Letting the Youth Be Our Guide

A lot has been made of the “youth appeal” of Barack Obama in this election. It’s true: he is strikingly popular among most young people, college students, yuppies, etc. It’s not a surprise; he’s a pretty cool guy. He speaks intelligently, eloquently, even poetically, with rapturous visions of a “change we can believe in.” He has that cool, “something different” appeal, with an attractive (if not totally believable) platform of anti-politics politics. He also has the coolest campaign posters ever (see above).

But since when is being loved by the vast majority of young people a good thing? Here are other things that the vast majority of young people currently love: Miley Cyrus, texting while driving, The Hills, binge drinking, MTV, frivolous spending, credit card debt, and instant gratification. Do we really want to put much stock into “what the kids are in to?”

Sadly, because our culture is so utterly youth-focused these days, it is the case that the youth vote (however ignorant, fickle, and unwise it may be) is highly respected. As such, many older people I know (most of them erstwhile Republicans) are going to vote for Obama, largely because their kids and/or grandkids are. This same story has been reported by many of my friends, who are finding it exceptionally easy to convince their parents to vote for Obama because, well, the kids are all doing it. In former eras the kids followed the lead of their parents in politics; It’s pretty much the opposite today.

It’s the same reason why we have an explosion of “cool moms” these days (see Amy Poehler in Mean Girls), overly-botoxed housewives, and cougars. I suspect it’s why middle-aged men love to wear those techy ear gadgets everywhere. Young people hold the cultural (and increasingly political) currency, and everyone else wants to buy in. Voting for Obama is the new plastic surgery or Porsche-buying. It’s a way for older people to feel relevant again.

I know it sounds weird for me (a twenty-something) to be bashing my own people (young people), but I would be the first to admit that I am not nearly as wise as my parents or grandparents. It is simply the fact of aging that one gains wisdom and knowledge of the world the older one gets. So why are we putting our trust in the under-40s? Shouldn’t we look to the older generations for guidance?

I know it’s a “new Internet age” and all that, and it’s true that holding on to the past too hard can be horribly ill-advised; but it is also ill-advised to look desperately into the future, holding only to some nebulous “hope” and “change” that recklessly shuns any recourse to experience, learned wisdom, and prudent practicality.

“A little child will lead them” is a nice idea, but I’m not sure it the best course for deciding who will lead the free world.

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12 responses to “Letting the Youth Be Our Guide

  1. This seems a strikingly reductive look at Obama’s appeal. I’m not sure I know anyone who supports him because he’s cool— I’m positive I don’t know anyone who supports him because other people think he’s cool. Most of the people I know who support Obama do so because of his intelligent, nuanced policy positions and his anti-partisan approach to politics, which is something our country desperately needs.

  2. Brett…may I quote you on my blog?! Or do you prefer linkage…if that’s the correct term for it.

    I respectfully disagree with Tim; what you’re saying makes complete sense. In fact, my uncle and I have vehemently disagreed over religion and politics over the years; suddenly this summer I discovered we were united in our distrust of the “Obama movement” (with only a little discussion of Obama himself).

    There are a lot of people with wool pulled over their eyes, but since they’re pulling it themselves…it seems a lot more comfortable. And kinda chic like designer sunglasses. And multi-culti, too.

  3. Betsi—

    What did I say that you disagree with? I was talking about why people I know support Obama, and the reasons are political and thought-through. This seems to be a direct refutation of the ‘he’s just popular because he’s popular’ musings both you and Brett have put forth, and I’m not sure how you can tell me that my friends really only support Obama because he has good branding, since you don’t know my friends.

  4. Brett, as someone who spends the majority of their time in the Houses of the Youth (i.e., University lecture halls, coffee shops, movie theaters, and sporting events, etc.) I agree with you. As you have referenced in previous posts one of the driving influences of today’s culture, particular the Sub-culture of Youth, is the desire to stand out, to be different, to mean something.

    Obviously, this is a God given desire, clearly a key part of the human spirit. But it is also what drives young people to seek so desperately to achieve “cool” status: and if we can’t stand out by our own merit we stand out by the merits of others. Some of us are great athletes, some of us are great musicians, some of us are great students (unfortunately, i never managed to be any of these…). Most of us, though, are ordinary.

    Perhaps that is why hipsterism (As you refer to it) is so in vogue. It allows us to stand out, to be different from the culture at large, to be part of a niche – sometimes our own, oftentimes another’s.

    I think its so easy for young people to latch onto Obama and his mantra of Believable Hope because we innately see that here we can lead, here we can do something meaningful in some way. Then we saw that we WERE important. that they were going to Cater to us. And we began to flock.

    I do know people, both young and old, who will vote for him because it seems cool. That fact alone makes me wonder whether or not McCain isn’t a better choice. This whole will of the people thing is really throwing me for a loop.

