If the Democrats don't get the youth vote, they're toast. That happened in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts, where young Obama voters stayed home in droves. It's an ugly conceivable future, portended by a new Harvard poll that shows 41 percent of young Republicans planning on voting in November, compared with 35 percent of young Democrats and 13 percent of independents. A recent Pew poll showed a similarly disturbing pattern: Young voters still prefer the Democrats, but their margin is slipping, and their enthusiasm level is worse.
Some reasons and some solutions:
Democrats need to tackle youth joblessness. They've passed important changes in student financial aid, like income-contingent loan repayment. Most students and recent students don't know about them, and they need to. But with youth unemployment at near-record levels, it's understandable that young men and women would feel angry and frustrated. If Democrats want to keep this generation, they need to pass a major jobs bills -- probably through reconciliation, since the Republicans seem only too eager to leave young voters demoralized and unemployed.
It would be nice if the Obama administration were leading on this more strongly, but apparently the push to make jobs the top priority will have to come from the grass roots. This happened in the 1930s under Roosevelt, and we need to make equivalent investments now, targeted at those who need jobs the most. It also wouldn't hurt to address the drastic lack of health insurance among all but the most affluent youth; to avoid a further Afghan quagmire; and to stand up more strongly toward those who have no interest in solutions on all the other issues that matter.
But we need more than specific programs and policies. We need to give people a renewed sense of why involvement matters. Absent a sense of how social change has occurred in the past and can again, it's tempting to give up when you've barely begun -- all the more so in an instant-attention and instant-gratification culture.
Given that few of us know the stories of how previous citizen activists persisted and prevailed, it's understandable that many who were acting so passionately just over a year ago feel adrift and unable to make an impact. It's particularly true of those for whom the Obama campaign was a first step in trying to create a more humane common future. Those of us who've been involved longer (including veteran youth activists) need to offer this perspective, to help those more recently involved avoid cynical resignation and withdrawal.
We need these lapsed activists, and particularly lapsed youth activists, because they're the ones who will reach out to their peers. During the 2008 election, you could go anywhere in battleground states and find efforts to engage young voters. In the Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts elections, the campaigns largely ignored them, and the parallel independent efforts that might have filled the gap didn't exist. Without being reached by these more personal approaches, young voters were left more isolated, more readily manipulated by 30-second ads, and more likely to simply stay home.
As I explore in my book "Soul of a Citizen," change works best when people approach those they already know, within familiar contexts. And when campaigns, movements and their supporters reach out in ways that offer a chance for genuine dialogue. Some of this can be through social media -- we need the texting, Facebooking, and other networking that helped the Obama campaign bloom. But these approaches work best when complemented by more visible public actions and more direct personal dialogue.
If we're going to enlist those who once acted and speak to their legitimate discontents, we'll need to re-create this one-on-one reach and begin to re-create it now, not just in the last two weeks of the campaigns.
As the recent surveys imply, the stakes in this are huge -- not just for now or November but for the ongoing allegiance and participation levels of a generation. Whether citizen activists can help the Obama administration and the Democrats re-engage those who carried them to victory in 2008 will shape U.S. politics not just in the coming year but for decades to come. The Obama administration can play a critical role in demanding action on issues that affect young voters' lives. Congress can use all available options, including reconciliation, to pass them. But it's up to the rest of us to offer the examples of connection, context and continued commitment.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of "Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times," "The Impossible Will Take a Little While" and "Generation at the Crossroads." See www.soulofacitizen.org.