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July 04, 2005

"how to define progressives in ways that would excite young adults"

This is a topic that Greg Anrig Jr. and then Matthew Yglesias have been discussing over at TPM Cafe. Most of the discussion has concerned issues--whether young people could be motivated by a particular approach to college loans, Social Security, or healthcare. Some participants believe that it is a mistake to develop special proposals for the young; it's more important just to propose good policies. Yglesias also notes a dilemma for the left. Young people are strongly libertarian on gay rights and other questions connected to sex and/or religion--the very questions that motivated many older Americans to vote for Bush. "The issues that tend to drive young people into the Democrats' arms are, unfortunately, precisely the sort of cultural issues that conventional wisdom says the party needs to de-emphasize."

I'd like to suggest a few openings that are quite unlike the issue-appeals discussed over at TPM:

1. The Democratic Party should give young people more substantive roles in campaigns. According to a study that CIRCLE commissioned from the political scientist Dan Shea (pdf), two thirds of the 403 local Democratic leaders who were polled said that a lack of youth involvement was a "serious problem." Democratic leaders were much more likely than their GOP counterparts to see the lack of youth participation as a serious issue, perhaps because young people are more engaged in the GOP, which has invested heavily in conservative campus newspapers and clubs and Washington internship programs. Nevertheless, most local leaders in both parties reported doing relatively little to groom the next generation by giving youth significant jobs. Most of their ideas for reaching youth were superficial--they thought they should become more "hip" or throw more parties. They often blamed the media for alienating young people, but seemed unwilling to invest their own resources. Local leaders (both GOP and Democratic) were asked to name the "most important demographic group for the long-term success of their party." Only 8 percent volunteered "young people." If they chose another group (most commonly, "seniors") they were asked to name a second group. Even after three opportunities, a total of only 38% named youth as an important group for the future of their party.

2. The Democratic Party should give the impression that it is open-minded and committed to solving problems by any means that work. Today's young people appear to be even more pragmatic than their elders: unattached to existing ideologies but concerned about social problems. Marc Porter Magee has been arguing that idealistic young people shun bureaucratic organizations and the civil service, looking instead for opportunities to experiment and be creative in the non-profit sector. They also like such temporary (but paid) volunteer opportunities as Americorps. The country could invest much more heavily in service and what Magee calls "civic enterprise."

3. We should start thinking about "sleeper" issues. These are issues that arise out of everyday experience and that take a long time to be named--even longer to be addressed. A political party or leader can score points by simply identifying such an issue early. For example, thanks to my colleague Lew Friedland, I'm convinced that high school students face excessive stress today because they feel that their long-term economic security is dependent on their performance in school and extracurricular activities. If anything, they overestimate the economic significance of their choice of courses and the grades they win; and they often perform community service in the belief that it's necessary for college admission. I think it's unjust to force young people to shoulder so much risk with so little support; and there may be ways to mitigate the problem. Smaller high schools, with more sense of community and less individual choice, might help. Making college admissions and financing more transparent and simpler would also be good.

(Thanks to Nick Beaudrot for telling me about the exchange on TPM--I haven't been reading blogs much lately.)

Posted by peterlevine at July 4, 2005 11:03 AM

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