Framing of the Youth Vote (or Lack Thereof) In November

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Well, here we go again.

The New York Times published a story today out of Colorado looking at whether or not young voters could be turning away from the Democratic ranks — two years after serving as one of the bedrock groups in Obama’s voting coalition. The story seems to be fairly balanced in its views, as there are some younger voters proclaiming their continued allegiance to the President and the Democratic Party, but there are also young voters souring on the Democratic leadership.

One young voter was particularly descriptive in explaining her conflicted views.

Kristin Johnson, 23, like many other students interviewed here in recent days, said that a vote for Democrats in 2008, however passionate it was, did not a Democrat make. But she bristles just as much at the idea of being called a Republican.

“It’s like picking a team when you really don’t want to root for either team,” said Ms. Johnson, a communication studies major, who said she was undecided about parties and politics going into the general election campaign.

If Democrats are letting voters like Ms. Johnson get away from them across the country, the ramifications of this blunder will be felt for a long, long time. But that’s another topic for another day.

I wanted to focus on another passage from the article, one that reflects exactly what we have been facing throughout the last few special elections and what we will be fighting back through November and beyond.

How and whether millions of college students vote will help determine if Republicans win enough seats to retake the House or Senate, overturning the balance of power on Capitol Hill, and with it, Mr. Obama’s agenda. If students tune out and stay home it will also carry a profound message for American society about a generation that seemed so ready, so recently, to grab national politics by the lapels and shake.

While Kirk Johnson, the writer of this piece, does not go into specifics as far as what he means by a “profound message,” I think the odds are good that these few lines illuminate the common misunderstanding that Johnson and other journalists run with when writing these stories. They go with the surface level content, mindlessly reporting that youth did not show up at the polls and, thus, are not interested in voting. Apparently, we’re just not prepared.

But what about the other possibility: perhaps youth, suckered into this idea that politicians – maybe just once – might care about our issues, might be willing to talk big, think big, dream big, and for once exercise some pragmatic idealism, are let down. After being counted on to move this Democratic administration and congressional leadership into power, perhaps we are pissed off and making a political statement by refusing to be taken for granted.

That’s where this article falls short. There are other possibilities for why youth might not be voting. Not because we are apathetic, or turned off to politics. It’s because politicians gave us their word, we gave them our vote, and aside from a watered down health care bill, a stimulus that was too small, and maybe a few other bills, the work hasn’t been done, and the to-do list is getting longer. Furthermore, we are left hanging in the breeze, waiting for an honest explanation… still.. waiting.. for that honest explanation.

So don’t get us wrong: we’re still ready to shake some lapels. But in order to be most effective, we need candidates who are uncompromising in their tenacity on confronting big issues, but flexible in crafting solutions to our problems. And we need them to engage us.

We (and Obama) Should Embrace the Politics

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Last month Karlo and Colin wrote a post following Netroots Nation that called for some reconciliation in the name of progress.

Millennials carry the spirit of the founding fathers, perhaps more closely than generations in recent times. We understand that quality interactions with our counterparts advocating in good faith are more important than building huge e-mail lists based upon tactics of fear and hate. We talk to others, on this blog, on Facebook, on Twitter, and we do it with civility – or at least we try. We interact this way because we know others are watching and that everything we do and say is on-the-record. This does not mean that we don’t stick to our principles and our values and voice our opinions. What it does mean is that we know that we are having conversations with people, other than those that just agree with everything we say. We’re not about burning bridges; we’re about mending them and building them out into the future.

I agree with their vision as expressed here. I think the two predominant political camps in this country do spend too much time trying to find the most vulnerable aspects in the opposition’s activities for their own short-term political advantage. While I would point out that not all Millennials carry the spirit Karlo and Colin describe, the prevailing view among youth today is that compromise is important. “Pragmatic idealism” is a descriptor I have seen used for the way we view politics. To engage in this approach, though, I believe we need to take a step back and rethink the way we view politics.

Obama was elected on a platform that had at its core the notion that we could disagree without being disagreeable. And I still believe that’s one of the more redeeming qualities our president possesses, to be able to espouse that and enact it day to day. However, to our detriment, he does this while viewing politics as an episodic adventure, as a negative thing. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard him accusing someone of “playing politics.”

First, politics isn’t something to be played. It’s a reality. It happens all around us. My writing this blog is political. You reading it is political. You daring to think about it later today and telling someone about it (crossing fingers) is political. What I’m trying to convey is that politics is not a battle that can be joined and not joined.

