Tag Archives: voter

Why Politics Isn’t “Cool” (and Never Will Be)

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.

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Faulty Logic in the CRNC Report

Following the Republican Party’s generally lousy national election performance in 2012, many GOP officials, politicians, and pundits offered various explanations for the defeat, and advice on how the Party could fare better in future contests. One predominant sentiment which has emerged from this introspection was that the Party should grow its tent by reaching out to constituencies who have traditionally not voted for Republican candidates, such as women, minorities, and youth. This sentiment was most visible in two reports issued by two prominent Republican organizations: First, the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” from the Republican National Committee (RNC), prescribed some ways to “modernize the Party” and “appeal to more people.” The second report, “Grand Old Party for A Brand New Generation,” a product of the College Republican National Committee (CRNC), outlined several youth-centered Party reforms. It is the latter of the two which is of concern here.

The CRNC’s report uses responses from two surveys and several focus groups to gauge youth voter opinion on a variety of issues. While the report outlines a few intelligent improvements, much of its interpretation of survey data and consequent recommendations contain some notable flaws. One area of the report which raises particular concern is the section on “Reinventing the Brand.” Here, the CRNC uses survey responses to recommend a winning “narrative” for the Republican Party to adopt when reaching out to youth voters. Survey respondents were given a list of broad statements and were asked whether a candidate making those statements would be more or less likely to receive their vote.

CRNC Survey

The CRNC then goes on to conclude that Republican candidates should pursue a messaging strategy more closely attuned with the three most popular statements listed, while focusing less on the bottom four; the underlying premise for this conclusion being that young voters are really conservatives deep down, and would vote for conservative Republican candidates if not for the Party’s lackluster branding. Ergo, a shift in branding would allegedly cast a more positive light on the Republican Party and attract hesitant youth voters. A more nuanced examination of these responses, however, reveals dire implications for any Republican trying to construct a youth-oriented campaign.

The three top-polling statements are exceptionally vague—they are merely goals which any competent political philosophy should be expected to achieve (e.g., “economic growth,” “tackling tough, long term problems,” and “providing opportunity”). The four lower-ranked statements do not outline vague goals, but rather lay out particular methods—a means to achieve those goals.

For conservatives, those concepts are inextricably linked: Liberty, limited government, American values, and constitutionalism are viewed as necessary tools to achieve the surveyed youngsters’ purported goals of economic growth and opportunity. If respondents were truly conservative, then we would expect all the given narrative statements to poll at roughly similar levels. This is not what we see, however: The respondents seem mysteriously unable to perceive the connection between conservatism and the economic growth and opportunity which they so desire. Which seems more likely, then? That the Republican Party’s struggles with regard to young voters are caused by deficiencies with the GOP’s brand, or that young voters simply reject conservative principles?

The CRNC has apparently decided in favor of the former option; they believe that bettering the brand is the magic bullet that will turn around the GOP’s dismal electoral prospects. Admittedly, this may work for a short time. Even so, it would be a hollow victory, because such a strategy can only win by deceiving young voters: As the CRNC’s own survey data indicates, a candidate who champions conservatism is not more likely to garner young peoples’ votes than a candidate who speaks in vague platitudes. The CRNC’s rebranding strategy must invariably trick youngsters into believing that when Republicans wish to “focus on creating jobs and economic growth,” they intend to do so by means other than policies based on conservative principles. Ultimately, though, youngsters would catch on, the lie would crumble, and Republicans would be back to square one.

This conundrum persists, however, only so long as Republicans wish to remain conservative. The path of least resistance, and truly the more honest approach to the rebranding strategy, would be simply to abandon conservatism. This is not outside the realm of possibility, as we have seen in the Congressional debates on immigration reform, the debt ceiling, and the budget; and in the RNC’s negligence and undermining of conservative candidates in Republican primaries, to list a few examples.

If the Republican Party wishes to garner more of the youth vote and also remain conservative while doing so, then the CRNC’s rebranding strategy will not work—youngsters are simply not conservative enough.

It is nevertheless imperative that Republicans attract new, young members to the Party, since winning elections and enacting conservative policies will be exceedingly difficult without them. However, this means more than just reconstructing the image and brand of the Republican Party. It will require no less than a widespread shift in the intellectual disposition of young voters. The CRNC’s recommendations with regard to social media platforms have some merit on this regard, but social media is only a part of what must comprise a large-scale, grassroots information campaign. Each and every conservative must reach out to his/her peers and introduce them to the conservative message.

If the RNC/CRNC were really concerned with winning elections, they would refocus their energy on this endeavor, instead of trying to cut slices from an ever-shrinking electoral pie.

