Meet Massachusetts’ Generation Y Republican: State Representative Ryan Fattman

Malik Neal, Columnist

State Rep. Ryan Fattman with his girlfriend on Election Night Credit: John Thornton/ Milford Daily News.

It was late evening and months before Election Day in Massachusetts. Ryan Fattman, 26, had a special romantic dinner with “the most important person in his life,” his girlfriend of seven years. The setting encompassed all the ingredients of a conventional marriage proposal scene in a Hollywood blockbuster—fancy restaurant and a candle-lit dinner. Only one thing was absent—an actual marriage proposal. In its place was a political proposal, perhaps not as life changing, but equally as important to Fattman’s future.

Ryan Fattman’s idea to run for State Representative was not a newfound revelation; it had been building up for some time. “My friends were leaving Massachusetts,” said Fattman, “they were leaving not because of the weather, as some suggested, but because of the climate—high taxes, no job incentives, and corruption.”

Elected as a Selectmen, a local political representative, in Sutton County at the age of 21, Fattman had prior political experience making political climate changes in government. During his term in office, he helped bring businesses to the town of 10,000 by encouraging tax incentives and promoted transparency by making sure all town meetings were taped and accessible to the public.

So, armed with the approval of his girlfriend and his experience in Sutton, Fattman set out for higher office; but obstacles nevertheless remained. His opponent, Representative Jennifer Callahan, was a formidable candidate with years of experience. She served on the Sutton Board of Selectmen, the Sutton School Board and in the State House since 2003. A May 2010 poll said if the election were held then Fattman would get 35 percent and Callahan would get 57 percent. All of this did not deter the young and ambitious Fattman. Equipped with steely confidence, combined with humble faith, he announced his candidacy on the steps the Sutton Town Hall on April Fools’ Day 2010. The date was chosen cleverly by Fattman to represent how the state and the people had been tricked by the politicians on Beacon Hill. He stated:

“Massachusetts stands at a defining moment in its history. And the question becomes how we change direction. I don’t believe this is a question about experience, education, gender, or age. The question is about the past versus the future; and the old way will no longer do. It’s time for a new generation of leadership.”

Massachusetts' newly elected State Representative for the 18th District

Fattman developed a new message that resonated with people. He focused on jobs, lowering taxes, illegal immigration, and per diem payments—the allowance some Representatives claim for driving to and from the State House. “People are hurting and we’re paying politicians to drive to work?” Fattman asked rhetorically. He went on: “They [State Representatives] always say there is no money, yet there is money for them to drive and eat during work.” The people of Sutton were quite receptive to this message; he was elected on November 2, 2010, defeating his opponent and becoming one of a rare breed, a Massachusetts Republican holding a state office.

In these difficult economic times, the voters obviously did not appreciate their elected officials spending taxpayers’ money (in addition to a generous salary) simply to eat and commute to their jobs at the State Capitol. His message was therefore obvious: stop wasting taxpayers’ money. It was simple, clear and convincing, and it got him elected.

“What’s lost in politics is what we brought back in this campaign—sincerity, being in touch with people, and a willingness to listen and to care,”

Fattman remarked.  He knocked on doors every single day, talking with people in the district about his plans and listening to their concerns. Each day he wrote thank you notes specific to each person thanking them for listening to him, and even if they were not home, he wrote to them as well.

Fattman likes to tell the story of knocking on one family’s door that was not home at the time he came.  Suddenly, the sprinkler went off at 1:00, causing him to be drenched. After the grueling experience, Fattman wrote a clever note to the family to the effect of: I now know better not to stop at your house at this time. I love your beautiful lawn, but I didn’t need watering. Please, though, consider voting for real change by electing me—wet or dry.

When asked if he had any advice for young people, Fattman answered, “For five to six years I’ve been told that something couldn’t be done. I want to make sure all youth know they can do anything they set their minds to.” This message has clearly taken hold in his district. A few days after being elected, he received an email from a 12 year-old girl about welfare reform in Massachusetts. “As I read the email, I thought it was written by a 20 year-old,” he noted. Fattman went to the girl’s house to meet her and talk about the issue. “When I knocked on the door, her mother laughed, saying “I knew you would respond but didn’t think you would stop by the house.” Fattman did and was impressed by the girl’s willingness to contact him and address the issue.

Fattman’s election demonstrates what youthful zest, diligence and proper presentation of an issue can accomplish. He found the weak spot in his opponent’s armor and pierced it with good effect. His careful and respectful presentation of his future plans to his girlfriend has borne fruit. He only needs to properly harvest it. As Fattman noted, “I’ve beat incumbents in the past and worked hard. I would not mind doing it again.”

If all goes as planned, he just might.

The Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act: A Look at recent Anti-Bully Measures around the Country

Stephanie Rushford, Associate Editor

Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide in September

Two New Jersey lawmakers Senator Frank Lautenberg and Representative Rush Holt are proposing new legislature that would require federally funded universities and colleges to implement an anti-bully program in their respective schools. The Tyler Clementi High Education Anti-Harassment Act was named after the Rutgers freshman student who committed suicide in September after an online video was posted of him sharing an intimate encounter with another man. This proposed legislature would require colleges to adopt policies that prohibit the harassment of students on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender, race and other factors. In addition, the government would provide funding to these schools to establish anti-bullying programs or expand the ones that are in place. Furthermore, institutions would need to distribute these policies to students, and notify bullied students of counseling services. Senator Frank Lautenberg stressed the importance of anti-bullying legislature:

“The tragic impact of bullying on college campuses has damaged too many young adults, and it is time for our colleges to put policies on the books that would protect students from harassment. While there is no way to eliminate the cruelty that some students choose to inflict on their peers, there should be a clear code of conduct that prohibits harassment. It is vitally important that all students have the opportunity to learn in a safe and secure environment.”

While the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act would federally require universities and colleges nationwide to adopt anti-harassment policies, many states have recently passed similar laws. Over the summer, Governor Paterson of New York signed the Dignity for All Students Act into law. The law requires New York Schools to revise their code of conduct and establish anti-bully policies—which would include bullying related to sexual orientation—and organize school training programs on anti-bullying policies for school employees. Lastly, under the new law, schools would report any instances of bullying to the state education department. At the press conference, Governor Paterson explained the government’s role in preventing bullying at schools:

“Every student has the right to a safe and civil educational environment, but far too often young people are ruthlessly targeted by bullies. Bullying and harassment have disrupted the education of too many young people, and we in government have a responsibility to do our part to create learning environments that help our children prosper.”

Surprisingly, New York’s new anti-bullying law does not mention how schools should deal with cyber-bullying.  The Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act includes language to cover harassment via the web, like in the case of Facebook, and electronic messaging, like in the form of a menacing email or text. This past August, the state of Missouri added language to its existing anti-bullying statue to included cyber bullying. Missouri is only one of 11 states that has anti-cyber-bullying laws in place, notably Arkansas’ anti-cyber-bullying legislature allows for school officials to intervene even if the cyber-bullying did not occur on school grounds.  In New Hampshire, their anti-bullying law covers cyber bullying and harassment related to sexual orientation or gender identity. Overall, although directed at primary and secondary schools, 45 states in the nation have some sort of anti-bullying law on the books. Recently, Senator Bob Casey introduced the Safe Schools Improvement Act, much like the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti- Harassment Act, a law tha would require federally funded primary and secondary schools to “adopt codes of conduct specifically prohibiting bullying and harassment, including conduct based on a student’s actual or perceived race, color, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or religion.” Furthermore, this piece of legislature would compel states to compile data on the incidences of bullying their schools and report them to the Department of Education. Currently, this bill is in the Senate Committee, and most likely not reaches the floor of Congress before the Holiday Recess.

 

 

Mozambican Youth: Apathetic or Aware?

Nyeleti Honwana, Columnist

While in the developed world the internet has become the main vehicle of social networking, in developing countries, texting is the thing. In Mozambique for example, having Facebook or Twitter is not nearly as useful as having free SMS (texts).

With Mozambique as, arguably, one of the most stable African countries today, one might ask, why wouldn’t the youth be apathetic, I mean why even ask the question? Well it comes down to history. Mozambique, independent for 35 years, has seen three generations of young people during its independence, each making a substantial contribution to its history. The first, Generation of the Liberation Struggle (1963), fought for the freedom of the then colony. The second, Generation of the 8th of March (1977) were communist comrades, anti-tribalism and fought for the continued unity of the country during the civil war. The third (and current) has been dubbed the Generation of Turn Over/ Change by the President. They are supposed to bring the new wave of development in the country–getting involved in politics and social issues and promoting health (HIV/ AIDS is a major problem in Mozambique).

But this generation has been the most socially and politically uninvolved generation in the history of the country. The name Generation of Change is more a running joke than anything else because it is largely believed that Mozambican youth are politically disengaged and apathetic. However, on Wednesday, September 1st of this year, Mozambican youth in the capital city of Maputo showed, in big numbers, their profound disappointment with the economic policies of the government organized through the extensive use of texting.

Youth Rioting

PROTEST

Mozambicans have seen the rise in prices of basic services and commodities in the past months, as the value of the national currency dropped tremendously. On August 27th, the national public news channel announced that on September 6th the price of bread would rise by one metical, the equivalent of 0.03 dollars. With 70 percent of the population living below the poverty line, this increase seemed to many the final straw.