In addition, politics is not inherently negative. Interestingly, in its original Greek form, the definition of politics is less loaded; with polis meaning “city state,” politikos roughly translates to “of the citizen,” signaling a citizen-centered view of politics with a focus on those things concerning city or state affairs. Aristotle argues that politics consists of the interplay between people from different backgrounds and interests, holding different views, while aiming to complete a task. In other words, politics is a constant that citizens cannot ignore; in fact, acknowledging and embracing one’s constant participation forms the heart of democracy.

Viewing politics this way, we can see why E.J. Dionne’s column is so discerning in today’s Post.

Obama’s mistake is captured by that disdainful reference to “politicking.” In a democracy, separating governing from “politicking” is impossible. “Politicking” is nothing less than the ongoing effort to convince free citizens of the merits of a set of ideas, policies and decisions. Voters feel better about politicians who put what they are doing in a compelling context. Citizens can endure setbacks as long as they believe the overall direction of the government’s approach is right.

I suppose this is another take on the whole “Obama needs a narrative” meme that has been playing out. But I like this because I think the critique is more accurate. His attacking politics undercuts himself and what he is trying to do. This damage is then made worse by not giving any foundational rationale for what he is trying to do in the first place. Talk about giving special interests and “anything goes” politics a free pass…

Colin and Karlo were right: as long as we’re fighting about character issues and other small-minded topics, we have already lost. When we are not talking about a set of ideas, policies, and decisions to be made in an honest way, we let special interests wreck everything (at which point Millennials may as well turn on some John Mayer).

It behooves all of us, including our president, to view politics as a constant, something we cannot ignore. The mixing of various views, backgrounds, and interests is always at work, and, especially now, there will always be a task to pursue. If the 2008 enthusiasm was genuine, if it meant something — if Obama was serious about his call for citizens to step it up — our president and all of us need to re-calibrate our views on politics. Pragmatic idealism just might have a shot then.

Underestimating the Impact of the Youth Vote

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Thomas Goldstein and Thomas Bates, Executive Director of the Washington Bus and Vice President for Civic Engagement at Rock the Vote respectively, penned an op-ed published in today’s Seattle Times.  Goldstein and Bates took aim at the idea that youth’s “low” turnout in midterm elections relative to older age groups ultimately means a smaller impact on the results.

It isn’t exactly news that young people tend to vote at lower rates than older voters. The more interesting story is that even if young people turn out at lower rates, they can dramatically affect the election landscape and outcomes. That happened most visibly in the 2008 presidential election, but also in certain nonpresidential elections closer to home.

The approval of Referendum 71, the election of a young mayor in Tacoma, and two victorious young City Council candidates in Spokane are all evidence of the efficacy of targeting young voters. Moreover, the highest turnout in the state in 2009 was in the 43rd Legislative District, which has the greatest concentration of young voters.

Even with mounting evidence, too many campaigns write off young voters, and this tired habit has made the prophecy of low turnout a self-fulfilling one. It almost reads as a new definition of madness: Time and time again, campaigns don’t invest time and resources into young people, and then are surprised when they don’t mail in their ballots.

[…]

Luckily, we’re doing something about it. Forward-looking organizations and campaigns have tested methods to engage young people and have committed resources to make them reliable voters. And we’re seeing results: For the past three major election cycles — yes, even pre-Obama — the turnout of young people has steadily increased.

We know what works: Make sure young people are registered to vote, give them relevant information in an engaging way, and run campaigns that connect with their values.

The point both are making is that, blessed with size, the effect of even a subtle increase in the Millennial voting rate can be worth a few points in various midterm elections — enough to tip those races in different directions.

As we move forward into the meat of the 21st Century, these younger people, increasingly becoming adults, are going to need to be pursued in a different way than past voters.  This calls for aggressive engagement, complete with the “relevant information” Goldstein and Gates mention above, as well as managing campaigns that reflect youth’s values.

Conservative National Debt Argument Not Effective with Youth

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Brandon Griefe at U.S. News and World Report wrote a piece yesterday arguing that the Republicans have an opportunity to make amends with young, Millennial voters given the “genuine fear” created by Democratic spending.

With such a large and active base of young supporters it would appear Democrats have their Republican opponents nearing checkmate. But a closer look at the chessboard reveals neither party is in good strategic position to topple the other’s king.

The Republicans’ problem has been their inability to connect with youth and minorities. Only recently have they begun to deemphasize the socially conservative aspects of their platform that have polarized voters since the culture wars of the 1960s. A recent Pew Research poll found that young adults are “clearly more accepting than older Americans of homosexuality, more inclined to see evolution as the best explanation of human life and…are much less likely to affiliate with any religious tradition.” These and other social issues are not major concerns of young adults, a fact that is slowly being realized as Republicans seek to broaden their voting base.

