The Vexed Generation

Why is the progressive establishment so bad at motivating the youth vote?

By Jack Meserve

Tagged Deficitprogressivismyouth

Three and a half years ago I was with thousands of other young people outside the White House, celebrating Barack Obama’s victory. Some dressed as superheroes, some sang, others danced. Even if a bit silly, it was the kind of ebullience that civics teachers and older Americans always hope for in younger voters. That rally was the culmination of a presidential campaign that inspired near record numbers of young people to vote. College students flocked to hear Obama months before the first Democratic primary, more than a year before the general election.

The enthusiasm has, suffice it to say, flagged. And the Republican candidate who performs best today among the young is Obama’s ideological antithesis, Ron Paul. That libertarianism has proven such a seductive philosophy for the young and the tech-savvy should be deeply worrying for those of us who believe that government has a positive role to play in solving problems. But progressives have mostly just wrung their hands at the dilemma of re-energizing young voters. The most common conclusion has been that a less inspirational, more bare-knuckle campaign is inevitable in 2012.

This should be a moment when young people are most energized, as recent politics has been a series of debates pitting older generations against younger ones. But Republicans have ruthlessly exploited a lack of interest by taking position after position that would hurt future generations, and blocking any initiatives that might help. In the process, they have galvanized their demographic of older Americans. The mean age of GOP primary voters in the first four contests was 64, and the average Fox News viewer is 65. That conservatives have been successful mobilizing their base shouldn’t be surprising. What should be is that progressives have at best failed to take advantage of this pattern, and at worst been complicit in it. We shouldn’t be afraid to tell young and old alike that generosity and sacrifice for future generations aren’t just morally right, but also ensure a more prosperous society for everyone, even those doing the sacrificing. If we can’t make that case, we’ll continue to see the youth vote, and the rest of the electorate, swing toward other candidates or not participate at all.

Speaker John Boehner has been happy to cast political debates in terms of generational impact. In his 2010 victory speech, he practically yelled to the crowd, “[W]e have buried our children under a mountain of debt…. [T]his is a time to roll up our sleeves…and to take the first steps toward a better future for our kids and grandkids.” In the most striking example, he began weeping on “60 Minutes” when he described visiting schools and hoping the American Dream would be around for the children he saw.

Helping younger generations is a noble sentiment, but unfortunately one reflected only in Republican speeches and TV interviews. Take the recent debates on entitlement reform: The most prominent Republican plan, Paul Ryan’s Medicare proposal, would retain the current system (the one that’s supposedly overgenerous) for those 55 and older. His program would then voucherize Medicare benefits for everyone else. These vouchers wouldn’t be indexed to escalating health-care costs, and so by design those not grandfathered in would receive less and less as time went on. The younger one is, the less one would receive.

There are good reasons for entitlement reform and for not wanting to cut benefits that seniors expect, but both together do bear a certain similarity to Dad running up his credit card bill and paying for it with Junior’s college fund. That Ryan claims his plan will “save Medicare for future generations” should be an embarrassing political albatross. Instead, it’s co-sponsored by Democrat Ron Wyden, and there’s a mostly bipartisan consensus that current benefits shouldn’t be touched by any entitlement reform, but that such reform is also somehow an imperative. The only possible conclusion to draw from these two premises is that future beneficiaries are the ones who have to take the hit.

Even on the national debt, an issue on which conservatives insist they are the group preaching current discipline for future gain, they have proven more interested in their older, wealthier constituents. During the recent debt-ceiling debate, Democrats were willing (if unhappy) to both cut spending and increase taxes. Republicans, predictably, only accepted the former. This is the clue that gives away the game: Taxes to pay down the debt are an actual sacrifice today in order to help tomorrow; cutting safety net spending to pay for further tax cuts is redistributing wealth from your opponent’s less privileged constituents to your own more privileged ones. Jonathan Chait in these pages [“The Triumph of Taxophobia,” Issue #20] advanced the theory that politics is better understood with the insight that conservatives only care about taxes (as in, lower ones on better-off people), and recent events have entirely borne him out.