In the days leading up to September 1st, a number of texts were sent out anonymously telling people to protest against the high cost of living (including rising bread, fuel and milk prices) and as a demonstration against the President, who is largely perceived as having  done shockingly little to improve the standard of living of poor people. The texts varied from rallying cries, spoofs of the national anthem and radical denunciation of the President himself.

On Wednesday morning, Maputo was a ghost town. Shops remained closed, gas stations were abandoned and the infamous “chapas” (mini-buses that serve as the city’s number one form of public transportation) were nowhere to be seen. It was evident that the protest had begun. At 9:00 AM reports started coming out describing hundreds of people, led largely by young men, marching on the outskirts of the city, making their way to the city center. What they found waiting for them were police forces armed and ready to open fire. From 10:00 in the morning to passed midday, distant gunfire could be heard throughout the city. The protest lasted three days, and each day brought with it a new wave of texts rallying supporters and urging them to continue the struggle. When the dust cleared, thirteen people had been killed, 300 injured and 224 arrested, according to the Health Minister.

The protest was reminiscent of 2008, when rioters and armed forces clashed on the streets of Maputo, resulting in four deaths and over 100 people injured. After these riots, the government abandoned its plans to raise fuel prices. This time around, the government   insisted that the price hikes were irreversible. However, just a week after the protest, they went back and reversed the decision. In other words, the youth protests once again forced the government to reverse an important policy decision.

REPURCUSSIONS

In view, the riots showed two key things: first, that the President, Armando Guebuza, who won a land slide victory in 2009 with 79 percent of the vote, is not as popular as he believed; and second, and most importantly, that the youth have the power to effect change, be it in a positive or negative way.

After the riots, it became evident that purely through  text messaging Mozambique’s capital had been held at a standstill for the better part of three days. Because of the looting and vandalism of shops and cars, the government was quick to pin the riots on troublemakers and marginalized youth. As a consequence, days after the riots, all text messages sent to and/or from  pre-paid SIM cards were banned. On September 15th the government issued a decree announcing that all users of pre- paid mobile phones must register their sim cards, “in order to prevent criminal abuse of mobile communications.”

Today, mCel and Vodacom, the only two mobile network providers have little over a month to register all their pre paid customers. With 2.8 million pre paid customers alone, Vodacom’s Managing Director has dubbed this task “mission impossible.” The government may be doing what it thinks is the best way to deal with the discontent in the country, but registering their SIM cards is not going to stop young people from texting! So I put this to you: Is Mozambique’s youth apathetic or aware?


Reactive Failures

James Sasso, Associate Editor

In a recent New York Times article  (published in the weekly New York Times magazine on November 12th), conservative David Frum expounds on the challenges facing Republicans in their new challenge of leading the country forward out of its currently troubled state. The main roadblock to their success: themselves. “Too often, conservatives dupe themselves,” he says in reference to how many have dealt with questioning about the source of America’s current economic crisis. While Frum’s article is specific in his criticism of Republican’s closed-minded, impulsive response to the Democratic legislation, his deeper warning about emotionally charged, “closed-system” politics should be learned by politicians across the country.

Ha! How could you ever be right?

In the Midterm elections Democrats were trounced largely due to a combination of a horrendous economic situation and the Republican propaganda-like campaign where they attacked Democrats (mostly President Obama) for failed policies that they claimed only would worsen the current economic climate. The problem, whether or not the Democrats’ efforts to stave off an economic depression worked, however, is that Republicans were in the same situation two years ago when Obama and the Democrats swept into office riding a wave of anti-Republican sentiment about the dismal economy. When asked about the cause of the collapse, one which economists largely agree lies in the hands of a combination of Bush decisions, such as the wars and tax cuts, Republicans tend to retreat from the answer instead of accepting responsibility and offering alternative solutions because:

It’s an uncomfortable memory, and until now Republicans have coped with it by changing the subject and hurling accusations. Those are not good enough responses from a party again entrusted with legislative power. If Republicans are to act effectively and responsibly, we need to learn more positive and productive lessons from the crisis.

Frum uses the rest of the article to provide four economic “lessons” that he believes, and rightfully so, Republicans in office should learn. These lessons, while economic at face value, express two more psychological messages that could very well allow Washington to function: patience and open-mindedness. Patience means, in this sense, the ability not to use office as a reactionary post, but rather a place where one takes an issue and considers it intelligently before coming to a conclusion. Open-mindedness means exactly as it sounds; that Republicans (and I believe all politicians) need to pay heed to the legislative ideas of the opposing party.

While Frum never explicitly mentions reactionary politics in his op-ed piece, one can assume the warning in his discussion of economic policies. For example Frum mentions TARP and its public perception. TARP was a Republican policy under George Bush, but under President Obama the “bank bailouts” have become a rallying cry for conservatives. As such,

Republican officeholders who want to explain why they acted to prevent the collapse of the U.S. banking system can get no hearing from voters seized with certainty that a bank collapse would have done no harm to ordinary people.