But Democrats’ recent legislative priorities show they’ve also done a poor job at setting the board up for success. Enormous debt and deficit spending to fund a variety of new programs has created a dire fiscal future that is creating genuine fear among young adults. Then-Sen. Barack Obama said it best in 2006:

Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means ‘the buck stops here.’ Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership.

The rhetoric of 2006 has not translated into reality come 2010. The failure of leadership now continues under his watch with trillions in new debt obligations. Young adults will not be able to ignore the red ink that fills the nation’s ledger forever. Unless Democrats act quickly to reverse the growth of the government’s deficit they will poison the well of Millennial support that carried them to historic victories in 2008.

Griefe’s analysis is faulty and disingenuous for three reasons.

1.) I don’t believe I saw anything from Griefe or anyone else about deficit spending when George W. Bush was in the White House. When Bush entered the Oval Office, Bill Clinton handed his administration a surplus. When he left, we were trillions of dollars in debt. Two major tax cuts and two wars did quite a bit of damage:

Obama’s stimulus package accounted for only .07/$1.00 of the national debt when he signed it into law. Nearly 90 percent of the debt was created under George W. Bush.

To clean up the mess Bush left, Obama has to spend more.

2.) The message about the national debt does not carry any water with Millennials, especially since they are encountering the worst youth unemployment rate since World War II. Our friend Karlo tackled this conservative talking point last year, aptly comparing someone climbing a hill to one’s life-long relationship with government.

Imagine for a moment that you are trying to traverse a hill. The hill represents how much taxes you expect to pay over your lifetime. One end of the hill is the start (the beginning of your life), the top of the hill is middle-age, and the other end of the hill is, well, six-feet-under. At both ends of the hill, you pay relatively little in taxes, and the top of the hill is when you pay the most in taxes. This is what tax-paying looks like throughout the course of one’s life. For some generations, traversing this hill was made easier (but not faster), because the government helped invest in the well-being of the tax-payer very early on in life.

This is not the case with Millennials. The rising cost (PDF) of college and beyond has not resulted in a proportionate increase in services or resources. When you place this fact of rising costs into the context of rising college attendance, the effect is magnified. The share of young people that have attended college has increased 21 percentage points from the 1970s to the present (PDF, pg. 5). What’s more is the fact young people with post-graduate degrees on are on the rise, too. What all this amounts to is a more difficult (but not slower) journey over the hill. It’s almost as if Millennials have to carry a heavy backpack (read: student debt) and still keep pace with everyone else. Now add to that the fact that the end of the hill for Millennials is much farther away than it is for previous generations due to longer life expectancy.

In addition to this, Millennials themselves tell National Journal that they think Obama’s spending has been a good thing.

A plurality of Millennials say they believe that the president’s agenda will increase rather than diminish opportunities for their generation (41 percent to 27 percent). More respondents say that his policies averted an even worse economic crisis (44 percent) than believe that Obama ran up the national debt without doing much good (36 percent). By 46 percent to 31 percent, they also say that the comprehensive health care reform bill Obama recently signed into law is a good thing for the country. Just one-fourth believe that the country is worse off because of the president’s policies; the rest feel that his efforts have significantly improved conditions (16 percent) or are beginning to move the nation in the right direction, even if they haven’t yet produced major gains (43 percent).

Given the toxic economy the Bush policies gave Millennials as they have come of age, making the figurative hill even steeper, the government must invest in the youngest generation to ensure they have a chance of getting over the top, and thankfully, it is.

3.) Griefe comically cites a list of GOPers including Rand Paul and Bob McDonnell as smartly handling social issues in order to keep the focus on the fiscal matters at hand.

This is pretty simple.

Rand Paul doesn’t think the 1964 Civil Rights Act should have passed.

Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia issues a proclamation for Confederate History Month in the commonwealth, failing to mention trafficking of human beings and the consequential brutal decades of Jim Crow.

I’m not sure whether Griefe had a brain lapse here or what. Griefe is right that if the GOP can’t get social issues right, they won’t have any shot at Millennials period. Justin Miller at The Atlantic notes this, describing Millennials as the generation least tolerant of racism. The list of Republicans Griefe provides, though, is laughable. Their clumsy navigation of social issues has provided Democrats with several opportunities to beat back any Republican momentum.

The generational theft argument sounds good, but it doesn’t play with young people. It plays even less with Millennials when it’s shrouded in social issues.

