The number of shootings and killings by gunfire in Chicago has reached a level not seen for two decades. The latest high profile killing has brought this sad fact to the nation’s attention again. …
The city of Chicago is in the midst of a financial crisis. Or is it? The official record indicates that the city faces a budget shortfall of $137.6 million. This deficit was left after borrowing $220 million at high interest rates due to the city’s disastrously low credit rating. (However, borrowing at such high interest rates is a bonanza for financial institutions buying the city’s bonds. Meanwhile, the Chicago Public Schools is seeking approval to borrow as much as $945 million.) The city’s plan is to eliminate the deficit through cost cutting (reductions to already diminished city services) and increases in revenue from “taxes, fines, or fees.”
But Chicago citizens, especially property owners, are already reeling from massive increases in property taxes and service fees. This year, property taxes have increased by $588 million. Add to this the new $9.50 per unit monthly trash collection fee that is estimated to raise $62.7 million annually. It is fair to say that Chicago citizens are being squeezed. Property owners will doubtlessly pass their higher costs on to renters, increasing the rapidly rising rents throughout the city.
The reason for these massive tax increases is the requirement that the city make up long overdue payments to its public union pension funds, the most expensive of which are the funds for police and fire personnel and public school teachers. The reason for this crisis is that the city – that is, the mayor and city council – has for the last 20 years failed to make the mandatory payments into these pension funds. Why? Because it was easier to use the funds for the operational costs the city incurred and at the same time hold down the rise of property taxes and fees for city services.
The city’s financial crisis led to the terrible deals that gave over to private corporations control of our parking meters and the Chicago Skyway. And these ill-conceived responses only deepened the fiscal hole into which the city’s taxpayers were thrown. But since politicians continued to promote the false belief that city services could be maintained – even improved – while holding down taxes, they were forced to maintain the illusion that this was, in fact, happening. Their tactics ranged from the tried and true practice of withholding city services from poor – especially Black and Latino – neighborhoods, to maintaining property tax rates while raising real estate assessments (i.e., increasing tax revenue from most property owners while showing that tax rates were being held at current levels), to selling off public assets in exchange for short-term budget relief.
The overdue pension payments eventually came back to bite all of us. And all of us are to some degree culpable for this situation. We – the citizens of Chicago – demanded that our officials do the impossible: provide excellent services for a world class city while not making anyone pay for them. And our politicians agreed to play this game of mirrors in exchange for our keeping them in office. And greedy corporations of all stripes were quite happy to make lucrative deals at the city’s expense, enjoying tax breaks and incentives that include the benefits of the city’s ubiquitous TIF (Tax Increment Financing) districts.
The unions – especially the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) – participated in this conspiracy of silence because the money that wasn’t paid into their retirement fund was available for pay increases that bought labor peace. For a while.
In recent years the CTU has become one of the nation’s most militant unions. The 2012 strike put the CTU in the forefront of labor militancy, especially as they joined with other groups fighting for better wages and working conditions for fast food and hospitality workers. They also put Mayor Rahm Emanuel on notice that his anti-labor stance would not go unchallenged. The animosity between Mayor Emanuel and CTU President Karen Lewis broke out publically prior to the strike and even now rumbles just below the surface.
The disenchantment of segments of organized labor and their supporters contributed to the first mayoral runoff election in the city’s history, pitting incumbent Emanuel against County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in 2015.
It is in this context – the defiance of the CTU and their allies, and their ongoing labor challenge to the policies of both Mayor Emanuel and Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner – that I’m positing a thesis that can serve as a corollary to the problems of property taxes and pension funding.
While supposedly political adversaries, Mayor Emanuel and Governor Rauner have a lot in common. They have long shared financial agendas and political donors. The current partisan budget conflict at the state level has led to a highly publicized conflict between the two leaders. But beneath the harsh rhetoric, both men share a barely concealed contempt for organized labor, especially in the public sector, and most especially for unions like the CTU that openly challenge the policies and ideologies of the mayor and governor.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise if the crushing tax burden that Chicagoans are just now coming to terms with is laid at the feet of the CTU. And if the mayor is successful in creating a narrative that blames the union for the suffering of property owners, he can use the rancor of taxpayers to undermine the union’s credibility, moral authority, and political power. And if the CTU can be brought to heel, other, weaker, militant worker initiatives can be easily crushed. And the whole Chicago labor establishment can again be put under the control of City Hall. And what better time than in an election year, when nominal Democrats can make lofty claims on workers’ party loyalty?
