The Kids Are OK
(Illustration by David Gothard / For The Times / May 18, 2012)
Neal Gabler had a rather odd opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times this weekend. It was accompanied by the illustration which heads this post, which sorta kinda gives a clue to Gabler's thesis.
Barack Obama wanted to be a transformational president, and as we head into the general election, he may have gotten his wish — just not the way he or his supporters might have thought.
Obama seems to have transformed the cohort of 18- to 29-year-olds, a whopping 66% of whom preferred him over John McCain, from passionate voters who thought Obama really did offer change they could believe in, into people feeling, in the words of veteran political analyst Charlie Cook, "disappointment and disillusionment." ...
Disillusionment with partisan politics is certainly nothing new. Obama's fall from grace, however, may look like a bigger belly flop because his young supporters saw him standing so much higher than typical politicians. Yet by dashing their hopes, Obama may actually have accomplished something so remarkable that it could turn out to be his legacy: He has redirected young people's energies away from conventional electoral politics and into a different, grass-roots kind of activism. Call it DIY politics.
He cites the Occupy movement as the first example of Do It Yourself politics, and to some extent I would agree. He also points out that the shift involved is more one of consciousness than anything else.
Movements have vectors; they head in a direction. The Occupiers don't have a coherent program or clearly identified leaders or a political dimension even in the way, say, the tea party does. OWS is more just a festival of grievance populated by those (mostly young people) who find no place for themselves in the system, which made the metaphor of their "occupying" the seat of American economic power ironic.
All of this is perhaps best defined as a consciousness — a way of thinking about change rather than a schema for it. That's one reason the Occupiers could collect so many disparate elements. OWS has spoken to a mounting sense among the disaffected that nothing quite works in America and that you can't really fight politics with politics anymore. In fact, you have to forget about traditional institutions, power and systems entirely. Americans typically don't think this way. [Emphasis added.]
I agree for the most part that OWS has been so successful because it has changed the framing of the issue and the language used to express it. In fact, it's a movement that is as much consciousness raising as a shift in consciousness. However, I sense a little condescension in Gabler's suggestion that the Occupiers are staging a "festival of grievance" and are asserting that it's impossible to "fight politics with politics anymore." I think it just as likely that the consciousness raising will be used within the political arena, if not necessarily within the traditional two-party system.
His argument becomes even weaker when he produces his second bit of evidence for the transformation of today's youth by President Obama, the increase in volunteerism in such programs as AmeriCorps and Teach For America:
The DIY impulse seems to start with the most basic politics of all: individual agency. If it takes hold it will be from the bottom up, translating a way of thinking into a way of doing. Already you can see DIY politics in action, not just in young people camping outside City Hall but in their joining service organizations and NGOs where they can do good and seemingly apolitical — or at least extra-governmental — work. They don't abide endless debate and tit-for-tat strategies that result in gridlock. ...
There is a scathing irony in the fact that some attribute the rise in civic commitment to an "Obama effect," by which they mean Obama has kindled this idealism the way President Kennedy inspired young people to join the Peace Corps. (Of course, many more attribute it to the economy and the lack of jobs for recent grads.) Unfortunately, none of these surveys investigates reasons for increased volunteerism, but the data suggest another possible Obama effect: that he has driven them out of politics and into service.
Many longtime politicos find that outcome troubling. They fret that if young people abandon the system, the system will abandon the public good. Of course, to many of the young, it is the system that has abandoned them. If the polls are accurate, most of them will still vote for Obama but with less enthusiasm than in 2008 and with fewer illusions about what he will accomplish. Instead, they will assume the social burden themselves, opting out of organized politics to "do it themselves" with a politics of one that adds up to millions of ones.
He blithely writes off the lack of jobs for new graduates as a reason for increased volunteerism, and I think he is wrong to do so. I am not suggesting that young people are volunteering more just to pad their resumes. I think it is just as likely that they are doing so to engage in something worthwhile while they search for an opportunity and to keep body and soul together, neither of which is a bad thing. I also think that to the extent that Candidate Obama raised expectations and hopes and then President Obama dashed them, the reaction is far more impressive than one would have expected.
And as bleak as things are right now, the one thing that does keep me hopeful are these young people and what they are doing for whatever reason. I suspect Mr. Gabler and I share that feeling.