"Politics Ain't Cool"
October 19, 2000


NEW YORK -- Why don't the youngest voters participate in the political process the way they used to? And what can politicians -- and the journalists who cover them -- do about it?

On Thursday morning, a panel of grownups moderated by CBS News Anchor Dan Rather considered these questions at a forum entitled "State of Their Union: Election 2000 and Today's Youth," held at the midtown-Manhattan headquarters of Viacom. [Viacom is the parent company of CBS and MTV.]

MTV Networks exec Betsy Frank summed up the participation problem this way: "Young people don't think politicians are listening to them, and politicians see the low turnouts in this group and don’t think young people care what they have to say. And the result is a widening communications gap."

On the panel with Rather and Frank were former Clinton White House spokesman Mike McCurry; Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's Daily Show; Tamala Edwards, a young Time magazine political reporter; MTV political reporter Erica Terry (at 26, the baby of the panel), Hotline founder and Freedom Channel CEO Doug Bailey; and Linda Ellerbee of Nick News, who presented survey results of the pre-vote, teenybopper set.

Frank announced the results of several surveys of 18-24 year olds and school-aged children conducted for MTV and Nickelodeon, the kids' cable station. Among the findings:

  • one quarter of 18-24 year olds polled in September could not name both presidential candidates;
  • only 30 percent could name both vice presidential nominees;
  • in July, only 33 percent of 18-24 year-olds said they would certainly vote, down from 57 percent in the same month of 1992.

Frank suggested politicians could get young people more involved by emphasizing local issues over national ones; through grassroots and on-campus efforts where youth coordinators organize their peers; and with positive, optimistic messages.

A lively dialogue broke out in the corporate conference room between those who would target or tailor the message to young voters (McCurry and Terry) and those who believe the responsibility for getting young people involved lies with the nose ring set themselves (Edwards and Stewart).

Terry was down on the pols for speaking about youth issues only when appearing before young audiences, and then using bigger platforms to talk about so-called real issues, the one seniors care about.

"I put a lot of the blame back on young people themselves," said Edwards, who thinks young adults and their concerns won't appear on the politicians' radar until they establish some history of voting.

Edwards said "shut out" groups like gays and lesbians and minorities "have shown that they use their vote, and you better pay attention to them, so parties tend to." Young people, says Edwards need to tell politicians, "I'm going to make you listen to me" by showing they can be a factor in an election.

Terry agreed that young adults are "ignored by the media and the politicians because we're not out there in any meaningful way."

Stewart, the host of Indecision 2000, a satirical look at the campaign, scoffed at the notion that it's up to politicians, parties and journalists to bring the young folks into the process.

"Can they get involved? Of course they can. I've seen kids wait for six hours in 20-degree weather so they can get a chance to come upstairs and tell Carson [Daly, MTV VJ], 'Kid Rock is awesome.'"

Stewart said both politicians and news organizations can pack young people in simply by leading.

"The way to get young people involved in something is to not care about what they want. Just make good things that you feel strongly about," Stewart said. "The way politicians can get people involved is to not focus [group] and poll -- but to lead and inspire like JFK."

Stewart says young people know when pols and programmers craft a message working backwards from market research.

"Ralph Nader could not be cornier," said Stewart. "What could be cornier than the guy who invented the safety belt? And yet kids flock to him, because he’s not about crap. They know when you’re backing into it."

Terry agreed that today's "media savvy" young adults "know when we’re being suckered and when we're being snowed."

In defense of twenty-somethings, Edwards reported that Al Gore's Nashville campaign headquarters are teeming with fresh-faced young political operatives, some in positions of real responsibility.

She also observed that politics just aren't "cool" in 2000. She recalled her own college campus as a "news-free zone" in 1992, but said Bill Clinton attracted Stanford students with his "youthful vigor" and "patina of coolness."

Without irony, McCurry suggested that some of young people's cynicism about politics comes from cultural representations of public officials and the presidency as either "buffoons" or agents of a "dastardly conspiracy." He did not make a connection between voter cynicism and the real-life lies and peccadilloes of his old boss, who after all, made it okay to say "oral sex" in primetime.


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