How likely is it that the mayor and his allies (as well as the governor and his supporters) can get enough of the city’s taxpayers to blame the CTU for their financial distress and turn on them? How likely is that the people will give the politicians a pass and turn their ire on their fellow workers?
Let’s do a thought experiment using one of my favorite media formats – TV commercials. In our first commercial we see Matthew McConaughey, cool as he wanna be, chatting with his dogs from the driver’s seat of a Lincoln Navigator. The car is luxurious, the dogs are elegant, and McConaughey exudes modern masculine charm. The viewer thinks, “Man, I’d sure like to have that car. How cool would that be?”
In our next commercial, Kristen Bell is cheerfully scooping melon balls for the happy children at her daughter’s birthday party. Her husband calls from the supermarket to see if they need anything. Since she’s too busy to look, he clicks on an app on his phone and the refrigerator lets him know that they need eggs. Our viewer thinks, “Wow. I want that fridge. I have to go to mine and open it to see what’s in it. To be able to check it using my cell phone…Wow!”
Now, an imaginary and wholly unlikely commercial. A luncheon for a retiring teacher. In a voiceover the teacher says, “I’m glad that I don’t have to worry about my financial wellbeing, thanks to the retirement package my union negotiated.” And our viewer thinks – no, shouts – “You greedy bastard! Where do you get off getting all this money for doing nothing.”
There’s something about Americans. When one of the elite gets hold of something good, we identify, we put ourselves in his or her place and vicariously enjoy their happiness. But when a member of our own class obtains a good from which we ourselves would benefit, we are overcome with resentment and deny the justice embodied in their good fortune. So, I’m not willing to totally abandon my conspiratorial musings.
However, there are some things that we can do to prevent the use of the purported fiscal crisis to discredit the teachers union (and, by extention, militant unionism altogether). First, those of us with access to social media should use our communication skills to tell the truth about the origins of the pension funding deficit. Next, the CTU leadership should acknowledge the complicity of its former leaders in creating this situation and state its commitment to working with responsible public officials to resolve the pension funding problem in a way that is fair to Chicago taxpayers. Finally, we need to closely examine the claims that the city lacks the resources to solve the pension crises without impoverishing its citizens in general and homeowners in particular.
In the opening paragraph of this post, I questioned the authenticity of the financial crisis. A few weeks ago, I heard an interview with Tom Tresser, author of the book Chicago is Not Broke. Funding the City We Deserve. Tresser argues that the financial crisis is a fabrication. He claims that there is money available other than what can be obtained through higher taxes and fees. He classifies this money under three categories: money that is stolen (systematic corruption as a way of life in Chicago, and the massive settlements for police malfeasance); money that is hidden (massive amounts of TIF money and other “slush funds”); and, money that we are not collecting, but should be (getting corporations to pay their fair share and taxing things like financial market transactions). Here’s a link to the podcast of Tresser’s interview with Wayne Bessen. I’ve ordered Tresser’s book. After reading it I may have more to say.
Meanwhile, I expect that we’ll hear more about the impacts of the increases in taxes and fees. And we’ll hear more from Mayor Emanuel on this subject in reaction to outcries from Chicago citizens. And I’ll be listening for the emerging narrative.
The number of shootings and killings by gunfire in Chicago has reached a level not seen for two decades. The latest high profile killing has brought this sad fact to the nation’s attention again. In this case the victim was Nykea Aldridge, a 32-year-old mother of four and, of national significance, the cousin of newly acquired Chicago Bull Dwyane Wade.
