Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

08 February 2016

Building Democracy I: Helping Youth Vote

[For comment on the Dems’ impromptu pre-New Hampshire debate, click here].

The problems of youth in democracies
The promise
The information deficit


From birth, our schools and media teach us Yanks that democracy is the best form of government, and that ours is the best democracy. Never mind whether that is so; there are reasons to doubt both propositions, especially the second. Far more important is global history. A cursory glance at it reveals that democracy, at least so far, has been something of an anomaly in human history.

Until about a century before our Founding in 1776, democracy was the exception, not the rule. Democracy had appeared temporarily in some ancient Greek city states. Ancient Rome had been a constitutional democracy (albeit with a mostly unwritten constitution) for less than a century out of its near-millennial history. England and now Britain take the prize for the longest-lived democracy: 800 years (last year) since the Magna Carta. But apart from these few examples and post-seventeenth-century developments, our species’ government has been a dismal melange of empires, monarchies, tyrannies, totalitarian states, and oligarchies.

Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for the alternatives. Whether or not you credit his quip, you must acknowledge that democracy is a delicate flower, requiring constant care and nourishment. For proof today, just look at Russia’s recent history, beginning with glasnost’ and perestroika, modern Turkey under Erdogan, or the quick quenching of Egypt’s democratic flame in Al-Sisi’s military tyranny.

Any human institution succeeds best when its most successful exemplars thrive. But today our nation, once the “city on the hill,” has become an instructive exemplar of what not to do. We have minority rule—or at least minority vetoes—in both Houses of Congress. Vastly overused filibusters and Senate “holds” make functional government impossible and incite rabid ideological polarization. Gerrymandering and vote suppression insure 90% of House members re-election, except when challenged by more extreme members of their own party. And our political “discussion”? Well, just look at the GOP presidential debates.

In off-year elections, some 36% of eligible voters turn out, leaving a 19% minority of true believers to set the direction of government. So our Yankee democracy is among the sickest, if not the sickest, in the entire developed world.

Which came first, the chicken of general societal decline or the egg of citizen apathy and despair? Bernie Sanders believes that a sick democracy is the cause, not the effect. He seeks to prove his point by expanding the electorate and winning the presidency.

Under these circumstances, it’s useful to give some thought to how to nurture the delicate orchid that purports to be the flower of human civilization but now is visibly shedding petals. That’s the purpose this essay, the first in a new occasional series.

The problems of youth in democracies

Everyone knows that geezers vote more often and more reliably than youth. There are three main reasons. First, geezers have more time to get and stay informed, especially if retired. Second, geezers have been weaned and trained in voting as a sacred right and obligation, which millions have struggled, fought and often died to secure and preserve for them. Finally, in the Internet and Twitter age geezers have fewer distractions. The perspective of age helps them see how politics might be more important to their futures (and their kids’) than the latest shenanigans of spoiled and self-centered celebrities, or the latest app or video game.

But here’s the thing. Many seniors had a good education, often at public expense. For them, Social Security and Medicare, plus the relative security of jobs in big corporations during a much stabler economic era, gave them secure and comfortable lives and now give them secure and comfortable retirements. Unburdened by substantial college debt, today’s seniors, when young, could choose from a smorgasbord of attractive career options in honest, well-run companies, or in the public sector. When they emerged from higher education, the world was their oyster.

None of these things is true of today’s so-called Millennials, let alone true to the same degree. Not surprisingly, Millennials have lost faith in the basic institutions of our society, including our democratic institutions. So an astonishingly large proportion of them do not vote. Their self-disinfranchisement only increases their societal marginalization, in a vicious circle.

Two articles in a recent issue of The Economist highlight the phenomenon. In one, the newspaper’s editorial staff laments the strong economic headwinds buffeting today’s youth worldwide. The editorial’s title says it all: “Young, gifted and held back.”

Two key observations support the thesis:
“In most regions [the young] are twice as likely as their elders to be unemployed. The early years of any career are the worst time to be idle . . . . Those unemployed in their 20s typically still feel the ‘scarring’ effects of lower income, as well as unhappiness, in their 50s.”

* * *

“By one calcuation, the net flow of resources (public plus private) is now from young to old in at least five countries, including Germany and Hungary. This is unprecedented and unjust—the old are much richer.”
What lies behind the backward generational flow of wealth? In democracies, it may be simply that youth don’t vote. “In America just over a fifth of 18- to 34-year-olds turned out to vote in the latest general election; three fifths of over 65s did.” The second article, about Hispanic youth in particular, corroborated this hypothesis: “Though immigration was often in the headlines in 2012, less than half of the 23m Hispanics eligible to vote in that presidential election turned out.”

To summarize, the old are screwing the young, not deliberately, but out of idle, selfish preoccupation. They get away with it at least in part because youth don’t vote. Youth don’t exercise their most basic and important right as citizens of democracies. Any plan to nurture or restore democracy in America has to address this paradox.

