Bling Bling and the Ballot Box

Postcard from New York

NEW YORK—As I watched P. Diddy strut on stage, Rage Against the Machine blaring in the background, I couldn’t get past a cynical dose of skepticism. In a heavily air-conditioned auditorium at New York University, the rapper-turned-record-producer-turned-social-activist pontificated behind a podium on his latest public relations offensive, “Citizen Change.” Think MTV’s Rock the Vote, but more bling-bling. Instead of selling albums, the inventor of the remix was now pitching his program to sell voting to our notoriously apathetic generation—with flashy logos, celebrity jet tours and, of course, a lot of merchandise for sale. He even hired professional models to come on stage sporting the latest t-shirts in his Sean John clothing line, which advertise Citizen Change’s slogan, “Vote or Die,” in large block letters.

Will catering to the materialism of 18- to 24-year-olds work where Rocking the Vote only sort of made teens who were already thinking about voting anyway kind of want to cast a ballot a little more? I certainly wasn’t convinced. American adults have a hard enough time getting themselves to the polls on election day—not to mention their kids. The significance of the youth vote has only waned for as long as I have been politically conscious (that would be since around 1992, when I conducted my own exit poll at my elementary school and tried to get on L.A. talk radio with my results). I don’t see that trend reversing simply because another recording artist wanted to make politics cool.

But after some consideration, I’m becoming more optimistic about young voter turnout this election cycle. On top of the non-partisan get-out-the-vote drives aimed at youth, there are forces marshaling against President Bush that are influential with Generation Y, and it looks like young Americans—generally more liberal than the population at large, and therefore more likely to hop on the anti-Bush bandwagon—are responding.

My first hint the 2004 might be different came at a Beastie Boys concert in the Jones Beach Amphitheater. All Mike D had to do is say the words “President Bush” to elicit a chorus of boos from the audience. Then I started to see “Vote or Die” signs in storefronts. I am covering the 2004 campaign for Salon.com—my ticket into the P. Diddy press conference—so I did some digging.

It turns out that young Americans look more politically motivated than they have been in more than a decade—since Bill Clinton’s first presidential election in 1992, when a generation of grunge-rock inspired activists answered Nirvana’s call to kick George Bush Sr. out of the Oval Office.

The most obvious cause for optimism this election cycle comes from the entertainment industry. Like in 1992, musicians are unusually active in the effort to oust the president. It’s not just Bruce Springsteen, a classic in his own right going on tour to raise money for the anti-Bush 527 group America Coming Together. It’s Green Day and the Beastie Boys, both out with new albums laden with anti-Bush lyrics. It’s Mary J. Blige, Missy Eliot and Eve collaborating on a cover of “Wake Up Everybody,” an old R&B hit Jimmy Carter used in his 1976 presidential campaign. It’s Pearl Jam and the Dixie Chicks cutting an album with Springsteen and joining his 28-city tour.

And there are signs of serious movement in the political preferences of the 18- to 24-year-old demographic. The Washington Post released a poll yesterday that showed John Kerry with a two-to-one lead over President Bush among younger voters. Some of Kerry’s large lead, verified by other recent polls, came from young, disenchanted Bush supporters switching sides. But the poll also found that teens and twenty-somethings who did not vote in 2000—but will in 2004—are also pushing Kerry’s numbers up.

Add to this mountains of polling data and anecdotal evidence suggesting that the war in Iraq has become seriously unpopular with American youth, and a strong young voter turnout in November looks even more likely.

This leads to the inevitable question: Why now? There are the obvious reasons. Young Americans continue to die in an increasingly unpopular war—Generation Y is getting to know what it feels like to lose a brother, friend or father in the service. Talk (however unlikely) of reinstituting the draft has been afoot for months. And the weak economy is often toughest on those just starting their careers.

But I think there is also a broader, generational effect at work here. The values of the first generation to grow up in the post-Cold War world are decidedly more liberal than those of their predecessors. Generation Y is pro-gay-rights, overwhelmingly pro-choice and anti-war. We are often materialistic, as P. Diddy’s campaign suggests, but we don’t believe greed is always good. President Bush has attacked every one of these values in his first term; he is out-of-step with the future.

The skeptic in me still thinks that youth turnout won’t be spectacular in November, despite P. Diddy’s celebrity-studded jet tour. But it will be better than before. And all it took was four years of a radical right-winger in the White House.

Stephen W. Stromberg, a Russian studies concentrator in Adams House, is editorial chair of The Crimson. He is spending his summer making good on the excessively geeky potential he demonstrated in 1992.