Call and Response: The President and the People

July 11, 2008

During my hiatus of a summer teaching engagement in Berlin, Barack Obama secured the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. I took the occasion to send an email to an old friend, who now worked training dogs to work with immigration control agents.

Here’s what I wrote: “How about Obama? These are wondrous political times to be living through. America is possibly on the verge of a Black president, who seems a bit like the second coming of JFK?! We are in for a hell of a ride, I tell you.”

My dog-training friend responded as follows: I am afraid I cannot share your enthusiasm regarding politics. I wouldn’t call it wondrous, more like something I stepped in at the Canine Center. Don’t put Obama on such a high pedestal, the fall hurts more.”

The Political Times Versus the Political Candidate

I have thought a lot about that email exchange in the last few days, as it gets to the very core of what Obama’s presidency might mean for America. It is vital to begin by clearly stating that my friend’s response missed the fundamental point that I was trying to make in my email. My email was not meant to suggest that Obama himself, nor his politics, were wonderful and energizing. Rather I was trying to say that the political times seemed to be wondrous and full of portent. My email was not praising person, Obama, nor putting him on a pedestal, but rather was celebrating the current mood of the country, and the way that Obama seems somehow connected to a deeper force moving through the people. There is a distinction between

1) the goals and ideas of a specific candidate, and

2) the deeper mood and desires of the people themselves who become inspired by a candidate,

It is that distinction that raises some interesting points about the role of a President is, and about the relationship between a democratic president and the people he ostensibly “leads.”

America’s Political Times: 1960s Redux?

Now this may all seem rather mysterious, so let me be more clear about what I call “a deeper force moving through the people.” Here are some facts about today’s deeper force. About 4 million new voters have already voted for their first time in the 2008 Democratic primaries—a record-shattering number. Hillary Clinton, the clear front-running establishment candidate in the Democratic primaries, was upended by a completely unpredicted surge of anti-establishment and passionate Democratic voters. These activists exploded onto the political scene in a cacophony of “new voter” projects and similar innovations across the blogosphere that are redefining how Americans communicate and network. Many of these new voters and blogosphere dwellers are young—part of the surging generation of “Millenials” (18-29 year olds) who are now the largest demographic in American history and who are just now coming into their own politically (see previous posts of “The Obama Generation” and “Millenials Rising”). With the rise of this demographic, the center of gravity in American politics has shifted downwards—towards a younger, fresher, more energized electorate than we have seen in decades.

It is the convergence of these varied new forces that have upended American politics and put the nation on the verge of electing not only its first Black president, but also one of its youngest presidents, and one who hails from a grass-roots community organizing background to boot. Something unusual and dramatic is brewing, and one cannot deny the powerful youthful energies surging through the country, whether or not one supports the Obama candidacy. Support it or not—it represents something real and meaningful moving through the American electorate.

What may be happening is perhaps not so different than what happened in America in the 1960s. In the 1960s America also witnessed an exploding youth generation (The Baby Boomers), a surge in civic activism, and a youthful president (Kennedy) who symbolized and energized youthful energies across the country. If we are repeating some of those historic patterns, Obama, like Kennedy, can be seen as less of a directive leader, who will govern America with a specific platform and agenda from above, and more of a energizing catalyst, who will influence America by inspiring passionate and unpredictable political forces in the broader community. Obama in this way is not so much offering America a specific platform and set of policies but is rather offering Americans a way to buy into and become part of a growing sea of social movements and community organizing projects surging in their communities. Some people may be unnerved by this growing wave of new voters and community activists–asking “Who are These People, Anyway?”–but there is no denying they are here, and they are fired up.

Experience a bit of the mood of it all in these two videos.

People have become inspired by the Obama campaign, by its invitation to people to organize their own events and community organizing teams, and by the way it has inspired millions of young people to directly involve themselves in politics teams (remember the famous “Yes We Can” video? It was created independently of the Obama campaign).

