Thursday, December 4, 2008

Obama '08 or [Insert Issue Here] '08?

There is a debate going on about why young people - people my age, your age, our age (early 20's a.k.a. YOUNG) - voted in 2008. Was it because of the magnetic attraction of Barack Obama, or because of the specific substantive issues at stake in the campaign?

Erica Williams believes that much of the credit for young voter turnout simply goes to the fact that Obama was on the ticket:
Who are we kidding? Many people voted because of Obama. Deal with it. I think one of the main failures of youth vote advocates this election season was in the shallowness and transparency of our messaging. The message that “young people voted on the issues” never broke through to mainstream media because it frankly wasn’t true. It was a message set up to support our organizational missions and demand legitimacy and credibility not just for our constituency, but mostly for our own work. And I understand that. But there is a difference between saying that young people care about the issues – that is true – and that young people voted because they care about the issues – not true. You can care about issues and stay your butt home on the first Tuesday in November, particularly in our communities (young, black, latino, disenfranchised). Because guess what? Young people have always cared about not having clean air to breathe, or money in their pockets, or their loved ones at war. And while yes, the past 8 years have brought us to a boiling point, logic would not tell our communities that voting is the solution. Obama is what made them channel their frustration about the issues onto the ballot. And denying that reality is going to make tomorrow a cold blast of water when we go back to our newly registered voters and find out that they actually know very little about “the issues” or how those issues will really be changed.
Man, I'm really torn on this one. There is a part of me that agrees with the premise that it was generally Obama, and not "Man, you know, this economy sucks and we NEED Obama's policy proposals" that led voters 18-29 to vote Democratic 2-to-1. I think Erica is on to something when she says that a lot of the appeal was Obama being Obama. He served as a unique blank slate on which Americans, particularly young people, could project their frustrations. I do take issue, however, with just one part of what Erica says:
Because guess what? Young people have always cared about not having clean air to breathe, or money in their pockets, or their loved ones at war.
[Emphasis mine.] Obviously, people care about clean air and money in pockets and not losing loved ones at war. Those are pretty much basic wants of human life - meaning, it shouldn't be considered a luxury to have or require those things. The thing is that eight years of George W. Bush have turned things that used to be basic guarantees of American life for most people (clean air, a stable economy, peace) into relatively rare commodities. We have a president who doesn't believe in global warming, has destroyed our economy and killed thousands of Americans with his war. So we have "always cared" about these things, sure, but only in the past two elections have they become debatable issues on which one chooses to vote.

While I think the general point that Erica is making - that most people voted for Obama because he's OBAMA, the Hope/Change/Unity guy, and not necessarily because he aligned perfectly with them in terms of policy - is valid, I don't think dismissing clean air, money and the war as things we young people would be caring about anyway is correct. They didn't use to be votable issues, and now they are, so I think it's valid to say that, yeah, maybe people of our generation actually were voting for issues like those, and chose to vote for Obama on those reasons - rather than vote for Obama based on his cool brand and pop culture appeal, and it's just convenient that he turned out to be against the war and in favor of renewable energy.

Michael Connery is thinking more along those lines:
The media may have lampooned the Obama campaign's celebrity power, but it's not like all these contacts, and all of Obama's stump appearances, amounted to nothing more than a call to "vote for me because I'm awesome." There was a little more substance than that, even if we junkies craved even more substance than was offered. Expecting more than that, I think, is unreasonable. The percentage of voters - among all age groups - who cast their ballots based on the minutia of policy are so small as to be an insignificant portion of the electorate. Using such a standard as a talking point to the media is, I think foolhardy (if in fact that was the message some orgs tried to send), but to rate the quality of youth involvement or the effectiveness of youth organizations on the policy knowledge of the electorate seems unfair.
I think, if anything, the Bush years have made policy wonks out of more young Americans than ever - or at least in a generation. An electorate that used to snooze through general elections has now woken up, and it's no surprise they voted for Obama in huge numbers. Much of it had to do with the cool "O" logo, the Facebook and iPhone applications, the XBox advertising, the celebrity endorsements and the canon of YouTube classics, but some of it undoubtedly had to do with the fact that George W. Bush has turned a lot of young people into Democrats - and not just as a knee-jerk reaction to the Republican disaster of the past eight years. I think, as people come of age during turbulent times such as these, it's natural to become more engaged because things really start hitting close to home - in the form of a dirty power plant nearby, a mortgage foreclosure or the death of a loved one in Iraq.

In the end, a lot of it was about Obama. But a lot of it was about issues, too. Obama just happened to be right on most of them.

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