To my fellow millennials:
Yeah, I know, you’re scoffing at this salutation. I’m on the older side of our generation, which has been repeatedly redefined downward to represent an ever-younger, increasingly manbunned, microaggressed group of whippersnapchatters. “Millennial” used to refer to a specific cohort born between about 1980 and the mid-1990s; now it’s just a generic slur meaning “any annoying person younger than I am.”
Still, I beg you, lend a slightly older lady your valuable, monetized eyeballs.
For decades, get-out-the-vote efforts targeting people like you (us, rather) have harnessed the rhetoric of adolescent rebelliousness. It’s about rocking the boat (or “rocking the vote”), overthrowing the system, sticking it to the man, burning it all down. The youth vote mobilization machine has generally tried to resuscitate the political spirit of the ‘60s, when activism was viewed as a form of insubordination against parents and stodgy parent-like compatriots.
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Over the years, youth get-out-the-vote ads have come close to desecrating the American flag. They have included felony-decorated musicians, foul-mouthed actors and sexed-up socialites. They have served up a peculiar mix of cynicism and optimism, in which a better future can be achieved only by tearing down and replacing the useless, rigged, self-dealing systems and leaders of the present.
It’s all an attempt to rechannel the presumed anarchical, mutinous instincts of young people into a more socially productive “political revolution” — to use Bernie Sanders’ preferred term.
This core theme of youth mobilization campaigns has persisted, election after election, regardless of who’s running for office, and even as new and differently complected cohorts aged into and out of the “youth” demographic. The constant is understandable: Rebelliousness is the timeless idiom of youth.
Which is why this year, the messaging machine is struggling to motivate young voters. How can you inspire millennials to vote when our primary political vessel represents not volatility and upheaval, but boring stability? Not rocking the boat, but keeping it from crashing into an iceberg?
There is, of course, a burn-it-all-down candidate on the ballot next week, one who fits more easily into the usual youth GOTV rhetoric. But our generation, by and large, despises him.
Donald Trump has a 76 percent unfavorable rating among voters younger than 30, according to a recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll. According to other surveys, large majorities of us believe he embodies or appeals to bigotry, racism and bias against women. About 6 in 10 say his comments about women alone disqualify him from the presidency, according to Reuters/Ipsos.
On the other hand, the institutionalist candidate whose policy preferences are actually closer to our own, and who pledges to build on progress made by Barack Obama, has struggled to inspire us. That same Harvard youth poll also found that a slim majority — 51 percent — of young people view Hillary Clinton unfavorably. Millennial enthusiasm for her runs thin, particularly relative to liberal change-messengers such as Sanders and Obama.
“Steady as she goes” is hardly a compelling campaign slogan for any age group. But it is an especially poor fit for the insurrectionist, get-out-the-vote rhetoric usually used to woo young people to the polls.
Some young voters have expressed support for third-party candidates, though millennial support for Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein has eroded over the past month or so.
The greater danger right now is that millennials won’t vote at all. We will express our political frustrations with the system not by trying to upend it — as so many get-out-the-vote efforts of eras past urged us to do — but by abstaining altogether.
And our collective abstention is exactly what could stand between a stable, prosperous, peaceful world order and something else entirely. We millennials now match boomers as the largest share of the electorate; our votes can swing, and indeed have swung, elections, if only we show up.
I keep thinking of YouGov’s viral analysis on Brexit votes, showing that those who had to live longest with the decision — i.e., young people — were most likely to vote “Remain.” And yet youths also had the lowest voter turnout rates of any demographic. So “Remain” lost.
Take a lesson from our British cousins, my fellow American millennials. A vote for keeping it together may be less cathartic than a vote for burning it all down. But it’s better than not voting at all.
Catherine Rampell writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.