Nice effort. Back to the drawing board.

More Youth Staying Home with Parents

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Kristi Eaton at Campus Progress wrote a piece this week discussing a Future of Children study finding an increased rate of young people staying at home with their parents.

Today’s typical 22-year-old is living at home longer, is more financially insecure, and is making lower wages than previous generations. These factors contribute to a delay in the start of “adulthood,” says Richard Settersten, a professor of human development and family sciences at Oregon State University and co-author of the study. The study [PDF] notes that leaving home, finding a job, and becoming financially independent was, for a long time, the determination that made someone an adult.

[…]

The economic opportunities for the Baby Boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1964, were vast. Settersten notes that the current economic recession is making tasks that were once associated with the start of adulthood more difficult; now young adults are living with their parents longer or returning home later. In fact, Millennials are similar to the youth of the G.I. Generation (born 1901-1924) because they are slow to leave home and start families. For today’s young adult, the recession is largely blamed for the delaying of adulthood. In fact, half of Millennials still rely on financial support from their family, while a third of all 18 to 29 year-olds receive help from parents or other family members, according to the Pew Research Center.

Eaton concludes her piece by correctly linking this phenomenon with its root cause: a lack of jobs.

Immigration Issue Exposes Generational Fault Lines

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A New York Times piece published this morning sheds light on the generation gap present in views on immigration.

In the wake of the new Arizona law allowing the police to detain people they suspect of entering the country illegally, young people are largely displaying vehement opposition — leading protests on Monday at Senator John McCain’s offices in Tucson, and at the game here between the Florida Marlins and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Meanwhile, baby boomers, despite a youth of “live and let live,” are siding with older Americans and supporting the Arizona law.

This emerging divide has appeared in a handful of surveys taken since the measure was signed into law, including a New York Times/CBS News poll this month that found that Americans 45 and older were more likely than the young to say the Arizona law was “about right” (as opposed to “going too far” or “not far enough”). Boomers were also more likely to say that “no newcomers” should be allowed to enter the country while more young people favored a “welcome all” approach.

This makes sense given what we know about the diversity in the Millennial generation.  The New Politics Institute’s 2007 Report, “The Progressive Politics of the Millennial Generation,” cites Census data showing that nearly 40 percent of Millennials do not identify as being white.  “[A]bout 62 percent of Millennial adults are non-Hispanic white, 18 percent are Hispanic, 14 percent are black and 5 percent are Asian,” the report notes.  What sharpens the debate is that many of the areas having the most diversity among youth also have fairly homogeneous white Boomer/Silent populations.

Given their demographic diversity, Millennials hold progressive opinions about immigration compared to the rest of the population.  The Times piece, for example, provides some anecdotal evidence ensconced in the opinions and stories of youths Meaghan Patrick and Nicole Vespia.

Meaghan Patrick, a junior at New College of Florida, a tiny liberal arts college in Sarasota, says discussing immigration with her older relatives is like “hitting your head against a brick wall.”

[…]

Nicole Vespia, 18, of Selden, N.Y., said older people who were worried about immigrants stealing jobs were giving up on an American ideal: capitalist meritocracy.

“If someone works better than I do, they deserve to get the job,” Ms. Vespia said. “I work in a stockroom, and my best workers are people who don’t really speak English. It’s cool to get to know them.”

Her parents’ generation, she added, just needs to adapt.

“My stepdad says, ‘Why do I have to press 1 for English?’ I think that’s ridiculous,” Ms. Vespia said, referring to the common instruction on customer-service lines. “It’s not that big of a deal. Quit crying about it. Press the button.”

The stories are backed up by data on Millennials.  In his 2008 book/project Generation WE, Eric Greenberg cites data revealing Millennials’ open attitudes on immigration.

Generation We also has an open and positive attitude toward immigration, much more so than older generations. In the Pew Gen Next poll, 18- to 25-year-olds, by 52 to 38, said immigrants strengthen the country with their hard work and talent, rather than are a burden on the country because they take our jobs, housing, and healthcare, compared to very narrow pluralities in this direction among Gen Xers and Boomers and 50–30 sentiment in the other direction among those 61 and over. In a 2004 Pew survey, 67 percent of 18- to 25-year-old Millennials thought the growing number of immigrants strengthens American society and only 30 percent believed this trend threatens our customs and values—again, much stronger positive sentiment than among any other generation.

