Something big happened a few nights ago in Iowa. Barack Obama began the evening as one of the top two contenders for the Democratic nomination and by the time people went to bed he was John F. Kennedy.
This might sound like hyperbole – and to be sure, the race is far from won – but if the results we saw in the Hawkeye State last Thursday are replicated in New Hampshire and beyond, then what we are seeing may be a defining shift in American politics and culture. The key factor is the emergence of the 75-100 million strong Millennial Generation as a political force. Let’s look at some of the evidence.
The Young Voter PAC’s roundup provides ample data for consideration.
The youth [ages 18-29] turnout rate tripled in Iowa.
The youth turnout rate rose to 13% in 2008 compared to 4% in 2004 and 3% in 2000.
Out of all of Barack Obamaâ€™s support in Iowa, 57% came from young voters (CNN, MSNBC, FOX).
60% of the caucus participants were first time caucus goers and of those 39% of them went for Obama.
22% of the Democratic caucus goers were young people, up from 17% in 2004.
A total of 65,230 young people were caucus-goers in 2008. 52,580 caucused with Democrats and only 12,650 turned out for Republicans. That means of the young people that turned out, 80% were for Democrats!
The totals for both parties are 239,000 Democrats (compared to 125,000 in 2004) and 115,000 Republicans. Emphasis added.)
For context, note first that “Democrats of all ages outnumbered Republicans 2 to 1 and young Democrats outnumbered young Republicans 4 to 1,” and this is in a state that George Bush carried in 2004. Then understand that Obama punked all comers in a state that’s around 95% white. Before all the colleges started up again.
Clearly Obama’s message of “change” is finding fertile ground. Ignore, for the moment, that his vision of change is perhaps stronger than his record of actually pursuing it. Never mind that he’s been roundly criticized for being weak on policy. Forget the criticism that he’s all charisma and no substance. Even if these things are true, they don’t matter. This is America, and it’s been a long time since we decided elections based on anything like an informed study of the real issues.
Also, let’s avoid the temptation to argue that Obama is no John F. Kennedy. The facts of his administration suggests that JFK wasn’t JFK, either. He escalated our involvement in Vietnam. He sold out the US-backed exiles sent to invade the Bay of Pigs. And during the Cuban Missile Crisis he probably came closer than any leader in our history to getting us into a nuclear war. We tend to remember Kennedy in the way we always seem to remember charismatic figures who die tragically – which is to say, we don’t always go directly to the nuts and bolts of the person’s career.
What Kennedy did accomplish was to give a booming generation of young people hope. John, and later his younger brother Bobby, established a vision of greatness through service that compelled the nation’s youth in a way that nothing quite had before or has since. Like Kennedy’s Baby Boom adherents, today’s Millennial voters (most of who are the children of Boomers) are part of a huge generation. Like the Boomers they’re hopeful. They’re convinced they can make a difference (a dramatic contrast to the Gen Xers in between the two, who learned way too many lessons about hope from what the Boomers became after Bobby’s death). And they may, like the Boomers, have found a symbol they can invest in.
The more we understand about the character of the Millennials, the more sense this all makes. For instance:
- Millennials believe they can change the world. They’re far more hopeful and confident than Xers, for example.
- Millennials, perhaps more than any other generational cycle, are feelers. They’re not instinctively critical thinkers and those responsible for their upbringing (parents and educational administrators, especially) have done all they can to make sure it stays that way.
- Millennials are strong followers. They think in the collective. Since they were raised in packs they’re accustomed to acting in groups. They’re also extremely conventional – the most conventional of Howe and Strauss’ four generational cycles – and as such react positively to sanctioned authority. With this in mind, read Jesse Wendel’s thoughtful examination of Obama and “declarative speech.” Of the major candidates, Obama is arguably the one who’s tapping the Millennial “follow reflex” in ways his competitors haven’t (or can’t).
- Millennials respond to those who cater to them. In fact, they demand it. Again, this is an artifact of their upbringing. It has its downside, obviously, but the relevant point here is that the Democratic campaigns have been reaching out to young voters on their terms in ways that the GOP hasn’t, and Obama has done an especially good job of speaking to this important segment.
- Millennials are the most diverse generation in history. According to demographer Neil Howe, who along with Bill Strauss has written the most comprehensive and important studies of the Millennials to date:
Over 40 percent are nonwhite or Latino; at least 20 percent have one immigrant parent. For earlier generations, ethnic diversity was mainly about African American and Latino populations. In this generation, the ethnic diversity includes a mixture of people from all over the world: Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa, and so on.
Does that general description remind you of any particular candidate?
- The Millennials are strongly pro-social, something that’s going to become more significant when the racist dirty tricks get started in earnest. When you look at what the Mills believe it becomes apparent that – as we saw in Iowa – they’re far more progressive. They don’t like discrimination against gays and they’re likely to recognize, at a profoundly emotional level, the ugly racism in “Barack HUSSEIN Obama.” “Electability” questions will bounce right off them. Most of these codespeak attacks are going to find that Mills are damned tough to crack because they have a faith in their own correctness that’s simply unshakable. Ask their teachers.
In a Pew study released in January called â€œA Portrait of Generation Nextâ€ 56 percent of 18-25 year olds say that they â€œfeel empowered to bring about social change,â€ an increase of eight percentage points over the Gen Xers who were asked the same question in 1990.
They’re willing to roll up their sleevs and get their hands dirty on behalf of causes they care about, too, with volunteerism levels estimated at over 50%.
In other words, Barack Obama is their hope for a better world personified. He looks like their reality, he sounds like their self-certainty, and his flaws are evident only to the thinker, making them invisible to the emotional doer.
The coming weeks may prove this entire thesis wrong, but for the moment there’s good reason for concern in the Clinton and Edwards camps. And even better reason for out-and-out terror on the GOP side of the campaign.
John F. Kennedy was terribly flawed, but his legacy of hope drives Baby Boomers to tears even today. Barack Obama is showing signs of being the same thing to the children of those Boomers, and if so Iowa may have been the first little quiver in a massive political earthquake building just beneath the surface.