Faculty Viewpoint

2008: A New Political Generation

By Herbert Gooch, Ph.D.

More than 3.5 million new voters registered in just the first three months of 2008, a record number whose growth shows no sign of diminishing as political campaigns run into summer and gear up for the fall presidential election.

The numbers are particularly impressive for the youth vote (18-25), a segment of potential voters that had been in steep decline for the 20 years prior to 2004.

Are the numbers likely to continue growing? Do they indicate a permanent change in the political involvement of youth? Are we witness to a generational shift in political commitments on the scale of the 1960s?

Answers can only be speculative at this time, but speculation can be informed by distinguishing shorter- and longer-term factors affecting this surge in younger voters.

Shorter-term factors have to do specifically with this 2008 presidential election, which has proven to be exceptionally open, long and unpredictable.

This is the first presidential election in memory starting without an incumbent or definitive front-runner in either party. Candidates and states vied with one another to gain early national attention. Candidates began officially declaring in fall 2007, and many states moved their primaries to the first months of the year while others clustered (on Super Tuesday) to have the first say in determining the election.

John McCain emerged as the Republican candidate after several months, but Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton remained neck and neck into the summer. The primary season lengthened to engage more voters more actively than ever before. More states than ever before became battlegrounds.

The outcomes were less predictable and perceived stakes much greater than in recent elections. The array of choices reinforced a sense of history in the making as voters could choose the first woman (Clinton), black (Obama) Mormon (Mitt Romney) or Hispanic (Bill Richardson) president in our history.

There are also longer-term factors at play: generational change and the impact of new technologies, which are linked in a way that helps explain the spike specifically in youth registration.

Voting is not quite the rational act we tell ourselves it ought to be. After all, what really is the payoff from casting one vote? A single vote out of millions scarcely affects an election outcome. The essential value of voting, I would argue, is not that you can determine a winner. Rather, it is what you say about yourself to yourself and others by making a public decision: I am responsible for myself and others; I choose to participate in the decisions which affect my life; I am not a subject, I am a citizen.

Whether you feel you ought to participate or not, it helps immensely to be asked. I don't know that the new generation is more civic minded and idealistic than ever before. What I do know is that it is being asked more than previous generations. The technology of Facebook, cell phones, and iPods has created entirely new ways of asking that have special appeal for a generation which has come of age with the Internet and laptop.

Do we have the makings of a generational shift in attitudes and political engagement comparable to the 1960s? In both periods, there was an unpopular war and surge of youth into politics. But the parallels are easily overdrawn. There is no draft today and the size of this new generation is nowhere that of the Baby Boomers in proportion to total American population. Rather than flush economic times, which permitted many to feel secure enough about the future to challenge the present, this generation faces quite sobering economic times. Absent is that volatile mix of hope, alienation and anger that characterized the generation of the '60s.

We can chart the rising magnitude of participation, though not the directions it may take. Youth is engaged and not likely to be taken for granted, and this is something we haven't seen in a generation.

Herb Gooch is Director of the Master of Public Policy and Administration Program and Professor of Political Science.

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