The Allure of Youth Politics

Letter from Washington

Just hours into his presidency, Bill Clinton had 11 official balls to attend-including one honoring his native Arkansas. But it was the unofficial MTV ball that drew Clinton's first attention.

"MTV," he said to the crowd, "had a lot to do with the Clinton/Gore victory." Vice President Al Gore '69 followed. "Thank you MTV," he said. "Thank you for winning this election. You did it!"

Of course, Clinton and Gore tended to tell all the revelers that night that they did it. But this was special. Clinton and Gore were returning triumphantly to MTV, Both appeared on the network last summer, talking to groups of "ordinary" young Americans. And the attention to youth seemed to pay off: According to exit polls, 46 percent of voters aged 18 to 24 cast their ballots for Clinton, compared to 32 percent for former President Bush and 21 percent for Ross Perot. This was a stark reversal of 1980, when young voters deserted the Democrats en masse for Ronald Reagan.

The ever-pragmatic Clinton, though, did not come to MTV to just say thank you. He came with an eye on the future. Clinton was the first candidate to win the White House without a majority of the popular vote since Richard M. Nixon in 1968. Like Nixon, Clinton is hyper-conscious about building a coalition for the future. He has wooed followers of Ross Perot, stocking his economic team with deficit hawks, and discovering the magic word sacrifice.

Clinton also hopes to attract the youth vote, trying to attract that generation of Americans, roughly speaking, between the ages of 14 (they vote in four years) and 25. As Alexander Star of The New Republic has pointed out, Madison Avenue has rushed to find a name for this group, dubbed the twentysomethings by Time in 1990.

Call it Generation X (from Douglas Coupland's novel of the same name), the MTV Generation, even the Lego Generation...whatever you want. Clinton wants the votes regardless. Reagan kicked off a Republican revolution in 1980 by winning over the young. Now, Clinton has to be thinking, it's his turn.

But winning over the young is not as easy as it sounds. Issues are complicated and the budget is tight. The question Clinton must ask is this: Is there any such thing as generational identity for a group that includes Blacks and whites, rich and poor, abortion rights supporters and abortion foes, fiscal conservatives and old school liberals?

The Clinton administration is banking on a yes. "We found that talking to young people as young people was the way to go", says Ethan Zindler, who coordinated youth media in the Clinton campaign. "They're such a neglected group, we could speak to them as a generation". MTV's 24-year-old political reporter Tabitha Soren put it this way: "I represent an age group that has been accused of being apathetic," she wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed this summer, "but the truth is that my generation is not uninterested or unintelligent about politics. Just uninspired."

In hindsight, Clinton's campaign risks-appearing on MTV, playing the sax on Arsenio Hall--should be seen as masterful packaging. And to some extent, that kind of imagery still matters. The Clintonites believe that the young felt ignored by Reagan/Bush. If they're right, symbolic efforts to include young people could inspire confidence as much as any policy--and symbolism doesn't add to the budget deficit.

Clinton promised an administration that looked more like America and, as far as young people are concerned, he delivered: George Stephenopoulos, director of communications and Bruce Reed, a key advisor on welfare reform, are both in their early 30s.

But there are problems with all of this. The youth vote, as it is often discussed, is an illusion. Reagan and Bush did neglect young people, but only in the sense that they neglected most ordinary people. Many pollsters cite evidence that "youth issues" like the economy, the environment, national service and education don't interest twentysomethings any more than those a decade or two older.

A Times-Mirror survey this summer, for example, found that 94 percent of those 18 24 wanted "stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment," compared to 90 percent total. But asked whether they would pay higher prices, 67 percent of that age group balked-the same percentage as that of the total pool.

"These are issues that are of vital importance to Americans of all ages," Andrew Kohut, polling director for Lanes Mirror, told National Public Radio this summer. "And younger people don't have different points of view on these issues than older people."

Age has never been a natural cleavage line in American politics. Interviewing teenagers last summer, The Washington Post found that nearly all of them were frustrated by the presidential campaign. They agreed that the candidates weren't sincere-but some supported Bush, some supported Clinton. And at a forum I attended the day before the inauguration, 4,000 high school students assembled to hear speakers on "youth" issues. But the students didn't sound any kind of collective voice-some were for school vouchers, others for more spending on public schools, etc.

