Apathetic or Craving Something More?

Allison Boldt, Contributor

sex appeal–noun

1. the ability to excite people sexually.

2. immediate appeal or obvious potential to interest or excite others, as by appearance, style, or charm:

a house with no sex appeal.

We’re all aware of the stereotype: Generation Y is apathetic in the face of the huge political, social and environmental issues of the day. Despite being impeccably plugged in, we Generation Y’ers are largely tuned out. True, there are the few and far between “on the ground,” working on GOTV efforts or interning as policy advocates, but as a whole, we are unengaged.

I do not think this stereotype accurately reflects reality. From my perspective, we’re not apathetic to political issues at all. We are detached from the traditional political system.

Fact: Obama could not have won the presidency without us, the network of texters. And fact: we are not uninformed. On social media sites we swap posts about the atrocities of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, if we don’t turn out in the same massive numbers to protest as our parents did in the Vietnam era. We debate healthcare amongst ourselves in a similar fashion, if few of us physically organize around the issue.

This suggests our organizing is taking on a less physical and more virtual character. In a time when we are connected to each other through the Internet, social media and Smartphones, we have all seen how effective organizing around technology can be—think donations texted to Haiti and internet petitions with thousands upon thousands of signatures. These novel forms of organizing reflect venues we have created to push our way into the traditional political system.

The problem is that this system is largely lackluster. And while we have found some new ways to participate, the more conventional political structures overwhelmingly do not appeal to us.

This tendency can be seen when examining the most important of these structures: the political party. Young people are less likely than their parents to identify as Democrat or Republican. Some sources estimate that 50 percent of voters under 30 identify as Independent. Even during the historic Obama-McCain election, when students were genuinely interested in the phenomenon that was Obama, the number of students that would consistently turn out for College Democrat meetings at my undergraduate university in Wisconsin was typically less than 30—this on a campus of close to 9,000 students.

What gives?

One reason behind this tendency may be that political parties lack an illusive sex appeal that our generation craves. Take a look at the Young Democrats of America website and try to argue that there is “immediate appeal or obvious potential to excite.”  Shockingly, Youngrepublicans.com is even less sexy.

My message to Democrats and Republicans is not, “be sexier,” at least not on the scale of the individual; my message is more like, “iPad.” While both parties are bending over backwards to cater to private corporations and their policy preferences, they have failed to incorporate an important lesson that private companies like Apple have to offer. Apple products are immediately intriguing, with their sleek designs and provocative but charming advertisements (the iPod dancers,  the Mac guy vs. the PC guy). Apple products have sex appeal.

The Obama presidential campaign recognized the value of sex appeal.  Like Apple, it spun its product in elegant packages like “Change” and “Yes We Can.”  Aside from having sex appeal, these messages also resonated with very real political desires of the Generation Y’ers. On top of this, the campaign used trendy, almost Andy Warhol-esque postcards, bumper stickers, buttons, etc. And in contrast to many clunky political websites, the Obama campaign built a sleek page and took advantage of existing social networks like Facebook and Twitter, each with its own built-in sex appeal and user base.  Through these tactics, supporting Obama became something desirable, almost like having the Mac over the nerdy PC.

That the Democratic and Republican parties have not caught on to the success of these tactics is surprising. Unless the parties are content with the number of young people already devout enough to identify as a Democrat or Republican, the parties should want to reach out to the masses of “apathetic” young people to ensure their party’s continued growth and success. To this end, it seems that incorporating some of Obama’s strategies would be a good place to start.

I have to wonder whether the parties are actually ready to embrace the demographic deemed “apathetic.” As the Democrats’ embracing of Black and Latino voters invariably pushed the party to the left, so too would the embracing of the Internet generation change the dynamic of both parties. For instance, with the Independent perspective, young people are less tied to platforms and more solution-oriented.

Perhaps for the time being it is easier to write us off as apathetic.


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