Unfortunately, most Boomer-run news outlets do not pay attention to Millennial opinion on this issue.  With older Americans voting at higher rates than young people, the age and views of Congress and other officeholders reinforce the fear-driven status quo.  Just like many other issues, to change this reality, youth must vote in higher numbers, be willing to run for office themselves, and pair this with some organized, non-traditional resistance to mount a strong opposition.  It might be convenient to take a John Mayer approach and wait for the world to change, but how many hard-working families who already embody American values will suffer in the meantime?  This is yet another issue on which we must make change now.

Do Millennials Prefer Suburban or Urban Living?

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Over the last several months, I have noticed a discrepancy emerging among commentators regarding whether or not Millennials prefer suburban or urban living.  Examining such a conflict is important given the size and growing political influence of the Millennial generation in today’s society.

In their most recent piece, Morley Winograd and Michael Hais use the Brookings Institution’s “State of Metropolitan America” report and some polling conducted for thinktank NDN to argue that as the Millennial generation comes of age, America will move to an exclusively suburban society.

While suburban living was once seen as the almost exclusive preserve of the white upper-middle class, a majority of all major American racial and ethnic groups now live in suburbia, according to the newest report on the state of metropolitan America from the Brookings Institute. Slightly more than half of African-Americans now live in large metropolitan suburbs, as do 59% of Hispanics, almost 62% of Asian-Americans, and 78% of whites. As a result the country is closer than ever to achieving a goal that many thought would never be achieved—city/suburban racial/ethnic integration. This is particularly so in the faster growing metropolitan areas of the South and West.

The trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. A majority of Millennials live in the suburbs and 43% of them, a portion higher than for any other generation, describe suburbs as their “ideal place to live.”

Winograd and Hais use this to further argue that policymakers and developers should not resist this movement to the suburbs, but instead embrace it by passing legislation that safeguards our children, strengthens schools, and brings jobs to the suburbs.  In their mind, this would play to the heart of the 21st Century electorate.

A recent piece in the Atlantic by Christopher Leinberger contradicts Winograd and Hais’s claim, arguing for better urban transit systems and walkable neighborhoods.  Leinberger explains that with housing’s ability to lead us out of recessions, one should note the gradual increase in lost values as one moves away from urban centers.

But housing hasn’t cratered everywhere. According to Stan Humphries, the chief economist of Zillow, an online housing-research firm, if you plot changes in home values within a typical metro region on a satellite map, the result “looks like an archery target, with the outlying areas having experienced substantially higher total declines in home values” than areas closer to the central city.

Zillow data for metropolitan Washington, D.C., for instance, shows that housing prices on average have declined 33 percent since the peak. But this average masks big differences. In densely built inner suburbs, like Arlington, Virginia, and in the walkable, urban neighborhoods of the District of Columbia, prices typically dropped about 20 percent. Housing on the suburban fringe, on the other hand, lost about half its value. Many exurban homeowners who had purchased or refinanced in the mid-2000s are now well underwater.

Leinberger uses this data to make the claim that policymakers and developers should instead focus on using transit and biking infrastructure to re-develop urban neighborhoods into walkable, navigable areas.

Urban-style housing in walkable neighborhoods—including those in the inner suburbs—is what’s in demand today. And for a variety of reasons, that demand will intensify in the coming years. Only by serving it can the country kick-start growth in an enormous and essential part of the economy.

Yet the creation of new, attractive urban spaces is slow and difficult, and becomes all but impossible without substantial new infrastructure. Most of all, it relies on good transit options—especially rail links—around which walkable neighborhoods can develop. Rail, biking, and walking infrastructure is the backbone of urban development, and as a country we’ve for the most part neglected to build it in recent decades, in favor of new roads for new suburbs farther and farther away from metropolitan hubs. To support growth in the next decade, we need to change that dynamic—and nourish our walkable urban spaces and neighborhoods. Complicating matters, in these cash-strapped times we need to find a way to do so on the cheap.

I’ve argued for something similar to Leinberger’s vision in the past.  Part of the appeal of Leinberger’s contention is that it aligns with Millennial values.  Urban living leads to leaving less of a carbon footprint and a more sustainable lifestyle.  Not only this, but real estate surveys yield data disputing the numbers cited by Winograd and Hais above.  75 percent of Millennials actually prefer to live in an urban core, emphasizing the importance of convenience, connectivity, and “environment” when selecting a place to live.  Though Winograd and Hais argue that organizers and politicians should go to the suburbs to find Millennial values, Leinberger’s piece and the accompanying data supports a continued investment in re-developing urban areas.  Such a focus is not mutually exclusive from good schools and the other quality of life issues Winograd and Hais discuss.

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