Advocates of generational identity cite certain shared characteristics of those born under Nixon, raised in bellbottoms and educated in the Reagan era: ironic, media-savvy, skeptical and technologically advanced. But Star from The New Republic theorizes that the entire twentysomething generation is a myth, a contrivance of various corporate interests and a product of flawed anecdotal evidence.

"How can one generalize," Star writes, "about a group that is said to be politically disengaged and politically correct...technologically savvy and unconditionally ignorant, busy saving the planet and craving electricity and noise, prematurely careerist and proud to be lazy, unwilling to grow up and grown up already?"

So far, these inconsistencies have yet to faze Clinton. The motor-voter bill, which would dramatically increase access to voter registration, will likely be signed into law in the near future. The bill has been central to Rock the Vote and is expected to increase turnout among young eligible voters. The crux of the administration's youth initiative, though, is the National Service Trust Fund, a domestic peace corps which would forgive college loan debts in return for community service.

The problem, though, is that Clinton's vision of national service is self-contradictory. One the one hand, the president asserted in his campaign that the U.S. should "guarantee every American who wants a college education the means to obtain one." But he also insists on instilling an ethic of service, and selflessness, in young Americans.

It's a classic Democratic dilemma-promoting government-sponsored equality of opportunity while insisting that people must do their part. A healthy economy requires government activism, Clinton says, but also ambitious entrepreneurs. Of course, this dilemma isn't unresolvable-a healthy economy does require both elements. But finding middle ground often leaves the Democrats divided, and this division has been a major impediment to winning the White House.

With national service, the reconciliation may be even more difficult than most Small-scale programs like Boston's City Year (a favorite of Clinton's) work well, driven by both corporate sponsors and government grants. But City Year barely scrapes enough money together to pay its volunteers a small stipend.

The Washington Post estimated that it would cost at least $53,000 for each student who repaid college loans with public service, since the government would spring not just for the education, but also for the service program.

And even setting aside the money question, I'm still not convinced that it would appeal to youth in any significant way. Eli Segal, the director of Clinton's service initiative, was a featured speaker at the youth town meeting in Washington. But either the audience was turned off by his platitudes ("The Washington Post says we can't afford to do national service.") or they just didn't care. In any case, a buzz of chatter filled the hall. A teacher who had come with a group of students leaned over to me, complaining, "They aren't listening." The crowd came alive, however, to talk about the L.A. riots and foreign policy.

Its inherent contradictions aside, the goal of the National Service Trust Fund is an excellent one. It's this sort of hands-on, innovative thinking of Clinton's that won my vote in the first place. But before I speak for my generation, I think of Bush's appearance before a crowd of 1,100 young Republicans last June. "Our country," College Republican chair Tony Zagotta said, introducing Bush, "means too much to this generation before you to elect a failed governor or an egotistical gadfly." Press reports described the affair as "one of [Bush's] warmest receptions of the campaign."

Shortly after Clinton's election, a reporter from the BBC called The Crimson. "I'm researching a spot on Boston, a snapshot of a city in the Clinton era," he told me. He wanted to hear from a Harvard student, and I met him the next day for an interview. With disclaimers about my Harvard-white-Jewish-left-of-center-journalist bias, I told him about our generation--the cynicism held over from Watergate, our tepid support for Clinton, etc.

I talked a few days later to my brother, a freelance writer in Washington. "Josh," he said sarcastically, "you're my spokesman." Now, this is my brother, five years older, but as close to me in ideology and demeanor as anyone I can imagine. And even he was skeptical that I could adequately represent him. If we grew up in the '60s, perhaps, he and I would find generational alliances.

"Twenty years ago," says pollster Andrew Kohut, "we had the three As: abortion, amnesty and acid. And on those issues, there were big generational differences."

I don't see similar issues these days. Nothing is stopping Clinton from trying to capture the youth vote. But as someone who wants to see him reelected in 1996, I hope he stops thinking of us as a group, and starts thinking of us as Americans.