  5. Brett, do you mean to say that Obama himself “recklessly shuns any recourse to experience, learned wisdom, and prudent practicality,” or that the millions of young voters supporting him shun those things? I assume you mean the latter. And if so, I would agree with Tim that the reason for Obama’s appeal among my friends is because of his “intelligent, nuanced policy positions and his anti-partisan approach to politics” much much more than vague concepts of “hope” and “change” (and since when are those bad concepts to be known for?) The fact that he’s cool is just the icing on the cake. Simply put, if McCain were saying the things Obama is saying (and in the way he is saying them), then my decision in November might prove more difficult.

  6. Setting aside the Obama part of this conversation (I know it is the main focus, but bear with me)… I work with 11-14 year olds on a daily basis. I listen, watch, and study youth culture very carefully. I also work alongside Xers and Boomers with much success. Generational changes and personalities are crucial to my work and fascinating to me in general.
    (Brett, have you read any Strauss and Howe?)
    I wonder if the older generations of Americans look to young people because they represent great promise. Maybe listening to young people has less to do with being cool like young people and more to do with the sociological pendulum swing.
    I wonder if the rise of technology and speed in which young people can navigate information gives them clout with their elders.
    Perhaps the “listening to younger generations” isn’t based on coolness/youthfulness but simply on the fact that adults are overwhelmed with the change in culture and amount of information and can’t process it all.

  7. But Greg and Tim,

    How many young people know what “intelligent, nuanced policy positions and his anti-partisan approach to politics” look like in the first place? The majority of young people are drawn to people because of their charisma and not because of their worldviews or political agendas. Majority, of course, is the key word. And if they are, most young voters latch onto one or two specific policies that are typically most relevant to their lives – and those issues are typically the hot button issues, and not the more nuanced issues.

    Experience and political insight often dance hand in hand.

    What all this means about Obama’s worthiness is n’t clear to me.

  8. The majority of young people are drawn to people because of their charisma and not because of their worldviews or political agendas.

    This statement is equally true if you remove the word ‘young.’

    And if they are, most young voters latch onto one or two specific policies that are typically most relevant to their lives – and those issues are typically the hot button issues, and not the more nuanced issues.

    It’s funny that you say that, because it seems to me that quite a few older (often conservative) voters are specifically one- or two-issue voters (i.e., abortion, gay marriage).

    Experience and political insight often dance hand in hand.

    This is true, often, but ‘often’ is a bad guideline for specific instances. John Experience McCain has twice publicly stated foreign policy ideas involving Czechoslovakia, a country that hasn’t existed for fifteen years. I know several people in their fifties whose political insight doesn’t extend past talk radio blurbs, and I know several people in their twenties whose ‘hot button issues’ are sustainability, nonproliferation, the AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa, and the mortgage crisis.

    The argument seems to be that voters 18-35 (or however we’re defining ‘young’) aren’t sophisticated enough to intelligently decide their votes, which makes me wonder whether we shouldn’t be discussing their constitutional right to vote rather than their support for a particular candidate.

    As an addendum, because it drives me batty when people suggest that Obama’s candidacy is vague and lacking in political experience, I feel the need to provide some grounding, because in reality, such statements belie a severe lack of research or knowledge of the topic at hand.

  9. Tim–
    I may not know your friends, but I bet I know your friends’ friends. Too bad we don’t know each other.

    I believe in listening to younger people, and I *have* and *am* listening to them about what they think about Obama and the election in general. When I ask for substantive reasons they’re voting for Obama, sometimes I get a thoughtful discussion. But mostly not. I have to go with what I’m hearing and the evidence presented to me, not merely the discussion presented here.

  10. “I believe that children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.”

    If we can’t trust the word of Whitney Houston, then what can we trust? What I say?!

    Seriously, though… I find it interesting that the arguments I read are pro-Obama/anti-Obama and not pro-Obama/pro-McCain. For all this, “you young people are all hopped up on sugar and unexperienced charisma,” I hear very few specific examples or more mature positions held by other candidates.

  11. All this makes me giggle…. our founding fathers were terrified of the “youth vote”. Heck, they were terrified of the “popular vote”. Indeed, they didn’t much like the “minority vote” or the “female vote”.

    Much has changed. For the better? I don’t know. For the worse? It’s always easy to assume so. But let’s not for a minute. And let’s look at all this as Solomon would: there is nothing new under the sun/in American politics…..

    enjoyed the post, Brett. ;)

  12. Betsi–

    Your statement naturally leads me to wonder if you expect a better performance from McCain supporters, McGovern supporters, or Lincoln supporters. The vast majority of the voting populace makes their decision based solely on whether a candidate has a (R) or a (D); the fact that this is also true of many Obama supporters does not make a good argument for popularity based on trendiness, and certainly not to the degree that one should be wary of the candidate’s platform based on the above. It sounds to me like you’re exercising confirmation bias more than anything else.

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