Republicans, however, who denounce TARP and any other sort of “government meddling” found themselves in a very electable scenario during this mid-term. This is what Frum would call “reactionary” politics because instead of focusing on the intelligence behind a piece of legislation, or the long-term effects of such legislation, the elected officials only care about the immediate emotions of the electorate. This kind of governance leads not to effective policy solutions (generally, there are exceptions) but instead to emotionally driven, short term remedies, which only serve to pacify the populace in the short term but to fail to cure the problem in the long run. It would be almost as if one took Robitussin to  try and cure pneumonia; sure the cough will be gone, but the disease will continue to eat away at the body.

Because we know that Obama is the Joker....

Politicians should instead (and this was their original purpose) look beyond the “fads” of majority thought and use educated responses to serve long term problems. In other words, the new Republican officials who rose to power on the wave of anti-democratic sentiment will find a similar fate awaiting them in 2012 if they do not take REAL steps to fix the economy instead of only short term measures to patch the cuts. Their reactionary calls to repeal Healthcare and permanently extend the Bust Tax Cuts while somehow continuing to pay for rising Medicare costs make ZERO sense. These cannot happen in tandem in America’s current economic state. Republicans cannot satisfy themselves by mollifying the public by acting on their waves of anti-government sentiment. They need to sit down, think and decide in which way they can best stimulate the economy, regardless of how it will make the citizenry feel. This is the role of a true politician. One would be brave enough to earn a spot in JFK’s Profiles of Courage by standing up to the electorate and making policy decisions based on what he saw as best for the country as a whole. These decisions do not arise out of emotional responses but intelligent thought processes. Be patient, Republicans. The country needs it.

In tandem with patience comes open-mindedness. Frum, when discussing Republicans’ refusal to admit blame for the economic crisis, states that Republicans, “wrap themselves in closed information systems based upon pretend information.” That is, the Republicans refused to acknowledge that their system of thought, their  political-economic belief structure could be wrong. In some way they were right because it was not their policy decisions that had caused the economic downturn but some outside forces.

This kind of thinking is extraordinarily dangerous for a politician (and not limited to Republicans). A politician needs to understand that he does not hold all of the answers, that he cannot solve the nation’s problems on his own. If he does not hold all of the answers this necessarily means that he is not always right and therefore has the ability to listen to others and LEARN. A politician, who is meant to look out for the well-being of his constituency, should look towards others for the solution to an issue if he does not have it and since it is nearly impossible for one person to have THE SOLUTION to a certain issue, politicians should constantly look towards others when making policy decisions.

This would represent open-mindedness. Frum means that politicians should not ignore the beliefs of the other party simply because they are of the other party. Democrats and Republicans can learn from each other. Both have valid ideas. If Republicans, however, waltz into Washington with an air of arrogance, with an air of superiority (as some might say the Democrats did in 2008) they will find a hostile world where it is nearly impossible to make functional policy decisions. Government should not be partisan; it should not be a debate between diametrically opposed ideas. Instead it should be a discussion where each participant brings different thoughts, but where each thought is welcomed and conversed. This allows the sides to both display the intelligent aspects of their beliefs and to combine them into a more coherent and useful policy. One cannot achieve comprehensive policies with a closed mind.

And unfortunately it is precisely the closed-minded, reactionary politics of the Midterm Election that drove Generation Y away from the polls. In the two years following 2008, Generation Y watched perhaps the worst two years of partisan fighting, useless bickering and closed-minded politics in the history of America. Politicians did not try to govern but instead to embarrass the other side and please the emotionally charged populace. There was no discussion in politics, only finger pointing which never leads to any real progress. Generation Y is a progress oriented generation. Why should they bother to vote for a government that makes no progress?

The New Haven Promise

Stephanie Rushford, Associate Editor

While most states and local governments are slashing spending for education and K-12 programs, in New Haven Connecticut, city officials promising students a full ride to college. Last week, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. introduced The New Haven Promise, which would give New Haven students a full-tuition college scholarship, provided they are residents of New Haven and hold a 3.0 GPA in high school. Once the students graduate, they must maintain a 2.5 GPA average each year in college to receive funding.  This program will award New Haven residents on a sliding scale, with kindergarteners getting 100 percent of their college scholarship, first graders 95 percent of the award and so on, this was done to prevent parents moving into the district in their child’s last year of schooling and claiming the full award.  The New Haven Promise is primarily funded by Yale University, with Yale University President Rick Levin stating at the press conference:

“This is a great day for New Haven, which means it is a great day for Yale.”

 

The New Haven Promise was based heavily on the Kalamazoo program based in Michigan; however the New Haven Promise has additional guidelines on behavior and high school grades. With The New Haven Promise city officials are looking to improve their students’ college retention rate, which stands at 50 percent within two years of completing high school.

