No party for the young

February 08, 2004|By Peter Savodnik

CHARLESTON, S.C. - Democrats like to fashion themselves as latter-day Robert F. Kennedys eradicating poverty and disease, stomping out inequality, getting really "passionate" about single mothers, death row inmates and Arctic wildlife preserves.

But the reality is that the party - or, at least, most of the Democrats running for the White House - has shed much of its Kennedyesque idealism. Instead, it's anchored itself to a cartoonish notion of the mid-20th century nanny state sure to alienate millions of young voters.

According to this vision, the government is paternalistic and just, ensuring that those who work get decent health care, reasonable wages and dependable pension plans. It's a 70-year-old idea that emerged from the Great Depression, when centralized authority seemed a better bet than the uncertainty of the marketplace. And it has little, if anything, to do with anyone who was born after World War II, to say nothing of Vietnam or the Reagan revolution.

All this may not appear to be the case for now. For now, the Democrats are excited about nominating someone to slay the behemoth President Bush. For now, they're savoring the fire and the bloodlust of it all. But next year or next decade - despite the talk about hordes of "Deaniacs" changing American politics - there will be fewer first-time Democrats to stuff envelopes and get out the vote.

Why? Because social compacts are driving this Democratic Party. The middle class, the working class, the proletariat, the people who once manned assembly lines and now sit in fluorescent-lit cubicles all day - they're the target audience.

Romantic visions about reimagining American politics and shifting paradigms are the stuff of Rep. Dennis Kucinich and other easy riders who probably still think you can't trust anyone over 30. These people are less interested in preserving compacts than constructing new ones.

But reimagining American politics, creating something original, staking out some turf that imbues you with meaning, identity, endurance - that's exactly what young people want. That's what old people don't have the luxury to worry about, and that's what young people crave before they grow old and have to worry about saving the status quo.

That was what drew them to Bobby Kennedy, and that was what drew them to former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. But Dr. Dean is losing. He's losing because, in the end, Democrats - voters, activists, party officials - are less taken with big ideas that sound one part reality and two parts fantasy and are more moved by concrete proposals to protect, say, the textile industry.

Where does this leave twentysomethings?

Not with Republicans. Republicans will never win the hearts of the great mass of young voters because Republicans buy into America the beautiful. They believe in the system: the marketplace, the three branches of government, the whole democratic experiment. To their credit, conservatives have been more willing to talk about poverty in recent years than have liberals - Sen. John Edwards' claim to the contrary notwithstanding - but their unwavering faith in capitalism and the goodness of America makes them ultimately unsatisfying to many young people.

Young people, who tend to think celibacy is quaint and moral relativism is moral, think Republicans lie. They think all that propaganda about America is meant to blind us to poverty, school shootings, institutional racism.

Democrats don't buy it. They never have. They have always been about changing that which prevails - that which Republicans buy into. Which is why they're a good culture medium for young voters. As I trekked around South Carolina before its primary, I heard the same thing from the recent college graduates canvassing precincts for retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark or Mr. Edwards or Sen. John Kerry: This guy is real.

But just talking about perceived Republican gimmickry won't solidify a whole movement of young voters. It might energize them, but it won't create anything long-lasting.

If Democrats want to live up to the Kennedy ideal, they must speak to young voters' hopes and ambitions.

This may not be feasible.

It was the draft, and the prospect of serving in a morally ambiguous conflict 10,000 miles from home, that drew thousands of students into politics. No such cause exists today.

Today all we hear about from Democrats are the perils of whatever it is the Republicans are touting. No one is forging a new politics. No one is keeping an eye on all those recently inducted Democrats who are now at risk of retreating to their prior indifference, frustrated and despondent as the party fights for yesterday's program, tired and uninspiring.

Peter Savodnik covers congressional campaigns for The Hill newspaper in Washington.

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