Letting the Political Genie Out of the Bottle

Where will it all go? That won’t be up to Obama. As president Obama might serve as a catalyst for community activism—but he won’t be its director and will not be able to direct its course.

In this, too, it’s not so different than what Kennedy faced. When Kennedy was elected as a representative of a surging youth movement, and when he gave his famous inaugural calling on Americans to step up, get involved, and “ask what you can do for your country,” he could not have predicted the forces he was helping to set into motion. In fact, he was inspiring forces like James Farmer, a leader of the new Congress Of Racial Equality, who (in the words of Kennedy’s biographer) “had been inspired by Kennedy’s words about change and freedom. He was convinced that this new President wanted to end American segregation” (see Richard Reeves, President Kennedy, Simon and Schuster, p. 123). And so Farmer worked with others to organize dramatic civil rights protests, such as the Freedom Riders who rode integrated buses deep into the south, knowing that they would face violence and police riots. Farmer was certain that the President was with him…so he did it.

Kennedy might have believed in ending segregation, but the record shows that he DID NOT support direct political action such as Farmer’s civil rights protests in order to speed desegregation along. It didn’t matter. Across the country people, especially young people, had been inspired by the IDEAS and SPIRIT that Kennedy represented, and they were on the move—with or without their president. As the Freedom Riders and other civil rights protests took off in the 1960s, Kennedy was worried that they were pushing too far, too fast. He called his political advisors and said “Can’t you get your goddamned friends off those buses? Stop them!” (Reeves, p. 125). But nobody could stop the growing tide of activism—not even the president who helped inspire it. When Kennedy’s advisor called one Freedom Rider and asked her to slow it down, she replied that “nothing could stop them now. We’re going to show those people in Alabama who think they can ignore the President of the United States” (Reeves, p. 126).

Here’s how Kennedy’s biographer, Richard Reeves, describes the president’s response:

“The President they were quoting actually wanted them to go back home, and did not understand the reach and resonance of his own owords. People were listening to him in a way they listen only to a president. The country was moving again. Kennedy would have to catch up or try pt stop this parade….The travelers on the road to freedom were not listening to the [President’s Advisor’s] words. They thought they had heard John Kennedy’s music.” (134).

Citizen Direct Action: The Coming Storm

This phenomenon is exactly what I referring to in my email to my friend. Across the nation, young voters and community activists are hearing Barack Obama’s music, and responding to the “reach and resonance” of his words. Radio shows are filled with community organizers talking about how they have built an organization of activists through Obama’s campaign, they have built connections between people, and how they intend to stay organized and active even after the election.

In Denver, one Obama organizer on the July 10th KGNU radio show “Swing State” was asked:

“What will it mean to have organized all those people and created all this energy, after the election? What will happen after the election? Will Obama just expect all these people to go home, so he can govern?

She answered: “What we hope to happen is a critical mass of organized people who will be able to hold the next president accountable to their values and goals. Community organizing gives people the tools, so they are not just individuals cheering for a political team, but are organized activists, working together to make things happen.”

This kind of language suggests a storm of community action to come, whether Obama wins or not, and whether he supports the coming storm or not. The Obama campaign has resonated in the people and catalyzed a broader movement—and in this, the power of the presidency is revealed to be far greater than often discussed in America’s classical founding documents and in the textbooks.

Presidential Powers Reconsidered

Certainly most of America’s Founding Fathers did not see the president as a catalyzing agent of broad social movement. The Framers’ Federalist Papers on the subject of presidential leadership generally describe the president as a fairly weak and detached leader, responding to the initiatives of Congress, and certainly not firing up the people with calls for direct action. The Framers didn’t imagine a president with the kind of resonating and emotional connection to the people that some modern presidents seem to have represented.

