Commentary by Cathy J. Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.
CHICAGO—When record numbers of young African Americans turned out to vote for Barack Obama nearly two years ago, political pundits predicted the start of an important and positive trend. Socially marginalized young blacks buoyed by the election of the nation’s first black president would supposedly begin to see themselves as newly politically empowered and engaged. They would become as invested in, and optimistic about, their future as their young white counterparts.
So how is it that heading toward midterm elections in November, large percentages of black people ages 16 to 25 continue to feel alienated from mainstream American society and contemplating not who to vote for but whether to bother voting at all?
Clearly, politicians weren’t paying attention to what these young people were saying even in the heady, hopeful days after the Obama election. The Democratic Party that benefited greatly from the votes of these young people was also asleep at the wheel; if not, party leaders would have understood that despite young voters’ genuine enthusiasm for Obama, they were not energized by the Democratic Party nor particularly moved by its agenda. It was Barack Obama and the historic nature of his election that energized young people.
Two years ago, in focus groups with young blacks in Chicago after the election, young blacks noted with pride that they had voted for the nation’s first black president, yet they were quick to also point out that they had low expectations about the impact of Obama, or any politician, would have on their personal life circumstances. Even as they celebrated the election of Obama as a symbolic step forward for the country, few of the young people believed that Obama’s election would change the high levels of violence in their neighborhoods, improve the poor quality of their schools, stop their harassment by the police, or even just provide them with more jobs that would pay a decent wage to provide for them and their families.
Unfortunately, their perceptions proved too accurate. If these young people don’t come out to vote, the Democratic Party will have only itself to blame. Instead of harnessing the energy of young voters across the board, particularly black ones, and nurturing their political momentum, President Obama and his party ignored them once the election was over.
Now we are in a political environment where the Democrats seem to have decided that they will move away from traditional interest group politics and appeals. So instead of making direct appeals to young black voters about issues that matter specifically to them, in a form that resonates with them the party is making very general statements about jobs, and education, and even about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and asking young black people to find messages within those generalized statements to relate to and be motivated by.
Does that sound familiar? It’s the failed strategy of the Dukakis 1988 presidential campaign, when a winnable election turned into a debacle because little was done to energize the Democratic base.
Once again, that strategy is not going to materialize in substantial numbers of young black people voting, precisely because it ignores a very simplistic understanding of racial politics – people, especially young people, need a reason to vote beyond party identification.
It is the absence of direct appeals and engagement with young people, in particular young black people, which will lead to substantial numbers of them not going to the polls. This will undoubtedly hurt Democratic prospects, which are already in danger.
President Obama will also have to shoulder much of the blame. His decision that started in his campaign to, I dare say, run away from race, and only respond to the issue of race when it was in crisis mode has allowed conservatives and Tea Party leaders to define the narrative of racial politics, leaving young people feeling alienated by the rhetoric and discourse around race in this country.
If President Obama had initiated certain programs and policies and framed them in a way that truly spoke to young people, he would have almost certainly could expect more mileage in terms of turnout in 2010. Take education as an example. The president is very clearly committed to improving the public educational system where many black and Latino children are educated. However, his messaging has not spoken directly to that population. He hasn’t made direct appeals to black youth on BET or MTV. He hasn’t written op-ed pieces for the black blogosphere that says: ‘I’m committed to the future of young black people and here are my education initiatives.’ It’s a messaging problem and a surprising contradiction considering how much the president’s rhetorical style is celebrated.
In the midst of trying to be a President of the entire United States, he has missed the integral politics of connecting with specific communities, in this case young blacks. He has also missed an opportunity to mobilize them even when he has had policies that could have really motivated them.
The bottom line is that we’re going to see lower turnout among young people next month, and we’ll see even substantially lower turnout among young black people. And then the question will be what’s going to happen in 2012?
It’s likely too late for Democrats to turn things around in time for the midterm elections, but the larger question that looms is whether President Obama and his party have learned from their mistakes and can change course to keep Obama in the White House in 2012.