Hard-rocking youth gives politics a break

Click to follow
The Independent US

When Vice-President Al Gore and George W Bush held their second televised debate last week on the campus of Wake Forest University in North Carolina, 100 or so hardy students braved the cold to sit on the grass of the main quadrangle and watch it live on a big screen. Many times that number, though, took shuttle buses to the nearby Joel Coliseum complex for a debate-watching party with a difference.

When Vice-President Al Gore and George W Bush held their second televised debate last week on the campus of Wake Forest University in North Carolina, 100 or so hardy students braved the cold to sit on the grass of the main quadrangle and watch it live on a big screen. Many times that number, though, took shuttle buses to the nearby Joel Coliseum complex for a debate-watching party with a difference.

Between 9pm, when Daniel Cage left the stage, and 10.30pm, when the band Hootie and the Blowfish began their set, party-goers were treated to a live transmission of the debate. They could also register to vote, pick up political literature and learn how to find out about politics on the internet. The event was just one of 25 organised by Rock The Vote (RTV), a 10-year-old organisation which is trying to increase the number of young Americans who vote. The last event will be in Washington DC, just three days before polling day.

The youth music channel, MTV, is another big player in the youth vote effort. This year, it is broadcasting special Choose or Lose election segments to promote voter-registration, as well as staging special forums, such as the one held jointly with Time magazine in Michigan last month with Mr Gore.

Just two weeks ago, President Clinton reportedly sat up until four in the morning talking to Jesse Ventura, the Governor of Minnesota, who owed his unexpected election two years ago in part to young voters. One of their subjects, according to Mr Ventura, was how to bring young people into the political process. This year, with the presidential election the closest it has been for 40 years - since Nixon-Kennedy - the youth vote could be as critical at the national level as it was in Minnesota two years ago. Both parties are looking to non-affiliated voters to make the difference, and proportionally, there are more voters who describe themselves as "independents" in the 18-21 age group than in any other. Yet, not only have these young voters done little to call attention to their potential clout, but neither of the two main candidates has made any great effort to recruit them.

Rock The Vote chief strategist Alison Byrne Fields claims that is extraordinarily short-sighted. The 18-21s, she points out; with their prospects, sensitivity to trends and disposable income, are the very group that is courted most assiduously by corporate America. Why is it, she asks, that politicians direct their best efforts "to folks who are going to die"? Anyone who watched the first presidential debate after landing from another planet, she said, would have thought that the population of the United States was over 65 - a good half of the debate focused on the state pension and healthcare for pensioners.

One Wake Forest student said she was shocked to find her room-mate did not know who was running for president. It may be that students, many of whom live in the closed worlds of campuses, are unaware of or uninterested in politics. But Ms Byrne Fields rejects the label of apathetic as "unfair and untrue".

"In the past 10 years," she said, "young people have become increasingly disillusioned with the political process, but their activism and interest in political change has increased." Her view was echoed by a recent survey sponsored by MTV and the Kaiser Family Foundation. It found that while fewer than half of eligible voters under the age of 25 planned to vote next month, three-quarters of them held strong opinions on a wide range of issues. Many wanted stricter gun control, the right to sue health insurance companies that refused to fund treatment, the extension of health insurance and more attention to the environment. They said they did not regard the existing political process as capable of delivering the solutions they wanted.

Ms Byrne Fields also identified a pervasive sense of economic insecurity. There were the myths of dotcom millionaires, she said, but many young people had student loans to repay, hardly earned a living wage, had no health insurance and believed the state pension system would have run out of money by the time they retired. She claimed that neither of the main candidates was addressing these worries.

Comments