Generation Y Voters Focus on Policy, not Party

Matthew McDermott, Columnist

Today’s youth, more than any generation prior, are disaffiliated with either party in our current two-party political system. A rather cliché and uneventful statement—I know—but one that has real impact on the future of our current political system. While working in the 2008 campaign, I was fascinated by voter enthusiasm and the large turnout, particularly amongst the 18-29 year old generation. Had the Democratic Party changed politics forever in this country? To realists: no, not really. But for the first time in decades, youth turnout exceeded turnout for those 65 and older (18 percent to 16 percent), and voted 66 percent for President Barack Obama. Most astounding though, and a trend that has only grown in the last two years, is that younger voters are not showing up at the polls to vote for the Democratic Party. They were showing up to vote for the man. For the first time, a subset of voters is putting policy before party—an incredible feat in today’s political system.

It has been conventional wisdom throughout the generations that America’s young people perform the role of an anti-establishment, oppositional force in our political system. Youth are easily associated with spurts of grassroots activism, often using extreme and sometimes futile measures to promote causes overlooked by the majority in power.

In my many political musings I’ve often wondered about the effect of most grassroots-style campaigns that initiate change from outside of the political system. Rather, would it be more effective to have an advocate within the political system that fights for the causes of the grassroots? To further their cause successfully, should America’s young people voice their dissent within the political system instead of protesting on the fringe?

One young person that shares this mindset is Edwin Pacheco, the 28 year-old newly-inducted Chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic Party.

As a brief background (since to my dismay, many of you don’t follow the political happenings of this darling state), Ed was first elected to public office while still a teenager. In 2001, he was elected to the Burriville School Committee.  There he provided what I’ve long felt was missing on school committee’s across the country: a strong voice to represent those that are most affected by the Committee’s actions, students. He quickly rose to become Chair of the committee, and a year later successfully won a seat in the Rhode Island House of Representatives—becoming one of the youngest legislators in the history of the state. As a State Representative, Pacheco has been a strong advocate for youth issues and their ability to participate in the political process. He introduced (and successfully overrode the Governor’s veto to pass into law) voter pre-registration legislation allowing 16 and 17 year-old high school students pre-register to vote before they turn 18. Legislation was also enacted that gave high school students the ability to work as poll workers on Election Day.

And just this past year, fortifying his role in the Democratic Party, Ed became the Chairman of the state party, providing a fresh image to what had become an ancient political machine.

On merit, his rise through the political ranks is stunning in its own accord, but his legislative success and forwarding thinking for the Democratic Party has been just as stunning, if not more so. As Chairman, Pacheco is taking politics local, visiting each city and town Democratic committee with his pledge to increase use of social media and engage activists in the political process. This sentiment is especially important for youth who have begun to define themselves by policy and less by party affiliation: Rick McAuliffe, a lobbyist, Democratic fundraiser, and Pacheco supporter, says constant contact with the grassroots is particularly important in an era of declining support for party loyalty. Party leaders, he says, can no longer count on reflexive support:

“The days of, ‘I’m a Democrat and that’s good enough,’ are gone.”

I touched on this sentiment in some of my first pieces for Early Risers: while party affiliation among youth voters still skews towards the Democratic Party, they have stronger ties to certain liberal, social and fiscal policies. It is the very reason we are seeing an emergence of more youth identifying as “progressives,” “libertarians,” etc. than as Democrats or Republicans.

The irony in this situation is that disaffiliation, and the efforts of Chairman Pacheco to reengage youth in the political party system, is the biggest threat to Democratic chances in Rhode Island’s gubernatorial race this November. After having a Republican Governor for most of the last 25 years, GOP support in the state (with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country) has tanked and Republicans have no chance in winning this November.  But the Democratic nominee, General Treasurer Frank Caprio, faces a bitter battle from former-Republican Senator, now Independent, Lincoln Chafee. The battle rests not for political moderates in the state but rather for the left-wing of the Democratic Party, which along with union support is defecting to Chafee.  In fact in the latest Rasmussen poll, Caprio is only besting Chafee 49-34 percent among the Democratic base. A majority of the Chafee vote stems from youth voters and liberal voters tired of supporting party candidates that don’t embrace progressive values.

There are real parallels between the candidacies of Lincoln Chafee, Charlie Christ, Michael Bloomberg, and Barack Obama.  These candidates, regardless of their respective electoral outcome, have been able to make their political races less about party and more about standing up for policies.

It remains to be seen as to whether Pacheco in his new role as Chairman can transition the political machine from party partisanship to advocacy for true democratic social and fiscal values.  Mr. Pacheco must realize, as should all party leaders across the country, that Generation Y is not beholden to any established political party and will remain an unreliable voting block until they see issues stand before any (D) or (R) come election time.

As an aside, this will be my last post from within our lovely borders. This weekend I’m hopping the Atlantic to begin my time at the London School of Economics. It certainly will  be amusing to watch the outcome.

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