Kerry, Call Russell
Lemme break it down for you. It's not that the NAACP isn't great. It is. And Bush done made a stupid move. But don't get too comfortable. You're preaching to the choir. Black folks – at least ones from the civil-rights generation – would walk across broken glass barefoot to vote for a Democrat.
Younger black folks will not. Sure, things are still leaning your way. When younger African Americans vote, they mainly choose the donkey, not the elephant. But you've got a problem: The kind of black institutions that you can roll up to and get a standing ovation aren't reaching younger voters. One article described the 38-year-old vice chairman of the NAACP's board as "one of the few younger members."
Younger is a relative term. For example, I am younger than that NAACP vice chairman, but the average African American is younger still. In fact, the average age of black Americans is just 30 – nine years younger than the average white American, and four years older than the average Latino. Younger people are more likely to call themselves "independents," and independents are less likely to vote than declared party members.
And you know where those independents have been coming from, right? Yeah, from the ranks of the Democratic Party. Mark Penn, a Democratic pollster, found that only 31 percent of Americans identified themselves as Democrats, down from 49 percent in 1958. "Exciting the Democratic base alone will not bring enough voters into the Democratic fold," said Penn. I couldn't agree more. But Penn recommended going after "office-park dads," the more fiscally conservative husbands of the "soccer moms." Sounds appealing. They wear suits. They vote. Just not necessarily for you.
On the other hand, 76 million American citizens didn't vote in 2000. Makes the 537-vote margin in Florida look like chump change, don't it? These nonvoters were more likely to be young, people of color, and poor or working class than people who went to the polls. And, John, they're looking for someone – anyone – in politics who speaks their language.
I'm talking about language that acknowledges their struggle and seeks to do something concrete, even revolutionary, about it. I'm talking New Deal, Great Society, with a dash of optimism a la "Morning in America." You probably don't want to hear that – it's not office-park-dad talk. But then again, the millions of missing voters won't listen to the bland political doublespeak that guys in suits will.
Like voters, nonvoters are a diverse lot. But let me just tell you about one group that could swing the election – and swing the tide for the Democratic Party.
It's called the hip-hop generation. As a 34-year-old African American, I'm one of them. If you want to know who's a member of the hip-hop generation, just try a rhyme-along. Put a landmark rap track on the stereo, anything from "Planet Rock" to "Bring the Noise," "Ladies First" to "99 Problems." If the person puffs out his or her chest and starts spitting lyrics, hey, in my opinion, they're hip-hop generation. If you want to get more technical about it, it's people born between '64 and '84 who identify with the culture and politics of this global juggernaut. We're talking about folks of all races and backgrounds, millions of Americans.
And they're being courted, mobilized by the National Hip-Hop Political Convention last month in Newark, New Jersey, rallied to Russell Simmons' Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, and plugged in to hundreds of grass-roots groups across America.
Now they're waiting to hear from you. To my knowledge, and correct me if I'm wrong, no one from your campaign or the Democratic Party has made a serious connection to the hip-hop political movement. That's a mistake, not just for 2004 but for the party's long-term viability.
Maybe you're not quite sure how to market to them. Frankly, you're not even sure how to reach your African American base. The Congressional Black Caucus – not exactly a bunch of cultural renegades – thought your new radio and television ads stank. (I believe Congressman Gregory Meeks called them "horrible.") Now imagine someone used to the quick-cut style of MTV. Watching your 30-second ad could send them into a coma.
The good news is that the hip-hop movement has a cadre of people ready to market voting the same way they can package a platinum album, hitting television media, sending out street teams to hype and poster, putting on concerts and rallies. The energy in hip-hop politics now is raw and exuberant, sexy and urgent, intellectual and fun. But unless participants connect to the rest of the political process, all they'll be left with is a cheap souvenir T-shirt and the feeling that they've been played.
You need hip-hop generation organizers to be the whetstone against which you sharpen your message for November's duel. They will ask the toughest questions and not take "talking points" for an answer. And, ultimately, you will learn from them, and they from you.
Some have cocked an ear to the Republicans, too. One young political aide told The New York Times, "I have a Frederick Douglass philosophy. I believe African Americans have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests."
It's in your best interest – and the Democratic Party's – to know where these young Americans stand.