Still today, the modern textbooks tend to miss something about this role of the President. Review political science textbooks and you will find a great deal of attention on the powers of the President— and these powers (such as the veto power, personnel appointment powers, the power to speak to the public on TV, etc.) are seen as something the President uses to achieve his agenda, to move his policies through Congress, and to bring the nation together around his priorities. There is rarely attention to a different kind of power and role of the President—the power to catalyze a national mood (as Reagan arguably did in the Conservative 1980s) and the power to energize social movements that fundamentally transform the country (as Kennedy did in the 1960s). And there is no attention to the way in which the people can use the presidency and its evocative powers to advance the people’s agenda, the people’s policies, and the people’s priorities.

These kinds of populist powers inherent in the modern presidency are slippery in that they aren’t fully “under the command” of the President, and they often inspire actions far beyond the control of the President–but they are true and real powers of a president and his campaign, nonetheless, these powers to evoke and powers to call forth.

What we are seeing in 2008 is the mysterious unfolding of a new surge in democratic activism, and this surge cannot be separated from the Presidential candidate whose “music” has inspired the hopes of so many. No one knows where it goes from here—and that is what I meant when I wrote my friend that we are living in wondrous political times, and in for a hell of a ride.


Millennials Rising: The Challenges of a New Politics

April 8, 2008

Obama For Yo Mama

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Youth Movement: A New Political Majority?

Move over Baby Boomers—the largest American generation in history is moving onto center stage. Born in the 1980s and 1990s, the Millennial generation is approaching 30 million eligible voters in 2008, and will make up 30% of the entire electorate by the presidential election of 2016.

Observers Peter Leyden and Ruy Texeira conclude that members of this younger “creative” generation are now larger than the Baby Boomer generation, are more engaged than young people of previous generations, are significantly more Democratic in their voting patterns and are “a hugely disruptive force in politics.

Already no generation is able to compete with the Millennials for sheer size, their political influence will grow in the future as they grow older and vote more regularly, and we are already seeing them flex their political muscle in their surprisingly high turnout levels in the 2008 primaries and in catapulting Barack Obama to presidential front-runner status. Just like when the Baby Boomers began to hit their prime in the 1960s, changing American society forever with their demographic weight and young energy, American politics may be in for something of a youth movement in the decade to come.

Overturning the Conventional Wisdom about Youth Apathy

Such predictions run counter to standard lessons in political science texts of recent years. More often than not, textbooks have highlighted the declining influence of the younger generation, based on such data as persistently low turnout rates and political interest levels among 18-29 year old voters. One leading (and representative) political science textbook by George Edwards, et. al., (Government in America) highlights the substantial political knowledge and voter turnout gaps between 18-29 year olds and voters over 65, and concludes that:

“Fewer young Americans are heading to the polls compared to previous generations…even the most pessimistic analysts could not have foreseen the record-low participation rates of young people in recent years…It has become particularly difficult to convince a generation that has channel surfed all their lives that politics really does matter.”

But 2008 seems to be putting an end to all that old conventional wisdom. The youth vote in the primaries is at an all time high. The Cornell Sun reports that

“According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Living and Engagement (CIRCLE), youth participation in the New Hampshire primary rose sharply — jumping to 43 percent in 2008 from 18 percent in 2004 and 28 percent in 2000. A similar trend was apparent in the Iowa caucuses as the youth turnout rate rose to 13 percent from 4 percent in 2004 and 3 percent in 2000, and in Florida, where the youth turnout rate of 13 percent more than tripled the 2000 rate. In South Carolina, the number of young voters tripled from the 2004 election as well.”

Results from Super Tuesday states and beyond are continuing this same pattern. : Youth turnout is tripling and even quadrupling in numbers, compared to the 2000 primaries.

Youth voting patterns in 2008 are no fluke. Turnout among 18-29 year olds was up dramatically in both 2004 and 2006. If the patterns from 2008 primaries continue through the fall election, youth turnout will have grown three elections in a row. Overall youth turnout in 2008 may end up being close to the highwater mark of 55% set in 1972, the year 18-21 year olds first obtained the right to vote; such a result would require a rethinking of all those poli sci textbook conclusions about the apathetic and declining youth vote.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch Changes…”: A New Political Culture?

“Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?” Singer Cat Stevens asked this question to the baby boomers of his time, when they were upending the world in the 1960s and 70s—it is a question that has become important once again.

As the millennials become a driving force of politics, what will they give us this time?

One thing they are giving us is a new form of political communication and a new political culture. Heavy on the internet and on the do-it-yourself videos of Youtube, and light on television news, the millennials are constantly introducing new forms of political communication and different ways to taking on old political issues . Morley Winograd and Michael Hais call this process the “Millennial Makeover and attribute it with reshaping American politics from top to bottom, in a profound repudiation of the angry and overly-ideological battles of previous years.

Here’s how the Winograd and Hais describe the “Millennial Makeover,” in a Washingpost Post essay.

Millennials’…aren’t confrontational or combative, the way boomers (whose generational mantra was “Don’t trust anyone over 30”) have been. Nor does the millennials’ rhetoric reflect the cynicism and alienation of Generation X, whose philosophy is, “Life sucks, and then you die.” Instead, their political style reflects their generation’s constant interaction with hundreds, if not thousands, of “friends” on MySpace or Facebook, about any and all subjects, increasingly including politics. Since they started watching “Barney” as toddlers, the millennials have learned to be concerned for the welfare of everyone in the group and to try to find consensus, “win-win” solutions to any problem. The result is a collegial approach that attracts millennials to candidates who seek to unify the country and heal the nation’s divisions.

Unlike the young baby boomers, millennials want to strengthen the political system, not tear it down. According to a study last year by the Pew Research Center, most millennials (64 percent) disagree that the federal government is wasteful and inefficient, while most older Americans (58 percent) think it is. A 2006 survey by Frank N. Magid Associates indicated that millennials are more likely than older generations to believe that politicians care what people think and are more concerned with the good of the country than of their political party.

Maybe it is just something of this kind of spirit that lies behind the popularity of that “Yes We Can” Obama video—which spread like a super-virus in the days after its release on Youtube.

We also see some of the surprising power of the rising Millennial generation in the Democratic primary. It is the rising youth voter that has turned the Democratic primary upside down, with Barack Obama upending presumed nominee Hillary Clinton on the strength of his massive victories among the under 30 year old voters (Obama typically posted a 10-30 point victory among these voters in Super Tuesday states) . It is these same voters who see Obama as “one of us,” and who may be poised to give America its first black president.

A black president??? Yes. What would be shocking to their parents seems natural to Millennials. The page may be turning in American politics. While John McCain represents an older generation, the generation that fought in Vietnam and battled bitterly over race and feminism in the 1960s, the youth of today have their own war, and their own stand on race and gender that has little to do with those old battles. As Harvard’s Elaine Karmarck notes, “Millennials are the most racially diverse and racially integrated generation in American history. They are civic-minded and post-partisan…They are inclined to cooperate, not fight.”

Karmarck is right to a point. Millennials may not appreciate some of the political bickering of their parents’ generation, but let’s not kid ourselves that the rise of the Millennials will be all kindness and light. The reality is that Millenials certainly have their own values that they are willing to stand and fight for—and these are values that are likely to change American politics in profound ways. This upcoming generation has profoundly different views on Iraq, global warming, same-sex marriage, illegal immigration, and economic issues than middle aged and older voters, who tend to support Republicans–and these values are likely to result in a coming political upheaval as the political clout wielded by Republicans since the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan is wrested from their hands.

According to a Democracy Corps poll, “young Americans have become so profoundly alienated from Republican ideals on issues that their defections suggest a political setback that could haunt Republicans for many generations to come.” . Indeed in the last two presidential elections, and in 2006, Democrats beat Republicans in the youth vote by 10% to 20%. Things don’t look to get better for the GOP in 2008: a recent Rock the Vote Poll notes that “just 28% of young voters identify themselves as Republicans versus 47% who identify as Democrats.”

