Election 2008  
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Party Crashing: How the Facebook Generation Does Politics

Author Keli Goff on how today's youth -- black youth in particular -- choose their leaders. Hint: It's not by skin color or party affiliation.
 
 
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As John McCain begins to strategize how he might wrangle some of the youth vote from Barack Obama, and Obama -- for his part -- tries to hold on to his solid base of Americans under 30, we thought it would be interesting to talk with author and frequent television commentator Keli Goff.

Goff, just 28 years old herself, has written a book called Party Crashing that lays out just how competitive these candidates are going to have be if they want to win over the youth -- black youth in particular. Gone are the days, she argues, when Civil Rights-era leaders were card-carrying Democrats, come hell or high water; instead, the hip hop generation is more likely to be suspicious of all party politics and spin, choosing their favorite leader based on individual characteristics, not party affiliation.

Goff writes, "Not only has the post-civil rights generation grown up in an America in which segregation is a distant memory, but I have grown up in an America in which black people and black culture are the defining arbiters of America's cultural landscape." It seems clear that young black Americans feel their own power and refuse to be neglected by a Democratic party that, at times, has taken their loyalties for granted. And in the face of that, the GOP just might have something to gain from all these independently minded sons and daughters.

Courtney E. Martin: In Party Crashing you argue that the hip hop generation is less likely to affiliate with a party than their parents'. How do you see that affecting their perceptions of McCain and Obama?

Keli Goff: Yes, as you mentioned, my research found that 35 percent of young black voters ages 18-24 are registered Independents. I think that the burgeoning independent streak among young black voters is one of the untold stories of Barack Obama's success this election. It's been a bit easy for some to jump to the conclusion that "Barack Obama is a black candidate, so of course young, black voters are supporting him." Or "Barack Obama is a Democrat, so of course young, blacks would support him. They're Democrats," but the truth is much more complex than that.

During interviews for my book, I found that the reasons that young black voters found Obama's candidacy appealing were for many of the same reasons some young white voters do, namely a perception that he puts policy ahead of partisanship. This perception of not just politics as usual came up with voters across the board -- including self-described conservatives and liberals. McCain didn't come up as much, but my instinct is that, were he not running against Barack Obama (who for a variety of reasons, including the aforementioned, is extremely popular among younger black voters), John McCain might also benefit among this demographic for his longstanding image as a "maverick" who is willing to work across the party aisle. Although it's likely that, with every passing day of this primary, that image will increasingly become a distant memory.

What do you think some young people find so abhorrent about the party system?

I don't know that younger voters necessarily find the party system "abhorrent," per se, but I do think that there is a weariness of partisan rhetoric. Many voters under the age of 30 grew up in an incredibly divisive partisan atmosphere that included moments like the impeachment, etc., but the reasons for independence among the voters I interviewed really varied. Some simply consider themselves independent thinkers and, therefore, see no reason to hitch their wagon to a particular form of group thought, such as a specific political party. Others simply said that they have a variety of perspectives on different issues; therefore, no individual political party could adequately represent them on every single issue. Others -- and this was perhaps the most common refrain -- simply said they believe in voting for a specific person, NOT a specific party. Perhaps one of the most interesting anecdotes on this is that I interviewed Erika Harold, the 2003 Miss America famous for her conservative stances on issues such as abstinence-only education. Though she is adamantly pro-life, she confessed that she voted for Barack Obama over pro-life activist Alan Keyes for the Senate -- the same year she actually appeared at the Republican National Convention. Her reasoning was that there are many issues that matter, such as education and national security, and you have to be willing to vote for the most qualified candidate, regardless of labels, accordingly.

So do you see this interest in voting for a person, not a party, as connected to other generational hallmarks like Facebook? It seems like young people -- more than their parents or their grandparents -- think more in terms of individual profiles rather than movement philosophies, thanks to technology, competitive college admissions, and our Free to Be You and Me education.

Hmmm ... I will say that, generationally speaking, we form communities in a much less monolithic fashion than our parents and grandparents once did. For instance, in the black community, the church has historically been the primary source of information and heart of most social networking and activism. This is why ministers like Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, Adam Clayton Powell became natural leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. But unlike 40 years ago, when there were limited options for where one could receive and exchange ideas and information, today we have the Internet, and people actually go off to college -- certainly something that happened a lot less decades ago.

But I think, fundamentally, a lot of the traditional demographic labels that have defined politics for so long are simply becoming increasingly less relevant. For instance, if you are a woman who grew up before Roe v. Wade and know a woman who died from an illegal abortion, you may be more likely to identify yourself first and foremost as a "feminist" voter and, therefore, as a Democrat because that's the party that supports a pro-choice platform. Similarly, if you are a black American who experienced segregation, you may be more likely to identify as a "civil rights voter" and therefore vote Democratic because of issues like affirmative action. If, however, your American experience has not been defined by such clear-cut demographic-driven issues, then what would be your political labeling? I think this more than anything has ushered in this new era of political independence.

Fascinating. It actually reminds me of the old feminist adage that the personal is political and the political is personal. One last question: I'm sure there are some misguided advisers trying to convince Obama and McCain that they have to step up their text messaging and trendy technology efforts, but as we know from study after study with young people, they're still more swayed by peer-to-peer interaction than anything else. What would your substantive advice to the current presidential candidates be on capturing the youth vote?

My substantive advice to Obama and McCain for reaching young voters is to treat them with the same amount of respect as they treat other demographics. Just as no candidate would ever dream of ignoring soccer moms or senior voters on the campaign trail, don't ignore young voters. In previous election cycles, there has been this self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, where candidates believe young voters aren't going to vote, so they don't bother paying that much attention to them, and then young voters feel they don't have a voice and don't vote. When Barack Obama campaigned at one college in Iowa, he said to the students something like, "A lot of people think I'm wasting my time with you because they don't think you'll ever vote. Don't leave me with egg on my face." As we know, young voters in Iowa didn't.

If they treat young voters like they matter, and meet them where they are, whether it's Facebook, or yes, even texting, and bring them substantive messages on subjects like making higher ed affordable, then candidates can reach them. And one last thing? Tell the truth.

Purchase Party Crashing here.

Courtney E. Martin is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body . You can read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.