Finally, climate change promises to be a truly frightening long-term threat to the young, and to those not yet born. Conservatives have given it the inverse level of seriousness it is due by arguing that it does not exist. The potential effects don’t need to be rehashed, but the International Energy Agency, which represents 28 member nations, summed up recently: “On planned policies, rising fossil energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change.” These are consequences that average Republicans will not have to live through, and they’re acting like it.

There are a host of other problems where younger voters are bearing enormous costs. The average student graduated from college last year with more than $25,000 in debt. The Great Recession will dampen the earnings of those who graduated during it for more than a decade. Lisa Kahn, a Yale economist, found the total loss to be roughly $100,000. Unemployment today is highest among the young, and over 20 percent among 16-19 year olds. Nearly a third of 23-year-olds have been arrested at least once. Even on issues of gay equality, which affect Americans of all ages, anecdotal evidence on issues like bullying suggests the young bear a particularly high burden. But on which of these issues could one argue that conservatives have fought for the young versus old, or even future versus present?

By itself, one of these positions—deferring entitlement cuts, allowing environmental collapse, prioritizing today’s tax cuts—could be written off as an ideological difference or honest mistake, two as unfortunate political opportunism. But taken together they combine to form, it must be said, an intergenerational selfishness—a pattern of choosing profligacy and overindulgence, and passing the bill to those barely old enough to vote. It’s come about because of a variety of factors: tough economic times, political and economic polarization, and a deterioration of civic engagement.

It’s also come about because of a sharpened resentment toward young people from older conservative voters. Political scientist Theda Skocpol and Harvard graduate student Vanessa Williamson interviewed Tea Partiers and found many questioned the work ethic of young people, and “connected worries about the deteriorating behavior of young people directly to fears about wasteful entitlement spending.” [See Daniel T. Rodgers, “‘Moocher Class’ Warfare,” in this issue.] These sentiments have been stoked by politicians and the media, and are reflected in a GOP congressman calling Pell grants—which help low-income students pay for college—“the welfare of the twenty-first century,” and a Fox News pundit arguing, “I think the recession was good for kids.”

None of this should be seen as a call for pity for the young: My generation has it lucky in too many ways to count. We didn’t face the Great Depression, many of the civil rights battles (gay marriage excluded) were fought for us, and there has been no widespread draft that previous generations faced during World War II and Vietnam. We have iPhones and e-readers. We’ll have the ability to live in the richest country on earth in a time of relative peace and prosperity.

Nor should it suggest that progressives cast these policy battles in combative, us-versus-them terms. Indeed, the great tragedy is that this country’s leaders and citizens once understood that helping the young helps everyone. The GI Bill gave benefits like unemployment insurance and college tuition to 7.8 million Americans. It’s an example of intergenerational generosity, and it increased education, lifetime earnings, and even civic participation rates among beneficiaries. This prosperity is what allowed the many public benefits we still enjoy today, and it helped the 1950s and ’60s to be boom times in America.

In the same vein, progressive policy solutions are forward thinking, but they carry benefits to the entire nation. Reducing dependency on oil helps the environment in 2052, but it also improves the economy and strengthens national security in 2012. Addressing the debt (yes, partly through raising taxes) lessens the burden on future generations, but also makes the economy today more stable. Not saddling citizens with debt in their youth means they can support society in their middle age. These should not be controversial assertions, but conservatives have been startlingly effective at casting a governing platform of austerity tomorrow as one of self-sacrifice today.

Progressives, President Obama included, should address the nation in these terms. There’s an understandable reluctance to use generational rhetoric when high turnout among older voters is certain, and among younger voters only possible. That’s why this part of most politicians’ speeches—“helping our children and grandchildren,” “leaving a better future”—sounds perfunctory, banal, and overused. Most of it is actually aimed at the altruism of the older. But 18-year-olds can vote, and college students can fill out absentee ballots. In 2008, youth turnout went up while all other age groups went down or remained static, and was the highest since 1992. The Administration can use both the sacrifice-for-someone-else policies of the Republicans and its own achievements—including an impressive overhaul of the nation’s student loan programs—to increase young voters’ engagement. If progressives tell young people a stark but honest narrative of the future awaiting them, then we have a better chance of avoiding it.

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Jack Meserve is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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