The Millenial Vote and the Politics of Distraction (Part I: Demographics and Dire Warnings)

The Republican National Convention formally nominated Donald Trump and Mike Pence in an orgy of hatred and fear mongering. This week the Democratic National Convention will confirm Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine as its presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

Rational people will rally behind the Democratic candidates and reject the Trump rhetoric of racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia. They will reject the litany of lies and the evocation of failed ideas and programs that constitute the Republican Platform. But people – even generally rational people – are not always rational. Often they let their emotions and desires govern their political and economic choices.

So, while Clinton and Kaine should achieve a solid victory over their opponents, we cannot simply assume that this victor is inevitable. We must consider the fact that, given our electoral system, enough of the American people could be seduced by the snake oil sales pitch of Donald Trump to give the Republicans the White House.

Radical film-maker Michael Moore has predicted a Trump victory. He believes that the frustrations of alienated white men in the “rust belt” states will lead them to respond to Trump’s message of restoring US manufacturing and rejecting injurious trade agreements. This, coupled with the sense of diminished status and power in an increasingly non-white America, will be enough to bring about a Republican victory.

He reiterated this view on the Bill Maher show last week. He was challenged by fellow panelist Joy Reid, who argued that Blacks, a crucial Democratic voting bloc, will turn out in great numbers for the presidential election, even though they tend to sit out so called “midterm” elections – actually enormously important congressional and state elections.

Reid’s comment highlighted the issue of turnout, the key factor in Democratic electoral victories. We are currently living with the consequences of the low turnout of important Democratic constituencies in 2010 and 2014. And while we can hope with some confidence for a large turnout among Black, Hispanic, Jewish, Asian, LGBT, and other Democratic groups, the one group about which we need to be seriously concerned are young voters.

The “Millennial Generation,” those aged 19-29, have been shown to vote in lower percentages in elections at all levels. The United States Elections Project tracked the voting trends of various demographic groups from 1984 to 2016. Millenials trail all other age groups in the percent voting in elections. They do consistently vote at higher levels in presidential elections than in congressional elections. And they significantly increased their participation in the elections of 2008. But their voting numbers declined in the elections of 2012.

The recent trend in declining participation by 19-29 year olds bodes badly for Democrats if it continues into this year’s presidential election. And the current trend, indicated by participation in 2016 primary elections, indicates that it will. A Harvard University Study, reported in US News and World Report, found that young voters are no longer a reliable constituency of the Democratic Party. Millenials demonstrate a distrust of the political system and the political parties. They have not attached themselves to one of the other parties, but have disengaged from the system as a whole. While the campaign of Bernie Sanders may have generated enthusiasm among young potential voters, it did not significantly increase their turnout in the primaries. Although millenials voted for Sanders over Clinton by wide margins in key state primaries, the percentages of young voters who turned out was far below the percentage of older voters, who overwhelmingly favored Clinton.

There are many reasons why young adults are not engaged in the political process. Many attended high school in an era when Civics was not a required part of the curriculum. Many are struggling to get through college while working to pay tuition, and graduates are burdened with substantial student loans. Many encounter difficulty in making social connections and forming significant relationships.

The stresses on young people are often tremendous. And coping with these stresses seldom takes the form of tackling their alienation at its source and fighting to change the political and economic system. Often the path taken is that of escapism, shutting down the stress by withdrawing from it, in effect, self-medicating. For some, it’s the continuation of the “Joe College” and “Jane Coed” culture of weekly overconsumption of alcohol. For some it’s engaging with technology. The ubiquity of digital diversion provides a ready escape from the anxiety of everyday life. Video games and binge watching television shows has become an accepted retreat from day-to-day reality.

In this context I have noted two major sources of escape that happen to loom large on the scene just as Americans should be turning our attention toward the most important election in a generation. These are The Game of Thrones and Pokémon Go. These two products have in common that they fairly successfully substitute virtual universes for the real world we live in.

I’ll discuss this more in Part II of this article.

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