Leave No Flygirl Behind
The only thing worse than having a marvelous booty call, only to find the person you're waking up next to is a Republican, is finding out that one of your best friends so loathes the political system that she has not voted and will not vote.
I had one of those shocks the other day. Keisha (name changed to protect the guilty) is not your average Jenny on the block. She is multilingual, has traveled extensively and lived abroad, and pulls down a six-figure salary. She's a compulsive reader and knowledge-seeker. And as a thirty-something African-American, Keisha is also part of a demographic whose political disappearing act should worry Democrats and anyone who cares about democracy.
Keisha's reasons for not voting are simple. She hates most of the candidates. "I vote," she says, "with my money."
It should go without saying that "voting" for Gucci or Wal-Mart is not quite the same as voting for Bush or Sharpton or Dean. But the construct of American consumerism -- what writer Steve Waldman calls "the tyranny of choice" -- does give people a sense that they hold decision-making power. Politics, too often, seems to give us none. Many younger Americans see politics as a distasteful opportunity to make a series of wrong choices. As long as that is the case -- as long as the choice is the lesser of two evils -- then younger voters will continue to sit out the game.
The key to reinvigorating younger voters, and the untapped 100 million non-voters, is to find an aspirational, inspirational language for political change. The Republicans have been very adept at creating a clear narrative of power and self-determination that appeals not only to the people they serve (the rich), but to anyone seeking to better themselves. Thus the trend of the "NASCAR Dad," a demographic whose economic interests should go clearly Democratic but whose voting patterns are stubbornly Republican. Right now, at least, the Republicans are better storytellers.
Better, livelier, and more hopeful storytelling on the left and from Democrats is key to this election. Front-runner Howard Dean has been adept at attacking the Bush administration, but less able to paint vivid word-pictures of the nation he hopes to create. This kind of red-meat politicking appeals to party faithful and young Internet volunteers, but it may not bring many of the 100 million non-voters back into the fold. Messaging need not be an either-or dilemma. The candidates can continue to legitimately point out the failures of the current administration while honing their vision of a post-Bush America.
What would that vision consist of? Democrats have to reclaim the language of opportunity, enhanced by a solid grasp of social justice. The concept that a rising tide lifts all boats needs to be updated for the more acquisitive hip hop generation, who want immediate rewards for the fruits of their labor. The Democratic Party must be the party of strivers who are opportunistic but not parasitic, people who believe their own personal gain will not be enhanced by the misery of others. Right now some voters feel they have to choose between personal opportunity and social justice. A spot-on narrative will demonstrate that social justice -- including no more no-bid contracts for fat cats, more educational opportunity, halting the growth of the prison-industrial complex and better jobs creation -- benefits those seeking economic gain. Call it "Leave No Flygirl Behind."
Targeting the hip-hop generation -- people like Keisha -- with these messages is critical. The average age of white Americans is 41. The average age of black Americans is 31. Younger Americans are less likely to vote than older Americans. Black voters are 90-plus percent Democratic Party faithful. The Party has taken the black vote for granted, but as time passes, unless messaging is on point, the flow of black support will dwindle. The hip-hop generation is, of course, multiracial. Across ethnic lines, they are disgruntled with the lack of political storytelling that appeals to them.
It's not too late to find the language of inspiration. And it certainly isn't too early to start.
Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics.