Papa, Don't Preach

According to the Voter News Service numbers, Al Gore beat George W. Bush among 18- to 29-year-old voters by a mere 2 percentage points (48 to 46), a gigantic drop in this age group from Bill Clinton's 19-point margin over Bob Dole in 1996 (53 to 34) and 11-point margin over George Bush the elder in 1992 (45 to 34).

When the numbers are broken down in more detail, it is likely that Gore will emerge as having done even worse among the youngest voters. Anecdotal evidence indicates that Ralph Nader got the bulk of his support from college students, on some campuses polling more than 20 percent. Overall turnout among the 18- to 29-year-old group was 17 percent of eligible voters--approximately the same as the worst-ever 1996 rate and a drop of more than 20 percent from 1992, when Clinton's first run for the presidency energized young people.

Why was it that while other parts of the Democratic base such as African Americans and labor union members turned out and supported Gore at a very high level, younger voters were so dramatically turned off by him and ended up costing him the election?

One reason was clearly Gore's chosen running mate, Joseph Lieberman, whose public persona had three distinguishing characteristics: his opportunistic criticism of Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, his persistent and strident attacks on entertainment popular among young people, and his repeated references to his religious beliefs and to the idea that organized religion produces morally superior citizens.

The selection of Lieberman reinforced Gore's tendency to act superior to the great unwashed public--an air exemplified by his public speaking style, which was often likened to that of a schoolteacher of very young children.

The alienation of young people apparently was not an accident but the result of a Gore-Lieberman miscalculation that youth culture and its concerns could be their "Sister Souljah" to reassure older swing voters. Thus Gore attacked popular entertainment in his widely watched convention speech, as well as in the first debate, on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and in numerous other sound bites.

According to Mario Velasquez, executive director of Rock the Vote (which registered more than 500,000 18- to 21-year-old voters in 2000), "From June until the end of September, [Rock the Vote] did hundreds of events at colleges and other locations. The Bush and the Nader campaigns always sent us a surrogate or literature for a table. The Gore campaign completely blew us off until the last few weeks before the election. It was clear," adds Velasquez, "that young people were not part of their strategy until the very end, when they realized that thousands of college students were voting for Nader. By then it was too late."

Stan Greenberg, a key adviser to Gore and Lieberman, laid out a rationale for a candidate like Lieberman last summer in The American Prospect [Stanley and Anna Greenberg, "Adding Values," August 28, 2000]: Following the Monica Lewinsky scandal, "Democrats again were identified with 1960s-style irresponsibility." Voters want political leaders who put the family at the center of political discussion and are drawn to Democrats who respect the public's religious faith. In fairness to Greenberg, I will say that he recommended a nuanced Democratic engagement with "values" issues and correctly predicted that voters did "not want to politicize values or religious belief." Lieberman, however, made religiosity such a major part of his identity that even the Anti-Defamation League criticized him for it.

Meanwhile, the snobbish and insulated Washington punditocracy (who also had consistently underestimated Bill Clinton's appeal to a majority of Americans) bought into the Republican spin that the "issue" regarding popular culture was whether or not Gore and Clinton were hypocrites for accepting campaign contributions from Hollywood executives. (It apparently never occurred to them that the issue might be that a bipartisan consensus of elected officials was condemning the taste of most of the country's citizens and that Washington might be wrong.) Up until the very end of the campaign, Lieberman spent precious minutes in virtually every TV interview assuring various media moralizers that he really and truly did oppose "vulgarity."(Bush carefully avoided any attacks on pop culture. He hadn't been friends with Lee Atwater for nothing.)

It is true that Democratic entertainment executives, long inured to election-time moralizing, continued to support Gore and Lieberman financially. But millions of young people--and others who are the actual audience that makes the "offensive" popular culture popular--may not have liked having their taste demonized.

Even if the 10 million fans of Eminem or the 25 million fans of Friends (yes, Lieberman has attacked Friends) don't vocalize their enthusiasms in focus groups, it seems awfully self-destructive for Democrats to assume that none of them will vote.

Others in the Democratic base were offended as well. Ellen Willis wrote in Salon of her support for Nader: "The last straw for me was Joe Lieberman. For years I've been voting for Democrats on the grounds that at least the party is not run by right-wing lunatics... . Both Gore and Lieberman are pandering to religious and moral conservatives, again ignoring the secularists and social liberals who are the backbone of the party." Of course, one need not be secular to have been offended by Lieberman's persistent implications that members of organized religions were more moral than everybody else or that certain political positions are mandated by religion.

