'Trust' irrelevant to young voters They want results, not finger pointing, election advocate says

Campaign 1996

November 04, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY -- From Don Singleton's class on political communication at Salisbury State University, the making of the president 1996 seems a lamentable thing -- populated by the ethically challenged and reported by the unprincipled to the thoroughly distracted.

Among these younger voters, the suggestion that "trust" might be a crucial issue in this year's campaign is almost laughable.

"Trust is pretty much a dead issue," said Jennifer Young of Hollywood, Md. This is so because "politicians are corrupt."

"Doctors and lawyers are corrupt, too," she told a reporter for The Sun who sat with the class recently to talk about trust and other issues and the personalities of the presidential season.

Perhaps with the exception of MTV, the media aid and abet the persona of politicians, some of these young people said. Its approach to the news is this, one student said: "Get whatever story you can even if you have to make it up or add to it."

A many-faceted force involving outlets as diverse as MTV, the Internet, newspapers, textbooks and late-night talk show comedians, the "media" allow candidates to come across as silly and one-dimensional, said Tricia Sherrer.

"All you know from them is that Dole's a grumpy old man who's got a bad arm and is always talking about it," said Sherrer. "And, Bill Clinton? He cheats on his wife, and he's slick, and he's fat and he's got pasty white thighs. That's all you hear."

These views of the U.S. political process from Salisbury State parallel those found on campuses across the country by MTV and Rock the Vote, an effort to stimulate youthful voting and to invite participation in political life.

"All our qualitative data show young people don't trust anyone, and we've done a ton of research," said Gwen Lipsky, research chief for MTV in New York.

While young voters care a lot about specific issues, they are not at all responsive to "trust" issues, which they regard as largely irrelevant, she said.

Blame the millions of dollars worth of negative campaign advertising on television, she said. It has done more than damage opponents: It has convinced a generation that corruption is as American as apple pie and not the exclusive province of any party or candidate.

"Young people are not unlike the greater electorate in terms of their mistrust," said Jaime Uzeta, a Rock the Vote coordinator based in Los Angeles. "What they want," he said, "is results, not finger pointing."

The younger voters do have one advantage: They sort through the communications chaff better than their parents.

"This generation is so media savvy. These are hyperliterate kids, so they see through a lot of the tricks and strategy of the professional pols," said Lipsky.

Whitewater inquiries

In the class taught by Singleton and co-teacher Janet Horne, for example, Dave Cook of Crofton found a certain transparency in the Whitewater inquiries.

"I thought this time they were really going to go after Clinton," he said, "really get some dirt on him. But it just seems too perfectly timed. It's so political; come Election Day, the whole thing will disappear."

This sort of manipulation, suggested Ian Webster of Baltimore, is what Americans get from what he calls "the SS units of political campaigns" -- unseen operatives who manipulate "demigod" candidates and "blanket TV with their doctrine."

"People buy it," he reckoned.

MTV's surveys, Lipsky said, show that younger voters want to push past the questions of trust because they think no candidate and no party has a greater claim to virtue than another. What they want to know is who will make more money available for student loans, who might help them escape the mountain of debt many will face upon graduation. They are aware, moreover, that they will be asked to handle the debts of Medicare and Social Security as well, she said.

Missed opportunity

Given the galvanizing possibilities, the major-party candidates missed an opportunity to stimulate more active participation by young people: Dole because he seemed culturally out of touch and Clinton, perhaps, because he wanted to seem more presidential than when he wore star-shaped shades four years ago and played the saxophone on the "Arsenio Hall Show."

So, if trust is the issue, it should be redefined, this class seemed to suggest: Can you trust someone who knows as much as Clinton does, who has mastered his lines so well they don't seem like lines?

The charges against Clinton don't work for Sherrer.

"There is something redeeming about him," she said. "In the debate, he was very smooth in answering questions, but I don't think that makes him slick necessarily. I think it makes him skilled."

Dissonance

Still, Lauren Pilzer of Bowie found a dissonance between the party she favors and its candidate.

"I agree a lot more with the Democratic agenda, but there is something about Bill Clinton that I cannot trust. That slickness, that actor-like quality. It bothers me enough to not vote for him, but I'm still undecided."

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