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August 02, 2005

Getting Youth Involved

Politics is a four-letter word; culture is what happens when you get out of bed.  That was the title of a post by prank monkey raised from the diaries on mydd about getting youth involved in Democratic/ progressive politics.  It’s a long post so I’ve taken the liberty of culling what I saw as key paragraphs.  The whole thing is well worth the read though.

At its most root level, it is a matter of perception, world-view, framing (or whatever term you want to assign it).  For the majority of "young" Americans, politics isn't important in the same way it is for us junkies. In fact, politics is a dirty word. This seems like a no-brainer, but the manner in which "youth outreach" programs of the Young Democrats, College Democrats, DNC, and ACT work illustrate that this fact remains deeply unabsorbed. It is a constant that is always in people's minds, but never fully comprehended or accounted for during planning sessions, retreats, and daily meetings.

This should come as no surprise.  Politicians and political groups are particularly inept when it comes to operating outside the realm of the established norms of the beltway - canvassers on campuses, "bar nights" where younger folks have to pay to meet a politician seeking their vote (how insane is that - asking an apathetic or apolitical college student or young professional to pay for the pleasure of hearing an earnest pencil pusher or a smarmy egomaniac speak platitudes?!?!?!), if we're lucky, the occasional road trip may crop up.

The problem here, as Leighton pointed out, is that many of the people running these programs view "youth outreach" as basic training for the big leagues.  What the entire Democratic infrastructure needs to realize is that voters under 30 need completely different programs to increase their participation, not a beta-version of a real campaign, run by an endless series of ladder climbers looking to get to the next rung in their political career.  

If we want to build a progressive majority, our coalition cannot be composed solely of folks who drink the Kool Aid. We need to tailor our activities so we can involve the greatest amount of people, and use this larger pool to gradually move people up a ladder of participation that gets increasingly political in nature the higher up you get.  This should be the goal of "youth outreach" programs, and this idea should be the basis for every ground campaign and recruitment program geared towards younger voters.  The rub here is that we can't force these people to conform to our world-view.  99.9% of them will never be as politicized as we'd like them to be.  So in order to succeed, we've got to adapt our own assumptions and ideas into their worldview. This was the realization that made Music for America so successful.

That was the simple idea behind all of MfA's successes (as well as that of groups like Drinking Liberally, Punk Voter, Head Count, Concerts for Kerry/Change). We took politics, which was a topic of taboo in youth culture - an automatic badge of unhipness - and, by integrating it into the cultural fabric, changed the entire frame through which our generation perceived it.  For the kids we reached, politics wasn't a freakish entity floating at the margin of their lives anymore. It was about going to good shows and hanging out with their friends, seeing a good band or having a beer.  And somewhere in all that socializing and normalcy, they register to vote and get a little bit more informed. After more than 2400 shows across the county, politics became part of a typical Saturday night out.

The active left needs to recognize that it's OK - no, its VALUABLE - to have a large pool of voters who are mildly informed and involved through their everyday activities, even if they never pariticpate in any of your "boots on the ground" activites.  Our job is to organize enough events with mass appeal to keep a large majority of folks interested and informed at the most basic level.  Simultaneously, we should use these informal settings to find people who can be "brought up to the next level."  Give people the opportunity to become involved at their own pace and do your damndest to keep them loosely connected until they do decide to increase their participation..

We need to shift our "youth organizations" focus away from career building for the big leagues and get them to start teaching the next generation in American Politics how  to Live Liberally.  This needs to happen through culture - in concert halls and comedy clubs, bars and coffee shops.  If we don't, the new Baby Boom that began in 1990 might just end up destroying the so-called Emerging Democratic Majority. 

Posted by Lynn Allen on August 2, 2005 at 04:40 PM in Strategery | Permalink

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Comments

I also think that a big part of the success of these groups -- and in fact many others -- comes back to one thing: money, and how it works.

Part of the problem with the "old" soft-money system is that it kept the donors in the Democratic party. A one-entity monolith -- just like in business -- stifled innovation. Also, in the "early years" of soft-money raising -- 1988, but really 1992 and 1996, there wasn't enough money in the system to fund all of these initiatives. 2000 there probably was, but it was all bottled up in the party aparatus.

In 2000/2001 someone discovered the 527 loophole, and that combined with the passage of BCRA allowed all of this energy to move forward.

The new era of 527 work has been both good and bad, however. The upside with this system is that it's allowed innovation and new ideas to be given a chance. The downside is that it's resulted in more and more people tripping over each other, working on similar projects and tripping over each other. And, it's increased the need for the donor community to become a more active consumer and become more involved in the projects they fund, which can have both positive and negative consequences.

Posted by: Dean | Aug 3, 2005 3:28:30 PM

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