The Millennial Challenge: The Great Education Gap

For all the talk of the Millennials rising, there is a deeply disturbing fact about young people’s voting patterns: they are deeply divided, in terms of political participation, between those who have attended college and those who haven’t.

In the 2008 primaries, 1 in 4 of college attending young voters voted in the primaries, while only 1 in 14 of non-college attending youth voted. Non-College attending young people make up 50% of the Millennial Generation, but only about 20% of its voters.

Forget the Generation Gap in voting rates—the real participation gap is between those attending college (and presumably on their way up, in terms of their personal prospects) and those who are not attending college (and presumably facing a much more difficult personal future).

As NPR reports, many of these non-college youth are personally turned off by American politics: they are deeply pessimistic about their futures, but they don’t see any way that politicians will ever do anything to help them. This cannot be a healthy path to the future—current patterns point to an even more harshly divided nation of the politically powerful and personally optimistic, and those who have politically checked out and who are facing a dismal future without college education nor political allies.

The Millennial generation is at the heart of this deepening divide, and as they come to take over political power, how they address and overcome this division will be a test of their vision and ability to leave the nation better off than when they ascended to power. Forty years ago, the youthful Kennedy challenged his Baby Boomer generation to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”—and the Boomers responded with historic civic action to address fundamental challenges such as the racial division of their time. Todays Millennials, standing on the cusp of power, face very real and very deep challenges and divisions of their own—it is their own high school friends, brothers and sisters, who are increasingly checking out of the political system and being left behind in America’s new economy. Clearly, Cat Stevens’ question is as important now as ever: “Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?”

The Obama Generation: Dethroning the Baby Boomers?

January 11, 2008
Generation Obama

“Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what’s needed to be done. Today we are called once more–and it is time for our generation to answer that call.” So declared Barack Obama in announcing his intention to run for President, and appealing to a new generation to rise up and transform American politics. Over and over, Senator Obama rallied his audience with the persistent call: “Let’s be the generation…”

There’s certainly no shortage of articles hyping the Obama generation or exploring the reality that Obama is receiving tremendous support from younger voters. Time magazine recently ran a feature article on the Obama generation, while Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic Monthly argues that Obama’s success is explicitly driven by his repudiation of the “older generation” politics of the Baby Boomers. Some young voters have even taken to calling themselves “Generation Obama,” with a website and grassroots youth movement building behind his campaign.

Even seasoned politicians and analysts of the older generation have sometimes turned a bit giddy when contemplating how Obama might represent the coming of a new generation to power—idealistic and impassioned young voters finally replacing the tired old 1960s/Baby Boomer politics of their parents. During a candidate debate, journalist-moderator Chris Matthews called Obama’s Iowa victory a revolutionary moment like Lexington or Concord. Earlier, he eagerly exclaimed that Obama reminded him of the youth and hopefulness of Jack and Bobby Kennedy. A former speechwriter for John Kennedy, Ted Sorensen, also compares Obama to a young John F. Kennedy, and has personally signed on to the Obama campaign, believing Obama will bring a new generation of idealists into politics—just as Kennedy did. Aging 1960s activist and current Representative from California Tom Hayden feels the same and recently posted a laudatory note from his son to Obama on the Huffington Post, and declared that “the Obama generation is here and will not be denied.”

The numbers certainly suggest that Obama is tapping into a generational fault line in American politics. Obama beat Hillary Clinton at least 4-1 among 18-29 year old voters in Iowa, and also bested her among voters under 25 in New Hampshire—while the older the voting group, the more pro-Hillary they voted. And just as Obama’s popularity among young voters is high, so is the number of young voters showing up in the early stages of the nominating process surging. Iowa Voters aged 18-29 grew 135% over their 2004 numbers, confirming the youth surge that occurred in the 2004 presidential and 2006 mid-term elections. While only 18% of eligible young voters turned out for the Iowa caucus in 2004, 43% voted in 2008.