Similarly, Gore and Lieberman's distancing from Clinton was ham-handed and unnecessarily insensitive to the deep feelings of revulsion a large chunk of the Democratic base had to the invasiveness of Kenneth Starr's prosecution. It was as if the campaign mavens had totally blocked out the fact that the more embarrassing the revelations about Clinton were, the more his support rose in polls. Clinton fatigue did not mean a revisionist enthusiasm for impeachment. Young people are particularly sensitive to issues of personal privacy. Six weeks before the election, at U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearings on the marketing of violent entertainment, Lieberman was the highest-profile witness. (Here I should disclose that I am the CEO of an independent record company and was also a witness at the hearings.) In a particularly nauseating moment for people who had been appalled by the behavior of the House Republicans, Congressman Henry Hyde, Clinton's impeachment nemesis, made a point of saying what close friends he and Lieberman were and quoted from Lieberman's book In Praise of Public Life. Lieberman referred to his friendship with Hyde and cloyingly thanked him for the book promotion.

In late September, Paul Starr wrote a column in TAP titled "Why I'm Not a Populist" [September 24-October 2, 2000] in which he made the case that populism, as he defined it, was a spent force. Like Starr, Ruy Teixeira of the Century Foundation referred to Gore's recent campaign as "populist" because of its emphasis on low-income interests and Gore's occasional and limited willingness to criticize corporations [see "Lessons for Next Time," TAP, December 18, 2000]. But these definitions deprive "populism" of one of its most important meanings: the ability to talk to average people in their own language. Although intellectuals sometimes deride this kind of populism as shallow packaging, effective political leadership during campaigns as well as in office requires the ability to communicate. If people think that a political leader looks down on them, they become deaf to important policy distinctions. In this sense, Gore's was the most unpopulist campaign since that of Michael Dukakis against George W. Bush's father.

Political figures as diverse as Ronald Reagan, Jesse Ventura, Ross Perot, John McCain, Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader (to a certain extent), and Bill Clinton have shown various levels of ability in speaking in the emotional language of ordinary Americans as distinguished from the turgid, condescending Washingtonese that permeated the Gore-Lieberman campaign. Unfortunately, Ventura's politics are not very progressive; but liberals can learn a lot from him about how to attract young voters and create a comfort zone with the pop culture audience.

The idea of a progressive politics without young people is absurd. Youths have been the shock troops of every progressive step forward. Stifling youth turnout and support guarantees conservative politics regardless of the party affiliation.

Here is the passage of Lieberman's opus that Hyde quoted at the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearings: "There is a swelling sense that much of our culture has become toxic. That standards of decency and civility are being significantly eroded by the entertainment industry's shameless and pervasive promotion of violence, sex and vulgarity, and that traditional sources of values in our society such as faith, family, and school are in a life-and-death struggle with the darker forces."

This sort of demonization of a huge portion of the American public is itself indecent. The moral error of such rhetoric by Lieberman and his good friend William Bennett is worth a separate article of its own. But the political effect of a presidential ticket embracing such nonsense is clear: It's a loser.

Americans are complicated people. They do like and sometimes love their own religion, but they oppose religious intolerance or preachiness. They object to much of what they see and hear in the media, but they do not want their next-door neighbors or their political leaders telling them what jokes to laugh at, what songs to dance to, or what kinds of violent entertainment are acceptable. Although there are undoubtedly wistful parents who would like government to help them deal with their teenagers, there are many other parents, equally devoted, who do not want politicians telling them how to raise their kids.

Republicans are wedded to the religious right. This group is unpopular with a large majority of Americans not because that majority dislikes religion or its values, but because it resents preachy cultural authoritarianism. Democrats can therefore win young people and Bill Clinton's "Elvis voters," but only if they don't get into a bidding war with Republicans to put these voters down.

The political myopia that led to the choice of Lieberman as a running mate is not unique to Gore. The Washington elite--which includes most officials of both parties and most of the Washington press--is more culturally conservative than the rest of the country. The people who comprise this elite think that Mark Russell is funny and that PBS, National Public Radio, and C-Span are mainstream culture. They were positive that Bill Clinton was dead; America saved him. They applauded the selection of Lieberman as political genius; America rejected him. They really do love the ideals of America; they just can't abide those messy Americans that Democrats need to win. ¤

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