Two young Black men were arrested and charged with the murder of Ms. Aldridge. The 26- and 22-year-old siblings were described as “known gang members.” Both had been recently released on parole – in one case, two weeks earlier –both having served half of their sentences of six and eight years, respectively, for crimes involving the use of guns.
As is so often the case, Ms. Aldridge was not the target of the shooting.
Now we resume the heretofore fruitless quest for solutions to the escalating tide of “gang-related” killings in Chicago. The Mayor, Superintendent of Police, and others – including Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump – have weighed in on possible solutions to the problem. The causes and solutions of gun violence in this city have been discussed on local and national radio talk shows and in journal articles.
Everyone knows the answer. The answer is getting the known gang members with violent records off the streets: putting them in prison and keeping them there for their full sentences. The answer is adding tough penalties for illegal possession or use of a firearm. The answer is a more intensive police presence in the neighborhoods where gang violence is prevalent.
The answer is reinvestment in Black communities, creating job opportunities for residents and especially for young people. The answer is improving the quality of “inner city” schools, putting their funding on an equal level with that of affluent schools. The answer is job training to prepare Black youth for well paying jobs in the new economy. The answer is creating a relationship of trust between the police and Black communities.
These answers assume that we know both the causes of violent actions committed by young Black men and the solutions that will cause these actions to cease. However, some of these answers are based on shaky assumptions and are, thus, not likely to be effective. Of course, public safety will be enhanced if the most dangerous gangsters are removed from the streets. But first they must be charged with specific crimes, tried, and sentenced. The low rate at which gun crimes are solved offers little expectation that shooters will be apprehended. And unless the conviction is for murder or attempted murder, the sentence, even if served in its entirety, will probably result in the release of the shooter in his prime, permanently enmeshed in the gang structure and more hardened in the criminal mentality.
The operation of prisons in the US is shameful. Our prisons offer little opportunity for rehabilitation. They are warehouses for humans in which corruption and brutality are routine. Inmates are able to operate criminal enterprises with impunity. And recidivism is programmed in, as former convicts are barred from jobs, educational funds, housing, and other sources of stability (if not by law, by practice). Persons convicted of crimes involving firearms will be placed in these same prisons and exposed to the same circumstances.
Proposed solutions based on rebuilding Black communities, investing in jobs and education, are desirable in themselves, even if these communities were not under constant threat of armed violence. But these solutions are not easy to implement. There is the problem of political will. How likely are elected officials and social elites to allocate large sums of money and to focus public resources at all levels on the needs of powerless people? How willing will they be to induce or coerce corporations to engage with Black communities?
And everyone must be willing to encourage and assist members of the affected communities to fully participate in the decisions that will affect them and their children. Paternalism and corruption, the undoing of many well-intended initiatives, remain threats to any future effort at rebuilding communities. And although it may be difficult to accept, the gangs themselves must be brought “to the table” as “stakeholders” if a resolution of violent conflicts is to be part of such an initiative. Finally, it is only when such positive steps as these are taken that a large-scale police presence – as community partners rather than an occupying armed force – can be accepted.
The alleged killers are now in custody. In that context, I want to raise an issue that is generally overlooked: no one is in a better position to inform us about the factors that lead to gun deaths than the very people who cause gun deaths. The fact is that we know very little about the individuals who commit gun violence. I contend that we cannot stop the violence until we understand the perpetrators of the violence. And we are fundamentally ignorant about the motivations of the shooters, their worldview, and their self perception.
We have a good deal of data that describe the problem quantitatively, in the aggregate. The police have good information about the number of gangs, the number of gang members, and their geographical distribution. Authorities also know who the gang members are. But what we know about them beyond the most generalized and aggregate information is pitifully little. I contend that much of what we need to know can only be obtained through one-on-one interaction with the perpetrators of violent acts. Some data, of course, are objective and must be obtained through tests and measurements. But other, perhaps more important, information requires conversations with the people we need to understand. Some of the information we need is obvious. Some only comes to mind when we think imaginatively about the possible causes of extreme moral anomalies.