The New Haven Promise is not a first of its kind; many cities across the nation have implemented college promise programs, with mixed results and criticism. In addition, both the Kalamazoo Promise and the New Haven Promise programs do not cover the expenses for room and board, which only increases over time and places a financial burden on many economically challenged students. Furthermore, these programs cease involvement in the students’ lives once they are ready to graduate college, a crucial time for young people looking for full-time employment.

While the New Haven Promise, and programs like it, may be a starting point in trying to  combat the nation’s high drop out rates, these programs do not address the many problems within our education system. The great economic inequalities between our nation’s school districts is only a piece of the education puzzle, simply put, throwing money at students will not lead to deep changes within the our failing school systems.  Moreover, as noted by Arthur Levine, former president of the Teacher’s College of Columbia University,

“In previous research, interviewing poor, first-generation college students, I had discovered that, in every case, a mentor had steered the student from the neighborhood to college.”

In his essay, whether he knows it or not, Levine echoes the same sentiments from then first lady, now Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s book, “It takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us,”, which supports the notion that many outside factors contribute to the fate and successes of our children’s lives.

Similarly, our education system or  ‘village’ must work together to educate our children; from the parents playing an active role in the child’s school attendance and homework, to teachers adjusting and modifying their lessons plans to their students’ education levels, to the principals and superintendents hiring capable teachers and preventing any students from falling through the cracks.

One of Say Yes to Education's Summer Camps

In his piece, Levine references the Say Yes to Education program, which also promises full- tuition scholarships, however, they also provide additional resources for students and parents. In addition to providing students and parents with financial aid coaching classes, Say Yes to Education provides parents with legal clinics to address any issues—such as eviction, deportation, and child support—which would greatly disrupt a child’s academic career.

Nevertheless, with all of these incentives for students and parents, the Say Yes to Education program has had only moderate success with improving its graduation rates. On the other hand, this program, unlike others, provides support from homeroom to the family room; teachers and school officials are not done with their jobs when the school day is over. Furthermore, the Say Yes to Education program has reached out Syracuse’s faith leaders to become involved in publicizing this program, thus inviting the adults and neighbors of this village to enact positive change in the students’ lives. The Say Yes to Education program is also working with the school district to find a new Superintendent, which greatly impacts how the school districts are funded and the staffing of personal in the school districts.

The New Haven Promise program will not be the fast and easy solution for school officials in Connecticut. Moreover, simply throwing money at the problem will not be a ‘silver bullet’ to solve the education crisis in this country; school systems need restructuring and everyone in the village must work together to educate our students.



Memo to Outgoing 111th Congress: Pass the DREAM Act!

Stephanie Rushford, Associate Editor

The 111th Congress has entered its lame duck session, with the newly elected 112th Congress waiting in the wing to take office in January. Traditionally, Congresses in lame duck periods do not pass any new legislature, however, newly reelected Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised to reintroduce the Dream Act for a vote in the Senate. The Dream Act would grant citizenship to immigrants who complete college or at least two years of military service and maintain good moral character. In September, Congress voted down the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, which included the Dream Act and a provision to Repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the final version of the bill.

While it may be difficult for Democrats like Reid to receive any support for the Dream Act, this act may foster growth in the current lagging economy. Many Americans fear a comprehensive immigration policy that would grant citizenship to illegal immigrants, citing that these undocumented workers broke the law. Many also object to illegal immigrants taking jobs that were meant for Americans. However, the United States is part of a global economy, with small business and corporations looking for the brightest and best candidate for the position. Especially in this economic downturn, businesses are looking to minimize their risk by shoring up their debts and outsourcing their businesses to more cheaper and stable job markets aboard.

Unfortunately, a consequence of the recession has been the great competition for jobs in this country. Ironically, even with the high unemployment rate, many employers are struggling to fill open positions; New York Times writer Motoko Rich highlights the problem of one such company looking to hire:

All candidates at Ben Venue [Laboratories] must pass a basic skills test showing they can read and understand math at a ninth-grade level. A significant portion of recent applicants failed, and the company has been disappointed by the quality of graduates from local training programs. It is now struggling to fill 100 positions.

Yet businesses aren’t the only ones concerned about economic prospects in this country; parents are worried that their children will be shut out from high paying jobs due to their lack of skills. Furthermore, China has embraced internationalism by teaching English to their students and requiring that governmental employees must learn 100 English sentences by 2015. Moreover, many of the students looking to qualify for the Dream Act are bilingual; studies show that children raised with two are more languages enhances mental flexibility and cognitive skills. Additionally, the United States is behind many industrialized countries when it comes to math education:

Only 6.04 percent of the students in the United States in 8th grade in 2005 scored at the advanced level in math on the NAEP. Some critics feel that the standard set by the NAEP governing board is excessively stringent. However, the 2007 Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS 2007), another international test that has been administered to students throughout the world, appears to have set a standard very similar to NAEP 2005, as only 6 percent of U.S. 8th graders scored at the advanced level on that test as well.

