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Ignore the Youth Vote at Your Own Peril

Mike Connery on why progressive leaders should stop lamenting 'youth apathy' and start engaging the most diverse, tolerant, generation in history.
 
 
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Michael Connery has written a necessary and accessible primer on the status of the progressive youth vote in the U.S. Youth to Power is a slim volume that gives important historical context to the youth vote and an in-depth look at the current activity of young progressives aligning with the Democratic Party, turning on its head the long-held perception of youth in America as apathetic and disconnected from electoral politics.

Connery essentially issues a wake-up call to progressive leaders: ignore the youth vote now and in any election in the future at your own peril. With good reason -- the Millennial generation, defined in the political realm as those born between 1978 and 1996, includes 50 million eligible voters for this year's presidential election. And more and more of them are aligning with the Democratic Party on issues like health care, the war in Iraq, foreign policy and environmental standards.

Connery, a respected progressive blogger, maintains the blog Future Majority and is a contributor to MyDD, DailyKos and the Huffington Post's "Off the Bus" project. As a veteran of the 2004 presidential cycle -- Connery co-founded a get-out-the-vote organization called Music For America -- he is well positioned to share observations and suggestions to those in power and simultaneously share experience and inspiration with youth voters and young leaders during this historic presidential election cycle.

He addresses Gen X and Baby Boomer leaders as well as Millenials throughout the book, in chapters that cover the 2003-04 rise in political participation in the Howard Dean campaign ("Deaniacs") through what he terms the "dot org boom" -- when an array of organizations were established by a few key progressive funders after the Democrats lost the presidential bid in 2004. He also spends time explaining how funding for progressive youth leadership training pales in comparison to the "conservative youth factory" established by the right wing. Connery also discusses methods of engaging youth through social justice activism -- a strategy deftly employed by communities of color. And he illuminates how new communication technologies, and the advent of Web 2.0 specifically, has helped shape new opportunities for unprecedented levels of participation by youth in electoral politics.

Youth to Power concludes with a warning that is also an invitation to those in power in the Democratic Party: "[O]ver the past five years ... young people have started a conversation of their own -- online and on the ground -- to engage one another politically. If the Democratic Party and the mainstream progressive movement want to see ... the future majority realized, it is high time they joined this conversation."

In the book you describe the Millennial generation really well -- it was the first thorough explanation I had read of it. What part of the generation do you consider yourself? Gen X cusper or straight up Millennial?

Personally, I consider myself a Millennial. In part, Generation X is defined by the declining birth rate after the Baby Boom. I was born in 1978, which is when the birth rate started to climb again. That's the year that a lot of political pollsters and some think tanks like the New Politics Institute use as the start date.

Millennials are far more progressive as a generation [than Generation X]. We are optimistic and believe in the power and responsibility of government to create opportunity and positive change for its citizens. There are also cultural markers that are more identified with Millennials than with Gen X, like an affinity for mashup culture and a level of comfort with peer-to-peer and social technologies. In all these categories I find myself identifying more with Millennials than Gen Xers.

You run your own blog, Future Majority and you're a frequent contributor to MyDD. How did you make the leap from blogger to author of your first book?

In 2004, when I was working at Music for America, part of my job was running our community website. That meant I was blogging on a daily basis on the site. It also meant that I would occasionally cross post a diary on some of the larger progressive community sites like Daily Kos and MyDD. At first, I did this under a pseudonym, as so many people do.

After '04, I was burned out on politics and didn't blog for over a year, but kept reading a few blogs, particularly MyDD. In 2006, I noticed that despite all the great work and new institutions springing up to organize young voters, no one was blogging about them and old attitudes about "apathetic youth" still seemed to hold sway in the blogosphere. The youth revolution that started in 2004 was essentially absent from the online conversation. That's when I started Future Majority. It's also when I abandoned my old accounts and started to blog under my real name.

I spent the next 6 months blogging on Future Majority, which at the time was read primarily by my old coworkers and a few folks who were involved in youth organizing in 2004 and 2005. But I would also cross post some of my more lengthy, analytical pieces to MyDD and Daily Kos.