The shooters almost certainly fit the demographic profile of young people who commit violent crimes. The problem is that the majority of youth who fit this profile don’t become hardened criminals. There is also a generalized psychosocial profile of youth who commit crimes. And yet many youth transcend and live with the psychological conditions that correlate with criminality.
So what makes these young men – the shooters – different? Is it only their socioeconomic situation? Is it their unique interactions with family, school, and other institutions in their environment? Is it their history of physical abuse? Have they been affected by lead or other toxic substances in their environment? Do they have diminished mental capacity? A history of mental illness? Cognitive disabilities? Some of this information is available through interviews with the shooters and their family members. Some is available through academic and medical records. And some is available through various types of tests.
But I’m also interested in their understanding of their actions and the moral implications of those actions. Do they feel remorse about the killing of an unintended victim? How do they feel about the killing of another person generally? What value do they put on human lives inside and outside of their circle of close relationships? What value do they put on their own lives? What views do they hold regarding the “big” questions – the existence of God, the destiny of the human soul, what constitutes right or wrong, justice, and the like?
I don’t minimize the difficulty of getting the needed information. Cost presents a huge obstacle: the cost of people, equipment, and computing. There are legitimate safeguards of civil liberty that must be observed. The best time and place to interview shooters is when they have been arrested and are in the custody of law enforcement. But if they haven’t been tried and their cases are not yet resolved, any information they give to non-lawyers is inherently prejudicial to their defenses.
I am convinced that we need a massive rebuilding of impoverished communities. But I am also convinced that we must develop a broad and deep understanding of the young men who commit violent crimes. With such knowledge, we can hope to more precisely focus the resources that are needed to prevent other young men from joining the ranks of urban gang warriors. Perhaps we can even alter the behavior and values of the men who have already gone down the path of violence.
As I write this, I’m under an aerial bombardment. Not really. It just feels – or, more precisely, sounds – like it. The Chicago Air and Water Show 2016 is upon us.
The US Air Force and Navy are using area military bases as launch sites as they practice their routines. Unfortunately, their flight path over the lake brings them over my neighborhood. When they get into full high speed performance mode, it sounds like Edgewater is under attack, experiencing the full force of the US military machine.
This is the time when I most wholeheartedly empathize with people whose cities have experienced the destructive force of modern air attacks – the people of Beirut, Belgrade, Gaza City, Baghdad, Aleppo, Sanaa, and other cities, mostly in the Middle East and North Africa. The distant roar that becomes an earthshaking rumble. The low growl that becomes a high pitch screech. Everything but the unleashing of missiles and rockets.
Chicago is under attack. No, we won’t be bombed, just brainwashed. The Chicago Air and Water Show is a giant publicly financed commercial for the nation’s military industrial complex. You and I are paying to have our children bedazzled into the cult of war.
The Air and Water Show is a showcase for the so called “defense industry.” The show’s web page gives military contractors full recognition for their contribution. The show is co-sponsored by Shell Oil – polluter (both in the US and Africa), PAC contributor, lobbyist, and producer of military jet fuel. The list of participants in the show pays homage to McDonnell Douglas (the F/A-18) and Lockheed-Martin (the F-18, and the overpriced, underperforming F-35).
Of course, there are the vintage military aircraft with all their historical significance and elegance of design. There are the vintage civilian aircraft of equal importance and beauty. They celebrate our country’s contribution to the history of flight, from Kitty Hawk to the Mars Rover. But the overarching theme is military prowess. The victorious past is evoked to conjure up a victorious, secure future, all the while obscuring the violent, resource devouring, unaccountable global thrashing of an empire trapped in endless war. (Not coincidentally, the TV networks are filled with recruiting commercials for the Air Force.)
Yes, I view the Air and Water Show with contempt. Our public schools are being destroyed. The working people of the city are being taxed beyond our means. The weekend of the show will doubtlessly register another tragic toll of shootings and gun deaths. The infrastructure of Chicago and the rest of America is in desperate need of repair, maintenance, and upgrading. But the military continues to consume limitless resources while, in collaboration with our civic elites, it distracts us with spectacles.
