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Young Americans rewriting the way America does politics

By Michele Mitchell
Simon & Schuster, 224 pages, Hardcover, $23
Orders: 1-800-223-2336


“Liberal,” “conservative,” “Republican” and “Democrat” are the familiar political distinctions in this country. But those terms don’t apply to the new generation coming on the scene, according to Michele Mitchell, whose book sheds invaluable light on a mysterious and often misunderstood cohort of voters and politicians.

The current voting block ages 18 to 35 shuns the terms Republican and Democrat, forcing politicians to recognize that this is a group that can’t be hypnotized by meaningless party rhetoric. Perhaps the greatest case in point so far is the election of former professional wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura as governor of Minnesota. Ventura’s unforeseen victory was fueled by a surge of young voters alienated by conventional politics and looking to shake up the system. If Mitchell is right, it’s a pattern that will repeat itself in the year 2000 when 80 million persons ages 18 to 35 will be eligible to vote.

Through analyzing voting patterns and voting data, as well as interviews with under-40 politicians and activists, Mitchell gives some indication of how the new generation of voters is likely to reshape politics in America. Mitchell, 28, is a former communications director on Capitol Hill and claims to be the youngest person to have written for The New York Times editorial page.

The new generation are community-oriented yet fiercely independent latchkey kids, skeptical and computer-savvy. But don’t call them apathetic, cynical or slackers, and steer clear of the label X.

They are likely to support candidates who are outside the conventional mold, who are pragmatic rather than visionary, and who emphasize small ideas that work rather than grand platforms that smack of make-believe.

In characterizing the political instincts of Americans born between 1961 and 1980, Mitchell emphasizes their preference for grassroots solutions. There is no widespread national movement for reform -- no marches on Washington, no campus protests, no media frenzy.

Rather, the new generation is fighting the small political battles at local levels, where their voice is more likely to be heard and where the effect is more likely be felt. Call it selfish, but “Generation X-ers” seem to care only about the issues that relate directly to them. Cleaning up their neighborhoods, volunteering to help the underprivileged and overthrowing the old guard in local districts are the kinds of hands-on causes that attract them.

Mitchell tells the story of 30-year-old Jerry Morrison in suburban Chicago, who in 1996 tried to shake up the stagnant Democratic political machine in his 32nd Ward by registering new voters. In just two months of campaigning, Morrison took 30 percent of the vote, which in old-school Chicago made him a political player.

Political professionals see a message in Morrison’s success -- the same message they derived from Ventura’s stunning victory. It’s a strong, albeit quiet, indictment of the political status quo from a group whose turnout is taken for granted. Over 50 percent of voters in Minnesota under the age of 40 chose Ventura. Of those, 12 percent said they wouldn’t have voted at all if Ventura had not been on the ballot.

It hasn’t quite sunk in with the Baby Boomers and senior citizens yet, this message from the youth of America. It’s a message being delivered subtly and discreetly, without filling the streets, but it’s there for everyone to see.

A widespread misconception among politicians and the older generation is that young voters don’t vote. In 1996, according to Mitchell, 21 percent of those in the 18 to 35 age group turned out, while the much-targeted senior citizen group checked in at under 23 percent. In 1992, 42 percent of the 18 to 35 age group showed up, the highest number since 18-year-olds were given the right to vote in 1972.

These numbers have politicians running scared. The conventional wisdom is that Social Security and health care will be financed largely by 18- to 35-year-olds, so most politicians are understandably reluctant to see the younger generation at the voting booths. Although these issues pit the young generation against the old, the likelihood of a “generational war” is slim, according to Mitchell.

“The generations each can be (and are) guilty of thoughtlessness, greed and arrogance,” she writes. “But warfare implies an unprecedented level of callousness and viciousness between child, parent and grandparent. And, quite frankly, that type of ruthlessness simply does not exist.”

The post-Baby Boom generation was born into political scandal, so it’s little wonder they’re disheartened with government. Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon was a bad man, our parents used to say. “If you can’t trust the president, whom can you trust?” concerned mothers asked.

The leaders who followed all seemed compromised in some way. Whether it was Jimmy Carter’s failure to free the hostages in Iran or Ronald Reagan’s claim of ignorance in the Iran-contra affair, these presidents seemed not to be the heroes of past generations. No Trumans or Kennedys in this lot.

Though younger voters generally like him, Bill Clinton now feeds their skepticism as yet another example of the broken promises the 18 to 35s have experienced throughout their lives. Mitchell points out that while in 1992 Clinton boasted the young generation had won him the election, in reality the numbers prove that the tide is shifting away from established political parties altogether.

Ross Perot won 22 percent of the 18 to 35 vote in 1992, his strongest showing. Then, in 1993 and 1994, the Libertarian Party increased by 20 percent. In 1995, less than one-fourth of those 18 to 35 who voted voted straight party lines.

Mitchell also writes that before the 1996 election, nearly 70 percent of 18 to 35s said they would like to vote for a third-party candidate for president. The reason: New voters don’t want promises, they want results. They want the bridge to the 21st century completed on time and on budget.

Another intriguing wrench in the political system is the Internet. It’s an untapped political watchdog that appeals especially to younger voters raised on modems and Web sites.

Politicians have fought hard trying to censure the Internet because of its power to inform. What would happen if typing in your zip code gave you access to a candidate’s voting record, where he or she can be reached and what special interest groups endorse or oppose the candidate?

“I think we’d vote,” says Kim Alexander, who in California started one of the first on-line political voting guides and in 1997 hired an army of interns to help post campaign contributions during the final two weeks of elections.

With their voting tendencies revealed, candidates would be forced to put up or shut up when more people called them on their lies and misleading statements. Although this information is already available (in the dusty back rooms of local libraries), empowering people at their home computers will allow this generation to be the most informed voters ever.

What does it all add up to? An unpredictable force in politics capable of shaking up America in fundamental ways. When Mitchell was asked in an interview what do you get when persons 18 to 35 turn out to vote, her response was simple:

“Jesse Ventura.”

Matt Kantz is NCR’s assistant layout editor and staff writer. He lives in Independence, Mo.

National Catholic Reporter, January 29, 1999