Over at Daily Kos, a lot of quality content tends to get overlooked purely because of the sheer volume of content. To remedy that, one of the moderators, Susan G., began the "Diary Rescue Project." Eventually my diaries began to get rescued on a regular basis.

That's how my publishers -- Ig Publishing -- found me. Ig was starting to make a name for itself publishing bloggers, and Daily Kos was something of a recruiting ground for them.

They'd already published Jim Derych's Confessions of a Former Dittohead , as well as Jeffrey Feldman's Framing the Debate. Both Jim and Jeffrey were very popular diarists on Daily Kos. One day I received an email from them, which inquired about my interest in writing a book.

So my blogging literally created the opportunity to publish a book. It helped me to find a niche, and build an audience and a reputation. Through the Diary Rescue, the netroots community literally elevated me to a place where the right people began to notice what I was saying.

Who did you write the book for? Is it a different audience than readers of your blog?

Yes and no. Many of the people who read my blog are living and working in the belly of the beast when it comes to youth organizing, and they are highly conversant with much of what I wrote. That said, no one knows everything about youth organizing and I think my book will be a good reference for these folks and hopefully will give them a framework and the knowledge to discuss their work as part of a larger movement.

But there are two audiences in particular that I think are more important to reach, and I regard them equally as my primary audience. The first is young people who are just now becoming involved in politics. The second is older people who want/need to get a handle on what the playing field looks like in youth organizing and learn how young people can be a part of their own work.

One of the biggest problems facing the growing progressive youth movement is a lack of institutional memory and perspective. By its very nature, everyone in youth organizing starts out as a novice, and what they need more than anything is an awareness of the history, tactics, and context of their work.

Young organizers need to know how we got where we are -- the history of youth organizing in the party. They need to know what they are up against and how conservatives have organized their own young supporters. They need to know tactics and strategies, what's worked and why. Above all, they need to know about the larger movement and be able to place their own work -- be it with the League of Young Voters or Young People For -- in the context of a larger movement. There are literally dozens of organizations working in different core competencies, from communications, to field, to leadership development. Too often young people have a myopic view and are focused solely on the work of their own organization or issue.

I hope my book can be a primer for these young organizers that vastly increases the self-awareness of the progressive youth movement.

The second group I'm targeting is old campaigners, staffers and pundits -- the people who control the money, the strategy and the discourse in American politics.

We know that if a person votes for a political party in their first three major elections, they become a party voter for life. We also know that the Millennial Generation is bigger than the Baby Boom and could shape a progressive majority for the next 50 years. I would like my book to alter thinking about young voters within the party and inspire campaign and committee staffers to focus on reaching Millennials and build that majority. So I would hope that campaign and committee staffers would read this book and come to an understanding that young people are a constituency that must be courted, and walk away with ideas on how to do that.

As for the pundits, for too long they've continued to spread a narrative of disengagement and apathy. That's starting to change with Obama, who has done amazing work with young people and really built upon and amplified the trends we've been seeing. But Obama didn't create those trends, and I'm loathe to allow the media to make youth turnout a story about one man's personality. I hope they'll read my book and walk away with an understanding that what we're seeing is both a generational shift in the electorate and a movement that goes beyond any one candidate or campaign.

Who would you most like to read it and why?

Anyone who questions the engagement of the youngest generation of voters.

One defining characteristic of the Millennials is their widespread adoption of Web 2.0 and mobile communication. However, you point out that the campaigns' websites and even the progressive blogosphere fail to embrace the two-way communication that this technology enables, and to some degree, continue to discount youth as apathetic or disinterested in politics. Can you discuss some effective examples of engaging youth in politics through technology?

