How the Democrats Lost the Youth Vote

By Ethan Porter

Published November 12, 2004, issue of November 12, 2004.
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On Election Day, I and my fellow “Gen Yers” were expected to carry John Kerry to the White House, but by late evening it was obvious we had failed to vote in numbers large enough to deliver the election for the senator. “The youth vote is bunk,” conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg declared gleefully.

The thing is, it’s not true — there is a youth vote. But for the umpteenth straight election cycle, it remained effectively untapped by both parties. We voted sporadically and, as could be expected, largely but not overwhelmingly for Kerry.

To win a more decisive share of the youth vote in future elections, the Democratic Party must return to its roots. This is not to say it should turn “left” or “right,” because at this point the ideological spectrum in America has been so twisted and mutated that neither Adlai Stevenson nor Barry Goldwater would find a comfortable seat in our political scene. The Democratic Party was once the party of hope, and to regain power it must become so again.

Progressive politics of any sort has the inherent ability to inspire. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party of the recent past has failed to talk about the notion of progress — perhaps fearing it as being too close to that terrifying four-letter word, “liberal.” Instead, the party has focused on convincing voters that, empirically, its positions make more sense than those of the GOP. And although recent history bears out this claim, it also means that Republicans have successfully replaced issues of substance with social wedge issues.

Abortion, gay-rights and guns dominate red-state discourse, and thus national elections. Democrats, meanwhile, have remained silent. Democrats do not inspire; when asked about gay marriage or gun control, they shuffle their feet and look at the floor like nervous schoolboys.

The solution is not to sway right — which besides demonstrating a profound lack of conviction would also appear entirely unbelievable — but to sell Democratic positions by enunciating how they differ from those of Republicans. The youth vote, in turn, would become even more Democratic than it is today.

How and why will this happen? Guns and abortion are likely to be the subjects of irresolvable arguments from now until the demise of the republic. The debate over gay marriage, however, is relatively new on the mainstream American stage. Although the right wing has led the charge against it recently, it behooves Democrats to take a firm stance in favor of it.

Polls conducted by MTV and the Annenberg election survey have indicated that the younger generation is far more liberal than their parents’ generation when it comes to this issue, so one can quite plausibly imagine that a strongly pro-gay marriage Democratic Party would appeal to the youth vote, especially if it were framed as a matter of civil rights. In addition, if its economic benefits were carefully explained to voters, some of the business class would in all likelihood join in supporting its passage.

Gay marriage, it could be said, is a both moral and an economic issue.

Suddenly, young voters would have a cause and the Democratic Party would have a purpose. Assuredly, this purpose would repel the Christian fundamentalist voter bloc to no end, but the only way for Democrats to win the support of such voters is to cease to exist.

Change in the Democratic Party must flow from the recognition of one undeniable truth: that the strength of the party, though temporarily obscured by “triangulation” and other such philosophies of political convenience, lies in its potential to inspire voters.

President Bush and Karl Rove have political acumen to spare, but their politics naturally handicap them, for the sort of politics they stand for pits neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend. There is no unity, only acrimony.

“John Kerry calls on us to hope,” proclaimed rising party star Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention in July. Alas, he did not, and he lost. Yet the next Democratic candidate, if he speaks persuasively and proudly in favor of gay marriage and of building a more hopeful, united country, would win most of the youth vote — and perhaps even the national election.


Ethan Porter is communications director of the College Democrats of New York.

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