When I taught the Introduction to Religion and Philosophy of Religion, I often referred to TV shows (and also movies) that illustrated key concepts that we were studying. There are not many shows that intelligently engage the big questions that religions represent. But there are, from time to time, a few shows that offer the viewer an invitation to explore these questions. Two of these shows recently ended. And an excellent new one debuted.
After three seasons, Penny Dreadful, Showtime’s outstanding series, came to a conclusion. The show was steeped in Victorian mystery, drawing upon sources that included Frankenstein, La Dame aux Camelias, Dracula, and “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Amidst the witches, demons, monsters, werewolves, death, and destruction, a story of spiritual struggle unfolded. At the core of the story was the spiritual struggle waged by a woman who lost and regained her faith in God as she fought to escape the claim that Satan had made on her.
Ultimately, the story revolved around an eternal cosmic struggle between those who serve (the Christian) God and those who serve his adversary. References to ancient texts, rituals, and myths freely intermingle with characters from Victorian literature, early 20th century horror films, as well as Anglo-Saxon, African, and American Indian legends. The series captured the gothic gloom of Victorian England and the dark, guilt-ridden world of English Catholicism. Its conclusion was a fitting end to the story: tragic and beautiful.
Also ending this summer was Person of Interest. The show ran for five seasons and went through several incarnations and constantly mingled genres. At first it was part science fiction – an artificial intelligence (“The Machine”) that sees everything and finds people who need protection – and part crime story – an ex-CIA operative and a police detective fight criminals and corrupt police officials while saving potential crime victims.
As the plot lines changed and new characters were added, and as the “Machine” evolved, the show shifted into the superhero genre. Armed with unique abilities, the team struggled against crime gangs and, ultimately, a plot to take over the world using a ruthless rival artificial intelligence.
Central to the series is the question of the character of God and human nature. It is ultimately the problem of evil: can God be omniscient and humans still have free will? Must we choose between the two claims? Is it necessary to tolerate human wickedness in order to affirm human freedom? These questions have been argued for centuries. On Person of Interest, the battle of supercomputers became the Manichaean struggle of divine forces. The “Machine” is clearly identified as “God.” She speaks to and through a woman endowed with special skills. And ultimately the climax of the story is the sacrificial death and rebirth of God.
In my opinion, not since Battlestar Galactica have there been TV shows that so clearly explore the philosophical issues of related to religion as these two. Religious ideas are interwoven into the plots of each of these shows, not as statements of dogma or sectarian belief, but as invitations to examine the big questions.
Now a new show has taken over the role of confronting us with the questions that the philosophy of religion was designed to answer. Preacher is a tricky proposition. It’s derived from the world of illustrated novels. It is part speculative fiction, part southern gothic melodrama, part western, and part psychological exploration. The show ironically treats as literal the existence of God, angels, vampires, Heaven, Hell, salvation, and – possibly – redemption, all from the perspective of a tortured preacher and his church in small-town Texas.
The eponymous preacher has been invaded by a divine force that escaped from Heaven and gives him powers he doesn’t understand. Befriended by an Irish vampire, joined by a revenge-seeking girlfriend, and pursued by a pair of angels who are AWOL from Heaven, the preacher tries to fulfill his pastoral duties while trying to outrun his outlaw past. The show is full of blood and gore and vivid violence, both comic and terrifying. The characters are complex and surprising. Their small town is filled villains and dolts, all of them eccentric. The show is unabashedly surreal. But like all good surreal art, it forces us to look again, closer, and discover something transcendent.
Preacher just finished its first season. The next to last episode is a masterpiece and a good place to start if you’ve never seen the show. The scene has been set for the next season and it promises to take us in a new, and probably fascinating, direction.
In Part I of this article, I offered the idea that The Game of Thrones (TGoT) and Pokémon Go contributed to the disengagement of millenials from the political process by luring them into alternate worlds that are more satisfying than the one where we struggle with the complexity of real politics.
Perhaps this is overthinking and overreach. And I have to confess (as I have done previously) that I have never watched The Game of Thrones. If I want Eurofantasy, there’s Wagner. If I want to see nudity and sex, there’s the rest of HBO and Showtime. If I want unremitting violence, I can watch foreign media coverage of the carnage that occurs throughout the world on a daily basis.