Furthermore, these twelve industrialized countries have twice the percentage of advance students as the United States: Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Liechtenstein, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, Japan, Canada, Macao-China, Australia, Germany and Austria.

The United States economy will face many hurdles in the upcoming years, with businesses still hesitant to take on risk and hire new employees. These companies are still shell-shocked from the recession and will be watching the new Congress for business-friendly legislature.  Additionally, the global economy has and will continue to impact the American economygreatly; our nation must adapt to the growing international competition or we will lose our standing in the world. It is understandable that many Americans are scared, having lost their jobs since the recession began. Nonetheless, using illegal immigrants as scapegoats for our problems will not solves our economic and education crises. Sadly, this recession has taught Americans the painful lesson that jobs do not “belong” to one nation or nationality, they are offered to the most qualified person. Still, with passage the Dream Act, and a bit of hard work, America will achieve great success in this global economy.


Obama’s Problem: Where is Mr. Empathizer-in-Chief?

Malik Neal, Columnist

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Speaking from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, then candidate Senator Obama delivered a sobering speech about what he labeled “The Great Need of The Hour.” The 30-minute speech drew a capacity crowd, and some even were watching from outside the church despite the frigid weather. At one point in the speech, Obama received exceptional applause and praise from the audience when he spoke the following words: “[Lack of empathy] is the essential deficit that exists in this country.” He went on,  “I’m talking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”

Sadly, the rhetoric of candidate Obama does not match the actions of President Obama. President Obama is not seen as empathetic; rather he is view as a shrewd, detached and even an arrogant President. Here lies Obama’s problem. If he does have empathy for the unemployed and the miseries that accompany them, he certainly does not show it in a credible fashion. The citizens must feel that the President hears them, and is part of them, and thus responds to their needs. Appearing to remain aloof and offering intellectual arguments will not engender a warm response from the voting public.  As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof poignantly stated in his op-ed on the day after Election Day, “Obama needs to connect better with American voters. He needs to lose the cool and start sweating—and slugging.”

Recent election results for the U.S. Congress, both in the House of Representatives and the Senate have shown significant gains for the Republican Party. Pundits and commentators of various stripes and in different media have speculated on the reasons for this phenomenon and its meaning for Presidents. Many have  rightly suggested that the economy and unfocused voter anger against incumbents are widely perceived to be responsible for Tuesday’s results, but a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the entire political process and its ability to govern and effect necessary changes is front and center now. In order to address the issues raised by voter dissatisfaction the President must have his hand on the pulse of the body politic. To feel the pulse of the public, and discern its mood, the President must be seen as empathizing with them, or at least, be perceived as such.

The recent passage of Healthcare legislation is a case in point. The President was so ideologically committed to it that he wanted it passed no matter the cost in political capital, and more importantly, the cost in public perception of the legislative process, i.e., how the voters perceived this titanic struggle in Congress to get the bill passed. There was so much collateral damage done to the image of the Democrats, who controlled Congress that it gave the impression that they weren’t in control during the legislative process. This was because the President wanted the bill passed at all costs to make good on his campaign pledge for health care. His no-compromise idealism led to the extreme positions of both sides and consequent fraying of the political process with the public watching the internecine warfare from the sidelines and seeing Washington more gridlocked than ever.

This all stemmed from the President’s inability to take the public pulse and realize its fatigue with political infighting in Washington. Once again, it was how the bill was passed that counted, not so much its contents. Public fatigue with the political process gives birth to voter frustration with incumbents.

Some have argued and will continue to argue that Obama’s role is not to empathize—in other words, he should not, as some have called it, be Empathizer-in-Chief. What critics like this fail to realize, however, is that politics is all about emotion. Presidential leadership is about an emotional connection with the American people. Emotional connection is how we relate to our leaders and to one another.

Take former president Bill Clinton, who was a master of political empathy. His famous by-line, “I feel your pain,” became a symbol of Clinton’s connection with the American people. It did not matter whether he really did or not, all that mattered was that he was publicly perceived as doing so. In an interview with Politico, former president Clinton had the following advice for President Obama:

“He’s [Obama] being criticized for being too disengaged, for not caring. So he needs to turn into it. I may be one of the few people that think it’s not bad that that lady said she was getting tired of defending him. He needs to hear it. You need to hear.”

President Obama needs to hear and feel voters’ concerns. When he spoke in Atlanta during the campaign, he was right; lack of empathy is the essential deficit that exists in this country. Unfortunately, President Obama has become a prime example of that very fact. While the American people hurt, President Obama seems distance and removed from reality. He must let go of his unflappable and cerebral aura and seem like he feels voters’ pain. He must be empathetic. Whether he does this will not only determine his chances for a second term, but will shape the nation’s economic and political future for the next several years.

