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The Obama paradox

BY SHAWN GUDE | DECEMBER 02, 2009 7:20 AM

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Barack Obama is a sign of young peoples’ political apathy.

At first glance, that statement appears laughable. How could a figure who attracted two-thirds of 18- to 29-year-old voters be synonymous with political inaction?

The paradoxical answer lies in his masterful campaign. Hope. Change. Soaring rhetoric. He was a cool, equanimous man in his late 40s looking to turn the country around.

This somewhat cynical characterization is no fault of the politically adept Obama. No, his successful courting of the country’s youth in last year’s election was simply a manifestation of a larger trend over the last half century. Policy stances aside (his quixotic Afghanistan escalation comes to mind), Obama was a paragon of the lofty, forward-thinking politician required to effectively appeal to youth voters.

He had predecessors. John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton (to a less extent) were adherents of the Obama campaign paradigm. But no presidential nominee before Obama tapped into the youth vote as deftly.

“The difference is Obama [didn’t] just come with a new and different appeal … but combined that with full-stage spectacle,” said Bruce Gronbeck, a professor emeritus of communication studies and an expert on political communication. Gronbeck specifically highlighted Obama’s visit to the Pentacrest on Earth Day, almost messianic in its presentation.

So where does the youth apathy come in?

Don’t get me wrong. I was thrilled Obama brought out the youth vote. I’m just skeptical about the sustainability (and supposed salutariness) of a model dependent on a specific type of politician rather than staunch activism. Should it really take a Kennedy or Obama promising a “New Frontier” or hope and change to get us to pay attention?

In 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18. The result: Just 52 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 1972 election, as President Richard Nixon trounced then-Sen. George McGovern, a liberal Democrat from South Dakota.

The numbers are even worse in midterm elections over the last few decades, with somewhere between 20 to 30 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds typically participating, according to the nonpartisan Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

We can at least partially ascribe this sclerosis to our lackluster education system. Sure, we hear the oft-cited statistics indicating United States pupils are lagging behind their international counterparts in math and science.

But more disconcerting is the utter lack of discussion surrounding the country’s inadequate civic education. As Benjamin Barber pointed out in his 1992 book An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics Of Education and the Future of America, “education and democracy are inextricably linked and … in a free society the link is severed only at our peril.”

While humans are inherently free, their capacity to exercise their rightful autonomy is inchoate at birth. In a democracy, the aim of education should be to instill citizens with an inveterate activism and the analytical mind that is necessary for critical participation.

If we as a democratic society fail at that basic task, we’re effectively ensuring lower civic participation — and ossifying the present youth-turnout paradigm that depends on charisma, rather than “straightforward political appeal,” as Gronbeck put it.

In September, when Lupe Fiasco denounced war at his Hawkapalooza concert, I overheard someone grumble, “Don’t get all political. Just play some beats.” That’s the attitude we need to change among young people. The nomination of a bland politician like Michael Dukakis or Al Gore shouldn’t dampen our political enthusiasm, just as political espousals shouldn’t elicit uninterested eye-rolling.

I won’t subject you to the hackneyed banalities about how the lazy youth should “vote or die.” But in a democracy, the term “citizen” shouldn’t be used perfunctorily. It shouldn’t take an ostensibly transformational politician to catalyze young citizens.

Because in the end, it’s not an Obama-esque politician who’s going to make our country better.

That’s up to us.


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