Well, I wouldn't say that the blogosphere fails to embrace two-way communication. By its very nature the blogosphere is a two-way medium. What I was getting at in my book is that the blogosphere is still a place hostile to youth organizing and claims of higher youth engagement. Or at least it was when I was writing my book. That's changed since the primaries. Young voters have turned out at double, triple, even quadruple the 2000 turnout, and the blogosphere is well aware of what is happening and the advantage it presents to Democrats. The blogosphere is drinking the youth kool-aid now, so things have changed considerably in the short months since I finished my manuscript. I guess it's one of the perils of writing a book about politics in the middle of a contested Presidential Primary season. Things can shift very rapidly beneath your feet.

As for examples of good online organizing, there are many. In 2006, online video played a prominent role in rallying young voters in support of Jon Tester in Montana and Jim Webb in Virginia. The Webb race may be one of the most famous examples of how online video can swing a race. When George Allen, the Republican incumbent, was caught on video using a racial slur against an employee of his opponent, the video went viral on YouTube. As a result, young voters swung dramatically away from Allen, and were in fact the margin of victory for Webb. That victory in turn helped the Democrats retake the Senate.

Also in 2006, the Minnesota Youth Democrat Farm and Labor Coordinated Campaign used Facebook to help construct a voter file from scratch for use in online recruitment and even traditional door-knocking canvasses. Voter files are notoriously useless for targeting young voters, so this was a fairly ingenious use of a social network to fill in the gaps where traditional campaign tools had long fallen short.

Students for Barack Obama, the student arm of the Obama campaign, got its start as a group on Facebook, which they used to organize events and communicate with members. To this day, almost every youth group out there now uses Facebook as an event-organizing tool.

It's important to remember though that while the social web allows organizations to more effectively reach young people, and allows young people to create new and highly effective organizations at almost no cost, the tools also enable action where no organizational structure exists (as Clay Shirky says, the web enables organizing without organizations). The best example of this to date has to be the pro-immigrant rallies of 2006, which were organized organically, without any leadership, via text message and MySpace.

How do you see this presidential campaign season as different from that of 2004? Why, for instance will Music For America -- the organization you co-founded -- not have as big of a role this time around? Are there other groups playing the role that MFA did in the '04 cycle?

In 2004, innovation and youth outreach happened almost completely outside the bounds of the major campaigns and the party structure. This time, all that creative energy is happening with the campaigns, particularly the Obama campaign. This is in large part due to two factors: the changed nature of the way the campaigns operate, and how the campaigns are staffed.

In the past, campaigns were very command and control and top down. Everything needed to be approved from up above, and if the big shots at the strategy meetings didn't see a value in something (like youth organizing), then it didn't happen. That started to change with the Dean campaign, where we saw the value of an open campaign run from the bottom up. But Dean never really had a lock on the youth vote (in fact he lost the youth vote to Kerry in the primaries), and Kerry was an uninspiring candidate who ran a relatively top-down campaign. There was no incentive, or even real opportunity, for young people to work within the campaigns during the general election in 2004.

The youth vote was also untested in 2004, and the apathetic narrative was dominant. As a result, there wasn't a strong incentive for the campaigns to put major resources into a youth operation. Too many candidates had tried to turn out young voters and failed, and it was regarded as reckless and wasteful for a candidate to put their eggs in the youth basket.

So there was less ability and incentive -- on the part of campaigns and supporters -- to try new things or work within the confines of the campaign. Instead, people worked outside of the campaign structure, mostly in 501c3 and 527 groups like The League or Music for America.

This time around, the major presidential candidates, at least on the Democratic side, recognize the value of the youth vote. They saw that youth were the only demographic to break for Kerry in 2004, and that young voters helped candidates like Jon Tester and Jim Webb win elections in 2006. Obama, Edwards and Clinton all hired full-time youth directors early in the cycle. This was unprecedented. In the case of Obama, not only did he specifically target and put real resources behind courting young voters, he also ran a very decentralized and open campaign that allowed his supporters to participate to a degree they couldn't in previous elections. Students for Barack Obama and Generation Obama, his two youth initiatives, both started outside the campaign in the grassroots. So the opportunity and resources to work within the campaigns are there this cycle whereas they haven't been in previous elections.

