Politics is not cool—never was, never will be. This may be shocking to some, but allow me to explain:
“Coolness” is the province of the young, and young people do not like politics. Their attitudes toward it range from uninterested, to cynical, to hostile. They have repeatedly demonstrated their gross apathy and disdain for the political process through their well-documented, low voter turnouts. It would seem they view politics as, at best, a waste of time.
This is far from being a complaint—youngsters are right to hold this view! Politics is not fun, exciting, or exhilarating. The exuberance and dedication with which most people attend football, baseball, or hockey games will never be directed toward the reading of articles or studies; nor will most people ever find relaxation in the research/support of candidates, in writing letters to their representatives, or in the attendance of city council meetings.
Nevertheless, politicians across the political spectrum continually fetishize the youth vote. After the 2008 election, which saw a historically high voter turnout among the 18- to 24-year-old age group, some pundits and activists speculated on the rising political influence of youngsters. Rock the Vote, a progressive political grassroots organization, went so far as to proclaim, “No longer can pundits and politicians say we don’t vote. The face of our democracy is forever changed and young people have shown the world we are taking our country into our own hands.”
They conveniently neglect to mention that youth voter turnout still pales in comparison to that of other age groups, and that youngsters still comprise only 13 percent of the total voting-age population. What rationale is there for focusing a campaign exclusively on this miniscule subset of voters?
The politicians generally ignore this hurdle. Their rapaciousness for youth votes routinely manifests in memos and reports like the College Republicans’, “Grand Old Party for A Brand New Generation,” which abounds with proposals for attracting more young voters to the Republican Party. Unfortunately, these efforts miss the point: Youth vote obsession is ultimately a farce not because engaging youngsters requires impossible finesse or elevated technical/media prowess—though these factors may help or hamper outreach efforts on a superficial level—but because of a flaw in the youth campaign’s operating premises.
The conventional wisdom surrounding the prosecution of youth-centered campaigns has always been to “bridge the divide,” between young and old. The youth-savvy politician generally starts by asking youngsters “What issues are of interest to you?” with the intent of incorporating those issues into his campaign platform. Young people, however, being comfortable in their natural state of apathy and cynicism, are either unable or unwilling to acknowledge the influence of governmental policies on their lives. This does nothing to aid the politician in his aspirations—a disinterested youngster will neither vote nor campaign for him—so he must find some way to engage them.
Faced with this daunting task, most politicians will appeal to vanity. This is a tactic to which young people are disproportionately susceptible, as was painfully displayed during the purely juvenile response to the recent kidnapping of hundreds schoolchildren in Nigeria. As Kevin D. Williamson wrote in May:
Our politics, particularly among young people and those who interact with the world mainly through social media, is no longer about the world but about the self. It is mostly an exercise in what economists call ‘signaling,’ a way to communicate to friends, and to the world, that one is a certain superior kind of person.
This approach reinforces within youngsters the mentality that the highest virtue in politics is not the holding of true, moral, or consistent principles, but rather the maintaining of a political identity. In a world where self-worth is determined by one’s ability to attract the attention and praise of others, political preferences and positions will inevitably be shaped by adherence to consensus and conformity. The result is a rapidly changing basket of “important” issues—constantly being emptied and refilled by a never ending stream of fads and pop-culture movements—in which young people are only superficially engaged; and just as they do not assign importance to different issues based on principle, neither will they arrive at policy solutions based on principle.
Sadly, this is the state of politics among this country’s youth. However, there is a better way for youngsters to engage in politics:
They can grow up.
Politics is not meant for the young. The reason most 18-year-olds find politics repulsive is the same reason most 5-year-olds do. Like a career, financial stewardship and budgeting, home maintenance, and parenting, politics is an adult endeavor: Youngsters have not yet reached a point of mental maturation commensurate with the development of stable concepts of morality, diligence, and consequent notions of justice which are necessary for substantive political participation.
We can facilitate this maturation. Instead of coddling young people, pandering to their particular situations with promises of subsidized student loans, free birth control, or free health insurance until age 26, we can expect more from them. We can challenge their positions, we can scour their mental landscape for some semblance of principle and cultivate it, and we can encourage them to apply their principles across a host of issues which may, at most, bear only a tangential relationship to their lives.
Ironically, doing so will create for those individuals a far greater, more enduring identity than one which proceeds from constantly seeking acceptance and recognition through the charade of political involvement. It will also create an environment in which the youth outreach problem effectively solves itself, since adults, not children, inherently carry with them an urgency in addressing political issues.
If our goal is not to create a class of infantilized herd voters, but rather to cultivate independent and rational individuals, then we should end the practice of making politics cool, and champion the political process as something of intrinsic, productive appeal. If you wish to solve problems which reach beyond your own life, then politics may a viable avenue. If it is entertainment or acceptance that you seek, then politics is not for you, and we would ask that you please leave it to the grown-ups.