Compromise in Politics

You hear about it all the time: Americans, left and right, are concerned with the efficiency of government. They are frustrated by the near-constant government gridlocks, whether on the state or federal level, and they feel that their positions are not represented through legislation. I too have felt this on a few occasions, and like many Americans, have also felt an accompanying sense of betrayal. Some may complain that their vote doesn’t count, others may say the system is broken, but most people eventually resort to the blame game: “if only such-and-such a party would stop being so stubborn and work with the other party, they could reach a compromise and actually accomplish something!”

Compromise has become a golden mean of sorts in the realm of political rhetoric. Almost every politician that has ever campaigned has advocated bipartisanship and compromise.  But perhaps we need to step back and ask ourselves why this is the case, and whether or not compromise is even desirable. In doing so we find that there are a number reasons why compromise is impractical. Specifically, it is unattainable in any homogeneous way, it decreases voter efficacy, and it distances politicians from their principles and temporarily subscribes them to opposing principles. Because of these factors, compromise is something that should generally be avoided.

Who advocates compromise most often in legislative politics? It’s usually not the majority party, unless they do so as a game of political quid pro quo. Rather, compromise is generally pushed by those in the minority party. The reason for this is simple: compromise is a tool of the minority party to regain power lost at the ballot box. It gives the purveyors of unpopular positions the ability to influence policy, even when they have no mandate to do so. Many Americans forget that we do not have systems of proportional representation in this country, and that the winner-take-all plurality systems we employ create no obligation to honor the viewpoints of every constituent. Nevertheless, compromise is designed to do just that. It makes the losers happy.

The problem is that even in compromise there are going to be winners and losers.  By definition, compromise can never make anyone or everyone completely happy, unless compromise in itself is your goal. But by not compromising, you can make the majority of people completely happy. This seems like the much better option, given that this is what a winner-take-all system is designed to do in the first place.

Compromise is often touted as a remedy for the feelings of voter inefficacy felt by the losers of an election, and it seems that for this reason, Republicans and Democrats alike often claim to be open to compromise. However, it’s unclear as to whether they or their constituents actually understand what that entails, so let’s think a little more deeply about the mechanics of the compromise we like to demand from our representative officials. We know that politicians are the public conveyors of ideals, and that legislatures are the forum by which politicians can encapsulate their ideals in legal construction. These ideals represent the sides of a given issue, and to hold an ideal means to have taken a position on an issue. Now, a law can only have one outcome–which is decided by the ideals encapsulated therein. Whatever effect a law based on one ideal has is reduced or nullified by the injection of any opposing ideal(s), which is what occurs during a compromise. Likewise, since the ideals of politicians mirror the ideals held by the majority of their constituency, any reduction or nullification of those ideals through compromise is a slight to the majority of the people. To compromise the principles which the people have publicly supported through their votes is to render the entire election a pointless exercise. When this happens, there is a loss in voter efficacy even greater than the loss felt by a minority party after an unsuccessful election.

The last, and probably most detrimental effect of compromise is that it distances politicians from their principles, and temporarily subscribes them to opposing principles. This confuses voters and distorts the credibility of legislators. When politicians subject themselves to the pursuit of compromise in the debate of a bill, they inevitably allow more into a bill than what they would normally like, and likewise more than what the majority of voters would like. Sometimes politicians sign on to a compromise bill because they feel there is no other way to pass what they see as beneficial. Other times, however, politicians vie for compromise in order to force the hand of their opponents. Those in the minority party know that their positions are unlikely to pass by themselves, so they actively look for opportunities to tack their ideals onto a more popular bill. This puts majority politicians in a bind: they can either pass the unpopular ideal along with the popular ideal, or they can pass nothing at all. This complicates future elections, since it is no longer clear whether or not a representative’s vote on a bill can be considered reprehensible. Therefore, instead of compromise, strictly partisan bills should be the goal. This not only allows the majority party to pass what it considers to be beneficial, but also allows voters a clear picture of who to oust in the next election should the law have detrimental consequences.

Compromise as an Unavoidable Political Phenomenon

There are a couple reasons why compromise can be considered inevitable, and in some cases, beneficial. First, representatives sometimes have great differences in political ideology, and they don’t always vote along party lines. In situations such as this, like factions from opposing parties often unite to pass a recently popularized ideal. Another way compromise may be useful is if there is a fifty-fifty split among representatives in any one chamber. In such a case, both political parties would have equal power to influence policy, and it would be impossible not to compromise in order to accomplish anything.

In Summary

Compromise may ultimately be seen as a necessary evil. Ideally, we should refrain from chasing after virtually unattainable satisfactory agreements, we should respect the sense of political efficacy to be gained from a winner-take-all election system, and we should be able to hold representative officials one-hundred percent responsible for every vote they make. But in the real world, the legislative process can never be so cut-and-dry. We can always expect to see issues on which politicians of the same party differ in positions. But even though no structural change to the legislative process seems imminent, perhaps this can be taken as a lesson to lessen our reliance on the crutch that is compromise, and to quell the rhetoric designed to legitimize its use at every turn.