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August 14, 2008

the Obama youth appeal as challenge and opportunity

Here are two recent articles suggesting that Barack Obama's strong appeal to youth may alienate older voters:

These articles ring true to me. They explain and--to some extent--excuse the McCain ads that link Obama to Britney and Paris. The ads that were used against Rep. Harold Ford Jr. in 2006 were racist; they stoked white sexual fears by suggesting that a black candidate might have sex with a young white woman. But the McCain ads in this cycle don't sexually link Obama to Britney and Paris; they equate him with those two celebrities. The charge is that he is merely "cool"--attractive, popular, and good on TV--and that he doesn't deserve to be a leader or a role-model. McCain is trying to turn Obama's popularity with hip young people into a liability by invoking legitimate discomfort with our media-obsessed, superficial, pop culture.

But the ads are fundamentally unfair. Obama himself is a very serious guy--not a superficial celeb but an intellectual and a social activist. Moreover, his core young supporters are not superficial and media-obsessed. Something like 15 percent of young Americans voted for him in the primary. (25 percent voted, but some chose another candidate.) We know that they were disproportionately college students, and I suspect they were disproportionately "civic"--experienced with volunteering, political discussions, and membership in voluntary groups.

That means that they were not the young folks who bother Mr. Rutherford by hanging around malls in Lancaster County (PA) and hassling security guards. In fact, young people who are alienated from adult life and hang around malls have little voice in politics and government. They hardly voted in the primaries, and no one is talking about their issues.

The core Obama supporters are unlikely to think much of Paris and Britney. Their tastes in music and entertainment are probably much more socially-conscious, multicultural, and sophisticated. Nor are they disrespectful of authority and tradition. One of the hallmarks of young social activists today is politeness. They are close to their parents and deferential (sometimes to a fault) around people like professors and business leaders.

An opportunity arises for Obama because he offers answers to the problems that bother Mr. Rutherford and other older Americans. First, Obama is not a youth phenomenon. He is an intergenerational figure: a parent and an experienced college teacher and community organizer with roots in churches and service programs. Second, the kinds of programs he most passionately supports are the ones that connect youth to older people. They are antidotes to the problem of teenagers hanging round malls. And third, his moral and spiritual beliefs allow him to criticize the superficial, commercial, and sexist aspects of youth culture with authenticity. (By the way, most of the young people who support him will share that critique.)

August 14, 2008 10:25 AM | category: none


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