I am pleased that this year’s election has prompted a lot of thinking about how to keep young people engaged. “Beyond the Vote” was the theme of the National Conference on Citizenship. There have been good news articles on the topic, e.g., this one in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. And now The American Prospect has asked a bunch of experts, plus me, to opine on what the Obama Administration should do to keep young people excited. Here are all the suggestions. Mine is this:
- Barack Obama won an unprecedented 66 percent of the under-30 vote. Ronald Reagan set the previous record with 59 percent in 1984. The Reagan cohort has remained conservative ever since. Obama now has an opportunity to achieve a lasting realignment.
On the campaign trail, he electrified youth by asking them to work on public problems: “I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am president of the United States. This will not be a call issued in one speech or program; this will be a cause of my presidency.”
“Active citizenship” means more than helping the needy (which defined the liberalism of the Clinton era). It means talking with diverse people about challenges, analyzing and debating, and then working together to solve problems. Youth are hungry for this kind of work.
During the campaign, Obama gave youth many ways to plug in, from “friending” him on Facebook to taking a semester off to organize. Now that the election is over, he needs to offer a similar range of opportunities to cement their engagement. An issue like climate change requires a full spectrum of participation, from pledging not to drive once a week, to advocating legislation, to weatherizing homes as an Americorps volunteer, to becoming an EPA scientist. At a time when jobs are scarce and the public sector is weak and archaic, citizens’ work should be the hallmark. Then, there will be Obama Democrats in 2060 the way there are New Deal Democrats today.
I’m actually doing some fairly serious, data-driven research on generations’ roles in political realignments. It’s interesting stuff but I’m far from being able to report anything here.