On the other hand, I am a little more familiar with Pokémon, having grandchildren who collect the cards and play the game, and occasionally watching the charming animé TV series with them.
I read many of the same online news sources that millenials follow: Salon, Vice, Slate, Huffington Post, and even occasionally Buzzfeed. I frequently look at Redeye, a free local newspaper targeted toward the millennial demographic. In all of these media, the mix of news and entertainment is organized within clear boundaries. “Straight” news stories might appear on the same page with entertainment news and food and drink news, but there is little if any likelihood of a reader being confused about the category to which the content of each story belongs.
Except for The Game of Thrones. Reporting on TGoT is treated pretty much like straight news. Not just as entertainment news (we’re way past coverage of ratings and behind the scenes stories), but as “real news.” (For Redeye articles on TGoT, look here and here. For other media entries look here and here and here.) Once you get into the article, you have to wonder whether they’re writing about the plot of a TV show or a capsule of events in the real world.
So, who watches The Game of Thrones? Obviously everyone. But, in fact, the viewing demographic is heavily weighted toward the younger demographic. However, the ratings services define the demographic group as 18-49, which makes it difficult to separate the millenials from the “GenXers.”
Pokémon Go is based on the pursuit and capture of otherwise invisible characters that appear on a person’s smartphone screen. Thousands of people worldwide are at any moment looking at the world as configured on their screens, searching for an incongruent image. Add to these the thousands who walk their cities’ streets focused on text messages, only peripherally in touch with the world beyond their screens, and you have legions of humans navigating the world with their heads bent, eyes fixed on smartphone screens. The difference between the two groups is that in the case of text reading, the outer world is intentionally blocked out by the smartphone. In the case of Pokémon Go, the world is not blocked out as much as redesigned – smaller, rectangularized with sharp edges, and, if the player is fortunate, inhabited by a Pokémon.
So, who is playing Pokémon Go? Would we be wrong to predict that it is people who enjoy technology, who regularly play digital games, and who formed an attachment to Pokémon as children? And data confirm that the majority of players are millenials.
Beginning in 1999, the Matrix series of films presented the world as a Gnostic myth. The films dramatized the neoplatonic concept of the world as illusion, where only the truly enlightened are able to see beyond the façade of appearances into reality.
Is the world in which Pokémons become visible when seen through a special lens less real than one that we see without (we believe) the aid of technology? Is the world in which people engage in the cyclical rituals of electoral politics more real than the politics of Westeros? Imaginary worlds present formidable competition to the real one. The strength of that competition is open to question. We accept the value of fiction as a source of distraction, but also a source of insight and inspiration. And the mature mind is willing to accept the words “The End” and exit the fictional world and re-enter the drudgery of everyday life.
I am not given to conspiracy theories. I don’t accept them and I don’t pass them along. I don’t believe that the “corporations” have decided to sell people distractions in order to keep them away from political engagement. The goal of business is to sell us the products that make us feel better. By definition these products distract us from the many things over which we have no control. By buying the product we gain some control or at least the semblance of control, over some area of life, for some period of time.
None of us can completely ignore the placebos offered us by the corporations. We are consumers. The issue is how much we surrender to the culture of consumption. The challenge is to know when we’re being seduced by illusions presented to us by corporate advertising. We can enjoy the products the corporations sell us without buying into the belief that these products will give us access to a world that is better than the one we’re stuck with.
I am not blaming a TV show or an online game for the disconnection of young adults from politics. They are just the currently dominant and most publicized distractions. Their uniqueness is their capacity to present alternative versions of reality that are capable of drawing in large numbers of people.
I am also not condemning those in the current generation of young adults who have chosen to opt out of politics. After all, I came of age in the 1960s, when a large number of young people followed the path of “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll,” and the admonition to “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out.” Unfortunately, it took eight years of Richard Nixon to call some of them back into the world. And I fear that even one year of Donald Trump will create a dystopian world from which escape will be very difficult indeed.
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.