Why Democrats Have a Problem with Young Voters

More and more young people who identify as progressive on the issues shy from labeling themselves Democrats.

Supporters listen to then Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama address an audience on January 9th, 2008.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Supporters listen to Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama address an audience on January 9th, 2008.
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I have a young friend I'll call Cecil. Cecil graduated from a prestigious liberal arts college on the East Coast in 2006 with a degree in political science. A lot of his friends were involved in political campaigns, and so, looking for work, he thought he'd try it, too: "You want to be involved in something that's trying to make the world a better place. Something that's mission-driven," he says. So he got a job as a field organizer for the senate campaign of John Tester, the populist Democrat. That election won, burned out, he drove to California and got a job waiting tables.

Then came Barack Obama, and Cecil fell in love. "The war thing was big," he remembers. "I had a friend who went to Iraq and died. Obama’s whole opposition to the war was very important to me." He packed up his car and drove all the way across the country to become an Obama organizer in New Hampshire, then Maine, then Vermont. Because he was good at it, he was named deputy field director in Oregon, then one of two deputies in a crucial Midwestern state. After the election, in Washington, he was one of the principles in setting up a major new national progressive activist group.

By just about any metric you can think of, Cecil is on the left. (He requested I not use his real name because his employer is keen on preserving a non-ideological reputation.) The Republican Party's positions on gay rights and its anti-immigrant tilt, as long as they persist, "will keep me from voting for any Republican candidate," he says. "Anything bigotry-based and hate-based is going to lose me." He speaks with distaste of the Republican Party's "whole war-hawk thing." And he adds that, 99 times out of 100, "I'm going to vote Democratic."

You could call Cecil a progressive. Just don't call him a Democrat. As intense as his alienation from the Republican Party is his disinclination to state any party identity at all. He says, "I feel more attached to a politics of hope and optimism than I do to the Democratic Party"

He's not alone. It's more and more the case that young people who identify with Democrats on the issues shy from labeling themselves Democrats. In 2008, members of the "Millennial" generation — demographers' term for kids born between 1981 and 1993 — identified as Democrats rather than Republicans by 60 to 32 percent. Now, those figures are 47 and 43 percent.

The turn away from party identification has been a long-term American trend: According to Gallup, 40 percent of Americans don't consider themselves members of a political party, compared to 36 percent in 2002 and 33 percent in 1988. But that trend has been all the more accelerated among young people — and even more so among young progressives. A study by Tufts University's Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement in the key swing state of Nevada found that youth were 11 percent of registered voters in the 2008 election, but just 7.85 percent in October of 2011 – meaning a key Obama constituency in 2008 will have thinned out for 2012. More menacingly for Dems, those same researchers found that in North Carolina, a Southern state where in 2008 Obama scored an apparently historic map-changing victory, Democratic registration among 18-25 year olds was 300,000 in 2008 – and only 265,000 in 2011. Republican registration among the same age cohort is about the same.  Nationally, Republican youth registration has gone up—which means that the Republican Party is bucking the trend: right-of-center kids seem perfectly happy calling themselves Republicans, at the same time that young lefties are becoming increasingly chary of being called Democrats.

That’s an emerging advantage for the Grand Old Party. Political scientists have long argued that party identification is the best possible predictor of voting behavior, and is remarkably sticky over time. Which is to say, if you want to manufacture a generation of habitual Democratic voters, it's not enough to get them to agree with you on Democrat issues; you have to get them to call themselves Democrats. It's the same reason product marketers spend so many resources establishing brand loyalty among kids: Once you win them, you may just have them for life. And it's why these trends should be worrying indeed for Democrats who used Obama's staggering success among young voters (he won them over John McCain by 66 to 32 percent) to make the argument that demographics portended an "emerging Democratic majority." It's especially interesting that the démarche of Democratic identity seem most pronounced among the kids most committed to the values of equality and justice that some consider the Democratic Party's historic calling card.

They are people like Ayla Schlosser, a 24-year-old native of liberal Mendocino, California, who became politically conscious in opposition to the Iraq War and has since devoted her life to organizing for environmental justice. "I work on the local level," she told me. "It's a choice I've made at this point in my career because it's somewhere I feel like I can have an impact." Partisan politics, elections, just don't seem particularly relevant to her values. "I don't live in a vacuum," she explains. "I definitely know that politics — partisan politics, at that — deeply affects the issues I work on." That's to say, while any given Democratic politician may or may not support her work going door to door raising awareness about environmental justice in their neighborhoods, just about any Republican would label her an anti-American Alinskyite enemy of all that is good and true. "I just don't feel like I'm doing it from any partisan standpoint."

