnout increased four percent from 2000, those under 25 increased their turnout by 11 percent, more than any other age group. Voters under 30 made up 17 percent of the electorate, and John Kerry won them by 54 -45; he lost voters older than 30. In 2000 Gore won young voters by only two points, 48-46.

The movement toward the Democrats isn't just a function of the hypnotizing charisma of the party's last nominee. As a Pew Research Center report detailed earlier this year, young voters are the most Democratic of all age groups, and the most likely to identify as liberal. The number associating themselves with the GOP is the lowest it has been in 20 years.

One can attribute that to the war, or to the generally miserable performance of the Bush administration. But what really matters for the long term is that Republicans simply don't speak to young people. Their biggest problem may be that they are emphatically the party of white men, a group that is declining as a share of the electorate with each election; next year they'll make up around one-third of the vote. Secondly, the GOP has hitched its wagon to the culture war, which for many young people has largely been settled. They don't wonder whether gay people should have equal rights, or whether women deserve the same opportunities as men. In their world, interracial dating is no longer controversial -- 20 years ago, 56 percent of young voters said "It's all right for blacks and whites to date each other," while in a Pew poll taken in 2002 and 2003, the number had risen to 89 percent, about as close to a consensus as you can find.

They're also less religious than previous generations. In 2006, 20 percent of those 18-25 told Pew they had no religious affiliation or were not believers, nearly twice as many as those over 25. In a similar survey almost 20 years ago, the figure for young people was 11 percent. Young people are also more likely than any other group to agree that evolution has taken place. (A side note: I don't use the word "believe" here, because one needn't "believe" in evolution any more than one has to "believe" the Pythagorean theorem.)

In short, it isn't just that young people take the progressive side in the culture war; for them the war is over. And because of demographic shifts and the enormous effects of the Internet, today's young people have an outlook on the world that is more open and cosmopolitan than it was even a decade or two ago. As Rick Perlstein recently wrote in the New York Times Magazine, "You used to have to go to college to discover your first independent film, read your first forbidden book, find freaks like yourself who shared, say, a passion for Lenny Bruce. Now for even the most provincial students, the Internet, a radically more democratic and diverse culture -- and those hip baby-boomer parents -- take care of the problem."

Though it may not be reflected yet in national polls, the candidate generating the most enthusiasm among the young is unsurprisingly Barack Obama. As others have noted recently, if Obama were to become president, the symbolic value of him taking the oath of office -- a multi-racial man who was partly raised overseas in a Muslim country -- would provide such an extraordinary contrast with his predecessor, the very embodiment of what many see as the worst of America in all his ignorance, arrogance, and parochialism, that it would instantly suck the life out of a good portion of the anti-Americanism that has presented such an obstacle in recent years.

An Obama presidency could have a similar effect among young voters. He is, after all, only 46 years old, and his arguments about moving beyond the conflicts of the 1960s and the obsessions of the Baby Boomers have particular resonance for the young. Obama could become for this generation of young people what John F. Kennedy was to the Baby Boomers -- the dashing young president who articulated an idealistic spirit they wanted to believe in. (As Andrew Sullivan argued in this month’s Atlantic and I wrote last year, the transcendence of the culture war that Obama is selling may be the most compelling part of his candidacy.)

But the real movement of young voters may be a push away from the Republicans, not a pull to the Democrats. If young people are already turned off to the GOP, it could get much worse in the general election, no matter who the Democratic nominee is. Three months ago, I predicted that the Republicans' primary-season breast-beating on immigration would disappear when the general election began. Once the nominee took a look at the entire electorate and at his party's future, he would quickly realize that an aggressive appeal to nativist sentiment would not only generate minimal short-term benefit, it would push Latinos, the fastest-growing minority group, away from the Republican party for a generation. And it's worth noting that young people are more pro-immigrant than their elders. When Pew asked whether immigrants "strengthen the country with their hard work and talents" or "are a burden because they take jobs, housing and health care," people over 25 were split almost evenly, but those under 25 said immigrants strengthen the country by a margin of 52-38.

A few months ago, it seemed hard to imagine that a Republican nominee would do himself and his party so much damage as to make opposition to immigration a centerpiece of his general election campaign, particularly given how fast the Latino population is growing (and growing even faster in the emerging battlegrounds of the Southwest). But now I'm not so sure. Right now Mitt Romney's Web site proudly features a Las Vegas Sun article detailing his latest draconian anti-immigrant proposals, including cutting education funding for any state that gives in-state tuition to the children of undocumented workers, while Fred Thompson's latest ad is also about illegal immigration. Neither one of them goes as far as Tom Tancredo's ludicrous TV spot, which must be seen to be believed (he's so proud of it, it pops up the moment you visit his Web site), but the Republican presidential candidates have obviously found their issue.

After running so many campaigns on fear and resentment, they may simply not be able to break the habit. And after sucking every last vote out of hostility toward blacks and gays, there aren't many other minority groups to run against. So the Spanish-speaking invaders it is.

To which Democrats should say, bring it on. Go ahead, demonize the brown-skinned immigrant horde. Stoke the fires of fear, tickle the bigoted impulses wherever they can be found, pledge allegiance to bitterness and anger. It'll only serve to bring more and more minorities and young people to the polls, and solidify their party affiliation for years to come.

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