The promise

Two things have promise to break the vicious circle of apathy and despair, which lead to disengagement, which produces more hardship and therefore more apathy and despair. One is the campaign of Bernie Sanders, who seeks to revolutionize and reform (not abandon!) our capitalist economy to make it work better and more fairly, especially to youth. The other is youthful protest and activism against injustice and oppression, as best exemplified today by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Both movements offer hope, encouragement, social interaction, and solidarity. Both have the potential to change the electorate and, in so doing, change politics and society. But the hope will vanish and the movements fade unless they can get out the vote.

The information deficit

There are many means of getting out the vote, including phone banks and social media. I’m no expert in them. This essay discusses a related and perhaps equally important problem: how do young voters figure out whom to vote for?

Take this year’s campaign, for example. The presidential free-for-all has been so vocal, so well-financed, and so bizarre that it sucks all the oxygen out of political debate, discussion and analysis.

But we all know that a political team, like a sports team, begins with “farm teams.” Today’s local judges, city council members, and state legislators will be future federal Senators, Congresspeople, governors and presidential candidates. How do youth, just setting out to become serious citizens, figure out which of them to vote for?

Paradoxically, this problem is most acute for young voters who are most serious and conscientious. They know that, when they get into the ballot box, they will be asked to choose among dozens of candidates for dozens of offices—and to vote on a number of complex ballot propositions. In states like California and Ohio, which inform voters with sample ballots and explanatory pamphlets than can run to 50 pages or more, youth suffer information overload. Voting begins to look like an extra homework assignment, for which they get no grade and no immediate reward.

I understand this problem because I’ve had four careers and have lived in four states and two foreign countries. Whenever I moved inside the US, I knew nothing about candidates for local offices and judgeships. Sometimes my own spirit of diligence and perfectionism tempted me to forego voting, rather than to make an ill-informed or hasty choice among candidates I hardly knew.

In the end, I resisted the temptation. I educated myself as best I could, looking to such reliable sources as the League of Women Voters, Emily’s List, and local newspapers. I sought out as nonpartisan sources as I could. Sometimes all I had was brief one- or two-paragraph statements that local election authorities encouraged each candidate to submit for publication. I made an effort, even if only on the day or night before the election, not to leave any office unvoted, and not to vote without some rational basis.

Youth voting for the first or second time need similar resources. They want to help make decisions, but they want to do a good job. They need information.

Conscious of the virulent propaganda that envelops us, from Fox to the ubiquitous partisan TV and Internet ads, smarter youth shun our media. What they want is sources that seem thoughtful, unbiased and reliable, whether or not partisan or single-issue oriented.

For an example, let’s return to the Black Lives Matter movement. Not only does it address a serious, longstanding problem that stains our history and society. Equally important, it has moved millions of smart, well-educated African-Americans to get involved in politics for the first time in their lives.

Already the movement has put honest and progressive African-Americans in local offices in various by-elections. But the general and presidential election coming up will be an opportunity that the movement should not miss.

There are millions of sympathetic whites like me who want to know for whom best to vote in local elections that rarely hit the headlines, let alone achieve national prominence. If we can make a difference with our votes—if we can increase the chance that routine killings of unarmed African-Americans will end in our lifetimes—we will do so.

But in order to do so, we need good information on local candidates. We need reliable, balanced information on the candidates’ records and positions on police brutality and over-militarization. So do many of the young people who march in the streets and then have to decide for whom best to vote.

It’s tedious to compile a factual record of candidates running for local office in the entire nation and put it up on the Internet, properly indexed and organized. It doesn’t take as much courage, and it’s certainly not as exciting, as marching in the streets. But it might, in the long run, produce far more dramatic results.

If the League of Women Voters and Emily’s List can do it, so can Black Lives Matter, just as does the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations. A particularly useful plan would be for different progressive organizations to cooperate in a single website, or to link their Websites to each other.


There are still lots of forces, mostly Republican, trying to make voting harder. But, in the long haul, voting has become steadily easier over my 70 years of life.

When I first voted, in 1968, you had to be 21 years old. You could only vote on election day, unless you filled out a long application for an absentee ballot. Today you need only be 18 years old; you can vote early in many states; and you can often apply for an absentee ballot online.

So voting no longer involves as much juggling of your schedule and advance preparation. What new voters need now is confidence that they can fulfill their duties of citizenship properly, in spite of the ever-lengthening ballots and ever-more-obscure “farm team” candidates and offices. They need well-organized Websites that provide vital information about candidates for local offices and judgeships, with reliable summaries of basic facts, records and positions that let them make up their own minds. And in this Internet and Twitter age, the information must be tightly organized and succinct.

The party or movement that provides these resources online—and that does so credibly and professionally, even if partisan or issue-oriented—will have an advantage at election time. It will help to heal and nurture our democracy. And it may even help restore to youth the privileges and nurturing that my generation used to think of as young Yanks’ birthrights, and which should be traits of any society that values its young.



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