Youth Apathy: A Democratic Midterm Nightmare

Matt McDermott, Columnist

Should Tuesday’s Midterm election outcome be of concern to national Democrats or are the results easily explainable? It’s a mixed bag really.

 

First, let me discuss the elephant in the room before I move on to the youth vote and its glaring effects on yesterday’s turnout.  Republicans won nationally by a roughly 52-45 percent margin against Democrats according to exit poll conducting, a seven point margin and on par with other historical Midterm elections.

 

The bad news from Tuesday, Independents swung sharply towards Republicans. While still making up 28 percent of the electorate (same as 2008), Republicans won Independents 56 to 38 percent—a 26-point swing from 2008 when Democrats won these voters 51 to 43 percent.

 

These numbers among Independents sound terrible, but putting them in context will give us a much more accurate picture of what happened Tuesday. The greatest hindrance to Democratic efforts in this election was the fact that turnout was tied among Democrats and Republicans, at 36 percent each.  In 2008, Democrats saw a turnout of 40 percent, finishing far ahead of the Republicans who ended at 33 percent.

 

Putting this in perspective, had Democrats turned out at the same level as 2008, Republicans would have only won nationally by a 50-49 margin. Let me highlight this point again—had Democrats turned out at the levels of two years ago, even with Independents swinging 26 points towards the Republicans, Republicans would have only won by one percent.  Effectively, Democrats would have easily retained the House and would have picked up Pennsylvania and Illinois Senate seats (though, as an aside, Democrats already had an impressive night winning tough Senate races).

 

So which Democratic voting blocks are to blame for this meager turnout? And why—even though in the end the effects were negligible—have I argued for many months that national Democrats should have been going after core 2008 constituencies? Why, even though at the time many pundits considered it foolish, did I think it was rational and effective for the President to spend time on The Daily Show, MTV, BET, even Ryan Seacrest? Why should the President have gone to major urban centers to hold campaign rallies sooner than the final three weeks?

 

A part of the difference comes from African American voters, who dropped from having 13 percent of the national vote share in 2008 to a 10 percent share on Tuesday. 

 

By and large, though, the four percent drop in Democratic turnout is most attributed to the youth demographic. While in 2008, 47 percent of the electorate was under the age of 44 (with 18 percent in the 18-29 age demographic), in 2010, turnout among this age group crumbled to 34 percent (with only 11 percent in the 18-29 demographic).  Even more startling, among 18-24 year-olds, turnout halved from 10 percent in 2008 to a mere 5 percent this year. While one in every 10 voters was a college student in 2008, only one in ever 20 voters this year were college-aged students.

 

Surprisingly, the Democratic tilt of our age group changed very little in the last two years. Democrats won this group in a 58 to 39 percent margin over Republicans, not terribly different than the 62 to 35 percent margin won in 2008. Doing some quick back of math calculations, had youth alone turned out at similar levels as 2008, even accounting for a more Republican leaning voting population, Democrats could have closed the national gap on Tuesday by 1.5-2 percent.

 

In turn Tuesday’s election was far older, and whiter, than any electorate we’ve seen in years.

 

As some grain of salt evidence, look at California, where even though Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown won huge victories in what were “expected” close races, Proposition 19 (legalizing marijuana) lost by eight percent, 46 to 54 percent.  In pre-election polling and analysis of the state, of which even I wrote about a few weeks back, youth turnout was expected to run 18 to 20 percent in California, bucking the long-standing trend of youth apathy in Midterm elections. But come Election Day, only 13 percent of the electorate was under the age of 29, effectively ending any chance of passage.  Youth voted in favor of the measure 59-41 percent, and would have secured the adoption of Prop 19 has they turned out expected. 

 

So why didn’t youth turn out? Honestly, it comes down more to always-existing problems Democrats have winning Midterm elections than anything else.  While Democrats have been able to build strong campaigns and nationwide GOTV strategies during Presidential elections effectively, the same can’t be said for their Midterm successes. Democrats have difficultly driving their core voter bases to the polls (youth, African Americans, Hispanics) to the polls without a national figurehead on the ballot. For instance in 2006, event with Democrats winning a larger national vote margin than Republicans did on Tuesday (a 7.2 percent victory), the Party was only able to pick up 31 seats from Republicans. This, as an aside, is why Republicans did so well in winning over 60 House races on Tuesday, even though they had difficulty defeating even weak Senate Democratic candidates. House races reflect a more grandiose national platform while Senate races allow voters to focus significantly more on the candidates themselves. 