A tricky feature of this falloff in Democratic partisanship among young people is that it comes from two precisely opposite directions at once. Some think the Democrats are too ideological — part of the problem they supported Barack Obama in order to overcome. Ayla, who cried with joy when Obama was elected, puts it this way: The bipartisan world "gives you one choice or another, and I feel there's more nuance than that." She has dear friends who work for the Democratic Party, and for Obama's reelection, "and it's work that I totally support." Just don't ask her to get involved. Likewise my friend Cecil, a true believer in the extraordinary Obama organizing culture that stressed the power of volunteers to create post-partisan unity by telling their individual stories. He considered Obama the "'better angels of our nature' candidate," someone with the power to loose the stranglehold of TV shouting heads who insisted "there were only these two perspectives on every question: red or blue" held over our politics.

Another camp of folks who might traditionally groove Democrat don't do so because they think Democrats are not ideological enough — at least when it comes to drawing lines with Republicans on the social justice issues they care about most. Among Washington-based pundits, of course, this is the only way the Democrats can remain competitive in a nation in which only 20 percent of voters identify themselves as "liberal." Drill down one layer deeper, however, and another danger for Democratic centrism emerges. It is this: The young voters most likely to feel this way are Hispanics — the very group whose demographic explosion has been called the pro-immigrant Democratic Party's "secret weapon" and the anti-immigrant Republicans' Armageddon. Only problem: Activist young Hispanics these days see Barack Obama's Democratic Party as their adversary. "He's deported a lot of members of my community," explains Kyle de Beausset, a 25-year-old born and raised in Guatemala to American parents and now living in Boston.

That's not accidental, but institutional: The administration's "Safe Communities" program licenses local police to act like federal immigration officers. It's intended to remove hardened criminals from the country, but it has swept up so many minor offenders — for instance for driving without a license, which undocumented immigrants are not allowed to get — that the Obama administration has broken up  families via deportation faster and in larger numbers than any previous president, Democrat or Republican. "If I was to vote for Barack Obama," says de Beausset, who blogs about his two jobs organizing on immigration issues at Citizenorange.com, "I would feel like I was humiliating myself." Another young immigrant organizer I talked to, Felipe Matos, is on the fence about voting for Obama—"But I definitely won't vote Republican" — which is particularly striking because he's busy right now working in the crucial swing state of Colorado on a project to ... register Hispanics to vote.

This makes for some awkward conversations when the people de Beausset is registering ask him who he thinks they should vote for. When it comes to offices like county commissioner, he usually has a ready answer. "And then it comes to the president. And I don't know what to say.” The administration seems to have eased up on deportations in response to the outcry, but on the ground, within his community, Felipe doesn’t see it—or maybe the damage has already been done, and things are beyond forgive-and-forget. “It's really frustrating. You turn on your TV and you hear the President say, 'Oh, I am for the DREAM Act, I am for comprehensive immigration reform' — and you have your neighbors being deported."

It points to an old political dilemma. There are two strategies available in a partisan political environment for communities working for justice. You can join the Democratic Party—and, once inside the tent, work to bend it more to your will. Or you can not join the Democratic Party—and work to bend it more to your will by teaching Democrats they can't take your vote for granted.

The people running the Democratic Party itself laid down their bet on that question long ago: Take 'em for granted. It makes more sense, a generation of Democratic strategists agree, to plug for "independent" voters in the middle, even at the expense of strong stands for traditionally Democratic constituencies. Jimmy Carter started the trend, deliberately shutting out unions from decision-making in his administration, canceling spending projects on infrastructure, and explaining in his 1978 State of the Union, "Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities or cure illiteracy or provide energy." Clinton, of course, said the same thing — "the age of big government is over" — then made "triangulation" -- explicitly positioning himself as an adversary of Democrats in Congress -- the core of his reelection strategy. Barack Obama, as we know, has made such post-partisan gestures the soul of his political identity.

But the less ideological Democrats become, the more pundits (see here) and conservatives ("[Obama] is the most rigid ideologue in more than a century," as a commenter to my article last week put it) blame them for being ideological.

Cecil has been watching it happen with consternation: Obama "quadrupled down" on "trying to be seen as reaching across the aisle, being civil, being level-headed—and it just isn't working. What does it mean for our idea that this thing is possible? I don't know. This is the hardest part of these last couple of years. It's just heartbreaking."

I'm heartbroken by something else. I believe politics is a team sport. That, for awful and unfortunate reasons beyond any of our control, the American system only allows, effectively, for two teams. And that if you don't plant your flag with the team that you agree with most of the time — 99 times out of 100, in Cecil's case — you're ultimately only helping the other team.

My politics of optimism and hope still casts its lot with the Democrats — in the optimistic hope that the dying embers of its status as the party of our better angels, one that took risks for social justice, can still be fanned into a flame. But I'm an old man, born in 1969. I can't really blame someone born in 1991 for not buying the idea that the Democrats were once a party that often took political risks for social justice and can be again. Why should they believe me? They've never seen it in their lifetimes.

With Cecil, I try another argument. You value civility so much, I say. Surely it's the Democrats who are more likely to produce a Barack Obama — a politician for whom civility is the highest virtue? He agrees: "I think they are too, he says. "But I don't feel like I have to pick .... It doesn't feel important for me to identify as a Democrat. It doesn't serve a purpose."

Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. He writes a weekly column for RollingStone.com.

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