Saint Mary’s College politics panel: Millennials matter
By Lou Fancher
Millennials matter in this year’s election cycle, even if they choose not to vote.
That was the overarching message from a panel of experts at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga.
Facilitator and SMC professor or politics Stephen Woolpert set the tone for the audience of approximately 150 people at the Sept. 29 event; the majority were students at the college.
“Disenchantment with politics is noticeable,” he said. “We’re in danger of becoming political spectators.”
“Voting Rights and Wrongs,” the first of a two-part series examining the nation’s political discourse, featured Jason Brennan, associate professor of strategy, economics, ethics, and public policy at Georgetown University; David Campbell, professor of American democracy at the University of Notre Dame; Corey Fields, assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University; journalist Carla Marinucci, Politico’s California Playbook reporter; and Jen Tolentino, Rock the Vote’s director for civic technology and policy.
Woolpert said the panelists were selected to represent a breadth of interests, including American history, civic engagement, journalism, political science and social analysis.
Moderator Keli Dailey, who teaches a course in political satire at SMC, picked up Woolpert’s “people vote more/less” theme. Dailey said the United States as a nation of participating voters ranks 139th out of 172 countries, or, “approximately number 33 from the bottom.”
Marinucci described the 2016 election campaign season as “like a reality show we’ve never seen before” and said, “Millennial voting (turnout) is lowest of any generation.”
Campbell disagreed with the overarching characterization, suggesting that although the primaries produced two surprising candidates who poll negatively with the public, the end results are typical. “We still have two voting blocks representing close to all citizens,” he said.
In an attempt to explain voter malaise, Brennan suggested the biggest predictor of voting behavior isn’t a specific issue, candidate, or demographic, but interest. “People who don’t consume politics, they don’t vote,” he said.
After gender, race, education, religion, economic status and other factors are figured, Fields said that “being on the ground, having vans take folks to polling places, and knocking on doors” have the most impact on voter turnout. “These are the things that don’t end up on the news,” said Fields. “They aren’t a meme, but they’re influencers.”
The forces that compel young voters are clear, according to Tolentino. Millennials asked in surveys to name what they want for their lives say “stability.” Previous generations have answered “prosperity,” a more optimistic response.
“If you’re in your mid 20s, still live with your parents, have student debt and don’t have the job you were promised when you entered a four-year college and got your degree, the top issue is the economy.”
Tolentino said Bernie Sanders’ rallies were large and proved young people can be energized to get involved in politics.
Candidates whose positions are mercurial despite the bombardment of information directed at voters by social media, clouds the process, suggested the panel. Shaming instead of educating hesitant voters and a society that Campbell said is “not good democracy because it’s cleaved by race, religion, economic class and gender,” make voting well hard work.
Panelists differed on whether ill-informed people should be encouraged not to vote. Brennan said that democracy works when a large number of people with diverse points of view come together to make a collective decision, but said that for people who don’t educate themselves on candidates’ positions, perhaps staying home is more virtuous than voting.
Tolentino objected to “rhetoric that makes young people feel like they shouldn’t turnout.” She said voting is partly about “practicing and learning to do it correctly.”
Ultimately, Campbell said most voting is binary, a simple choice between A and B, which reduces the amount each person has to know.
Fields earned points — or at least the night’s biggest laugh — with his assessment of voter intelligence: “Voters might be as dumb as they’ve always been, but it seems like politicians have gotten dumber.”
The conversation concluded with a discussion of the many ways — other than voting — that people, especially millennials, are redefining political involvement as a multifaceted activity. Most members of the panel agreed that the Black Lives Matter movement, social media campaigns that have brought attention to legislation related to sexual assault, and calls for police policy reforms in light of the shooting of unarmed people of color are examples of civic activism that demonstrate young people respond to issues more than to registration or voting deadlines.
Brennan said he’s optimistic that people still believe in America because they’re investing in its economic markets. Fields suggested that because established authorities and party leadership have been challenged this year, politics might become more open, representing a victory, regardless of who wins on Nov. 8.