Thecandidates and their teams are well aware of the generational differences between Clinton and Obama voters. “There’s no doubt that we represent the kind of change Senator Clinton can’t deliver on. And part of it’s generational,” Obama told Fox News in early November. “Senator Clinton and others have been fighting some of the same fights since the ’60s. It makes it very difficult for them to bring the country together to get things done.”

Meanwhile two of Clinton’s top campaign advisors have disparaged the youth of Obama supporters. “Our people look like caucus-goers,” Clinton aide Mandy Grunwald said when analyzing Obama supporters at Iowa political events. “and his people look like they are 18. Penn said they look like Facebook.” For his part, Clinton pollster Mark Penn added, “Only a few of their people look like they could vote in any state.”

Here’s one way to look at the emerging generation gap between Clinton and Obama supporters . For sixteen years, America has been governed by Baby Boomer presidents (Clinton and Bush). For longer than that, America has been deeply divided over the bitter divisions that fractured the nation as the Baby Boomer generation came into prominence amid 1960s turmoil. The older generation continues to obsess over these old battles, seeing in a potential Clinton-Giuliani matchup yet one more chance to fight over the legacy of Vietnam, over doves versus hawks, over drugs and the 1960s counter-culture, over feminism and the virtue of stay-at-home moms. The older generation remains obsessed with bitter debates over such things as Hippies versus hardhats, abortion versus choice, and civil rights and racial progress. Every night, the older generation trots out their predictable culture warriors on television news, where Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter battle Keith Olbermann and Michael Moore in histrionic and destructive smackdowns that bitterly divide the nation against itself. Every four years, the older generation trots out its Bushes and Clintons, or those like them, to once more fight over War, feminism, and cultural decay, just as they fought over Vietnam and the counter-culture back in the 1960s.

Obama argues in his book, The Audacity of Hope, that this is a tired and calcified political struggle that will never enable politicians to come together into bipartisan, pragmatic efforts to move past the domestic civil wars of the Baby Boomers. “In the back-and-forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004,” Obama wrote, “ I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation–a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago–played out on the national stage.”

Perhaps Obama, born on the tail end of the Baby Boom generation but not really part of it, is the candidate to put an end to all that, and perhaps that is part of his appeal to younger voters. Other notables like Clinton, Giuliani, or McCain can never rise beyond the political divisions of their generation—which partly explains the knee-jerk hatred many Republicans have of Clinton (for example). But Obama is a candidate running as a black man with hardly a mention of the racial struggles of the past . Obama is running against the war in Iraq without the Vietnam baggage that Kerry inevitably carried (as a 1960s Vietnam protestor). Obama is even a candidate who openly admits his past marijuana (and even cocaine) use without bringing up visions of the counter-cultural hippie 60s in voter’s minds—indeed, as seen in the video below, it can be argued that young voters appreciate and respect Obama’s honest discussion of drug use.

“I inhaled frequently. That was the point.”

Is it real? Does Obama truly represent a new generation emerging, one beyond the brutal battles of the 1960s and 1970s, and ready for a new, transformational moment? We know that young voters today have fundamentally different political priorities than older voters—they are more anti-war, less supportive of the Bush tax cuts, more in favor of national health care and increased federal education spending, and more in favor of new environmental protections. Is Obama the man to represent this generation and its values, sending the last of the Baby Boomer presidents packing?

Watch these videos about how Barack Obama is reaching out to the youth vote, and comparing Barack Obama to Bobby Kennedy (an idealistic candidate of the youth in a different era), and ponder whether there might be something real to “Generation Obama.”

Obama Reaches Out to Youth Vote

Obama as Bobby Kennedy