As for Music for America, MFA was never able to secure a stable fundraising base outside of its original angel investor. So when that investor pulled funding, the organization folded. Punk Voter, a very similar org from 2004 is also going to play only a small part in the 2008 election. The only organization left that focuses on registering young people through the live music scene is Head Count, a nonprofit that started in the jam band scene and is expanding to other genres this year. Head Count expects to be at over 1000 concerts this year (disclosure: I'm on the advisory board).

In the past few months, do you see any signs of the Democratic Party reaching out to youth?

Yes there are some signs, though there need to be more. I was at the California Democratic Party Convention a few weeks ago and spoke on a panel on the youth vote that was very well attended and I think very well received. There's a group within the DNC called the Youth Council that's trying to get more young people involved within the party apparatus as delegates to the convention (disclosure: I'm on the Youth Council).

But, on the whole, there needs to be a lot more. For example, we need to have youth directors in every state party that have real budgets to do work during elections -- identification, registration, and GOTV. Down-ballot campaigns need to take their cues from Obama, Tester and Webb and target young voters in their campaigns. Parties need to put more money into youth outreach and that work can't be confined to college campuses. There are far, far more non-college youth and we're doing a terrible job of reaching out to them.

None of this is happening as of yet. Obama's youth strategy is still an aberration, and most of the work in engaging young voters is still happening outside the party system.

Candidates in this presidential campaign have more directly addressed race in America than in any campaign cycle in recent memory. Do you believe that the discussion will lead to better communication and collaboration between social justice activists in communities of color and the traditional progressive power base? If so, could you share some examples?

It's still very, very, early to say what effect Obama's speech on race, to which I assume you are referring, will have at the organizational level. I certainly hope that it does change the debate across the political spectrum, not just between the social justice and progressive base.

In some ways, I think that we were starting to engage that new conversation, and enter into a more collaborative era, even before Obama's speech. We've already seen groups like Color of Change, which is a new kind of social justice organization, get a lot of coverage in the blogosphere, which is populated largely by the progressive base. Among youth organizations this is happening as well. The Millennials are the most diverse, tolerant generation in American history. 40% come from a racial or ethnic minority. Indeed, the Millennials may be the last generation before America becomes a majority minority nation. For the youngest generation, race is less and less of an issue.

You can see how that is playing out in groups like the League of Young Voters, which is an incredibly racially diverse organization. The most diverse group I can think of, certainly, and they often partner with organizations whose membership is composed of more traditional (read: white, middle class) progressives. You can also see it in the work of Young People For and DMI Scholars, which have a strong focus on bringing community organizers and young people of color into the progressive political sphere through training and leadership development.

These divisions are being erased among Millennials and their organizations. They're not gone by any means, but they're shrinking and we're seeing more common understanding and collaboration.

Were there other chapters/ideas you had that didn't make it into the book? If so -- what were they?

Most everything I wanted to talk about got at least a mention in the book, but I will say that under ideal circumstances the book would have been longer. I think it's an indispensable primer on the youth vote, Millennials, and youth organizing -- but if I'd had more time I would have expanded a number of chapters.

In particular, the history chapter is very brief for the scope of what I covered. I would have liked to take a lot more time to elaborate on youth organizing in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and in particular around the turn of the century.

The technology and culture chapters are also areas where I would have liked to expand. I think that the engagement of the Millennial generation is tied in no small part to a cultural ethic that values production over consumption, and sharing over owning. This plays out in culture via mashups and sampling, and online via P2P technologies and cheap production software that comes on most computers today. I would have loved to expand on that, as well as on the media and news consumption habits of Millennials, beyond the bounds of the individual examples of successful uses of technology that I spotlight in the book.

Now that I think about it though, one topic that I flirted with was the contributions of Millennials to the larger progressive movement, not just youth organizing. For instance, there are many young bloggers and online organizers doing great work, but they do not work exclusively on turning out their peers. Rather, they do general work for campaigns or write their own blogs. These people didn't get more than a few sentences in my book but there's certainly enough material that it might have been a chapter in itself. At the very least, they could have provided examples to flesh out other sections of the book.