 

So what can we learn from 2010 going forward, especially as the Republican primary for President begins in the next four months? Unfortunately, not much more than has already been said.  Democrats have to work on perfecting their message to Independent voters as we move towards 2012 (probably more to do with unemployment than anything else), but otherwise with President Obama on the top of the ballot and a stronger Organizing for America GOTV strategy, the core Democratic constituencies (youth and African Americans) will turn out in similar numbers to 2008. And considering Democrats still hold strong leads amongst both demographics, this alone will be enough to secure another four years for the President. 

The Silence of the Youth

James Sasso, Associate Editor

Exactly as they had done in the Presidential election of 2008, the youth (18-29 year olds, or all eligible voters of Generation Y) made their opinions matter. On Tuesday, as they had in November 2008, Generation Y swayed the outcome of the election. Unfortunately, though, they did so this time with silence.

In 2008 the youth vote made up 18 percent of the entire voting demographic, but in 2010 this number dropped to somewhere around 10 percent according to the first exit polls done by CBS. And, unlike in 2008 when 66 percent of the youth vote went to President Obama, carrying him handily into the white house with a 34 point advantage in Generation Y’s demographic, Democrats could not claim such a strong hold on the minds of the youth. While the Democrats still retained their point advantage in the youth vote (56 percent voted for Democrats compared to 40 percent for the Republicans) this is not even half of the margin of difference in 2008. Also, the fact that about half as many members of Generation Y voted in this year’s midterms than had in 2008 certainly did not help Democratic chances of winning. One could even say that the youth vote was marginal in its effect on the outcome this year.

One could explain this disparity, and the usual low turnout of youth voters, with the normal talk of youth apathy, but in this year the reasoning for the silence comes more from disillusion than from apathy. In 2008 President Obama ignited the politician in youths across America, whether they voted for him or not, as record numbers of Generation Y found themselves casting ballots either at polling places or through the mail. This year, though, the political energy of 2008 has faded into almost oblivion.

For example, “meetings of the College Democrats that attracted 200 people in 2008 now pull in a dozen,” Damien Cave reported in Monday’s New York Times. The youth seem to have turned themselves off from politics. “It’s not a fad anymore,” says Jessica Kirsner 21 of the University of Miami. Again, this appears to be the classical definition of apathy, but in this case Generation Y showed its opinion without voting for several reasons.

First, Generation Y is still comprised of liberals. “Voters under 30 are still the single best group for Obama,” reports NPR. They are consistently more likely to acknowledge the truth of global warming, support social progress with homosexuality and immigration and support abortion rights and other liberal ideals, which would make one think that they, of all people, would understand the importance of the election and come out in strong numbers to vote for leaders who will push their agenda. As such, it seems that their lack of a vote was not a matter of ambivalence towards the political situation, but a reaction against the current political situation.

Second, and intertwined with the first reason for the lack of a youth vote, is dissolutionment; “Young people [were] not going to vote in anything near the numbers they did in 2008 [because] they’re very disillusioned.” Generation Y felt a strong emotional connection to the 2008 presidential election. They felt they finally had found a politician who would address the issues facing their generation. Instead, they found politics as usual and their initial “personal connection” with President Obama dimmed as the “shine has worn off somewhat among young voters.”

“Younger voters said that older voters seemed to become the priority,” Cave writes. Instead of playing a large role in the government, as many had hoped, the government retreated from the youth agenda in attacking the health care debate, which, at least in the media, centered around cuts in Medicare and effects on the health care of the elderly. This deflated many once-intrigued young politicians, as they began to see that the government once again only would focus on the “adults.” Obama supporters became dismayed and despondent.

And as the policy debates continued to circle around issues that pertained little, or indirectly, to Generation Y, the political energy dwindled into yawns. Where were the issues that had enthralled masses of college students to swarm the polls? Where was the focus on Generation Y that grasped the attention of an ADD generation? Where was the Change or the Hope? It’s not that Generation Y’s political attitudes began to shift tremendously, but rather that they began to disbelieve that the government has the capability or the desire to attack youth issues actively. In 2008 they had gambled that the government would care about their issues, but it turned out to not be true. Instead of making the same mistake in 2010, the hurt, the disillusioned, the angry youth decided to stay home, not believing Washington would concern itself with the problems of the youth in any regard.

So they cast their votes, their votes of silence, in protest of the lack of action of Washington. They chose to not support the other party, but rather to watch the party in power suffer as a response to its supposed amnesia concerning Generation Y.

The problem, though, is that the Obama Administration did not ignore Generation Y. In fact, the most meaningful, if not only meaningful, aspect of the health care overhaul is the stipulation that children be allowed to remain on their parents’ health insurance until the age of 26. Also, Obama successfully changed the system of student loans and the payment of student loans, making it easier to obtain them and pay them back over time. These are two extraordinarily significant policy changes that benefit Generation Y, but two that were drowned out in the swarm of economic disasters and Republican rhetoric.

Regardless of why, or the intelligence of it, the resonant silence of the youth helped sway the hold of power in Washington.