One of the most quoted, unquestioned maxims in life goes like this: If you’re not liberal when you’re young, you have no heart. If you’re not conservative when you’re older, you have no brain. What if this time, it’s different?
In 2008, Barack Obama brought three new things to American politics: himself; hope and change; and the youth vote. Four years later, the three are cohabiting uneasily.
The Wall Street Journal-NBC poll notes that enthusiasm for the election among voters aged 18 to 34 is sloping downward, from above 60% in 2008 when Mr. Obama was new to below 50% now that he is known.
Whatever change the youth vote had hoped for then, the most compelling delta in their world since is the rate of nonemployment for those aged 18 to 24, which has risen to nearly 16%. A study compiled recently by the Associated Press, based on academic surveys, said the combined rate of youth unemployment and underemployment was an astounding 50%.
Which brings us to a buzz thought more powerful than the alleged correlation between age and ideology. For better or worse, anything established in our time is vulnerable to being overturned by a technology or idea that is then called “disruptive.” Barack Obama is president today because he harnessed the power of disruption.
Starting in January 2007, when the senator began his 23-month trek to victory, a team of tech-savvy Obama campaign workers perfected the techniques of Internet fundraising and grass-roots organizing used on a smaller scale by Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. Email lists, distributed mostly via desktop PCs, let the first-term senator’s improbable campaign scavenge pots of cash via small, recurring electronic payments from college students and their professors. All these little stones gathered from the Internet are what let Mr. Obama’s David fell the Clinton machine, a Goliath that owned Democratic fundraising until then (and will again if Mr. Obama loses, despite the smiling support of his new best friend, Bill Clinton).
The 2.0 version of barackobama.com has been upgraded into a site called “Dashboard.” It’s described as “a customized platform with the best tools in online organizing.” Mr. Obama himself has cited the Internet’s natural fit for “grass roots organizing.” This notion of the Web as an engine of political organizing fits the Web’s earlier image as history’s greatest freebie. Push buttons and great things happen, at little or no cost.
That was true, but in four years it has become clear that what the Web and all the technologies in its orbit have become for most people is history’s most powerful engine of capitalism.
The reality is Apple. Apple is a capitalist cult. No doubt the iPhone, iPad (introduced in 2010) and MacBook Air are mystical devices, but obtaining them requires letting an Apple store employee swipe many hundreds of dollars from your credit card. Most of the magic apps designed for these platforms are ultimately about . . . buying more stuff: restaurant meals, clothes, clubs, travel, tickets, video-streaming subscriptions. It never stops. Not to mention the omnipresent mobile data plan.
It’s all a wonder, but it has imposed on college students and the youth vote a reality that was easier to deny in olden times: To “access” this wonderful world, you’ve gotta have a job. And a pretty good one.
Everything about this world is out of sync with the one conjured by Barack Obama as he campaigns. He wails daily about “tax cuts for the wealthiest.” The wealthiest? Is he referring to the young programming dudes and marketing dudesses working for Google, Zynga, Craigslist, Groupon, Facebook, Yelp and all that? These people are creating the greatest galaxy of capitalist choice that’s ever existed. And what decides if you’re living inside or outside the galaxy is cash flow, a job.
The Obama target audience this time includes a cohort of voters who were 14-year-old videogamers when he arrived; the rest of the youth vote is four years deeper into the unexpected discoveries of real life. What are they hearing from the president? Two things: his offer of student loans at below-market rates and, incredibly, the ObamaCare guarantee that lets them live at home on their parents’ health-insurance until age 26. It’s a great deal, if you want to live in Italy.
Inside one presidential term, Barack Obama’s old world of hope and change has been disrupted. Yes, there was a time one could pretend economic reality arrived in some imagined future, not unlike the Social Security or Medicare illusion. “Someone” will pay for it. “Someone” will hire me when I decide to work, after I’ve made the transition from liberal to whatever comes after that. That’s the way the youth vote thought in the Sixties. Hope and change was this generation’s Woodstock.
The youth vote this time comes down to one thing: Is this candidate going to plug me into the new American world, or not? The Obama presidency has knocked four years of earning power off a lot of people’s lives. Maybe someone should create a website for user reviews of the presidency.