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Has Rocking the Vote Missed the Boat?
By Matt Taibbi
May 19, 2004  

More than ever, the efforts of corporate-funded youth-oriented media like MTV's Choose or Loose and World Wrestling Entertainment's Smackdown Your Vote are part of the scenery in the televised road show of American presidential politics. But despite a steadily increasing onslaught of advertising and celebrity events, young people are more than ever refusing to participate in the electoral process.

In 2000, 18 to 30 year-olds represented 23 percent of all eligible voters, but cast only 8 percent of all votes. Those numbers are expected at best to hold steady this election season.

Does this mean that high-powered media have failed to encourage young people to vote? Or, worse still, are these appeals a sham -- a Potemkin village erected by corporate America to disguise the flaws of a dysfunctional status quo politics that systematically excludes and disgusts young idealistic citizens?

The answer, probably, is not exactly. While academics and activists engaging the problem of youth voter apathy almost universally agree that initiatives like MTV's Choose or Lose do very little to address the root causes of declining turnout -- or may even help keep those root causes hidden -- most also agree that the situation would be worse without them.

Since its beginnings in 1990, when it was created in response to growing attempts by various censorship movements against rock artists, MTV's Choose or Lose initiative, working in close partnership with the non-profit organization Rock the Vote, has led a celebrity-studded effort to engage young people in the political process. Using public service announcements by such stars as Eddie Vedder, Queen Latifah, Aerosmith, R.E.M., Madonna and dozens of others, the group scored some impressive accomplishments in the early nineties. Among other things, it led the fight to get the so-called "Motor Voter" National Voter Registration Reform Act passed, and its get-out-the-vote efforts during the 1992 presidential race were largely credited with helping reverse a decades-long decline in youth voter turnout, as the number of young voters rose 20 percent and were a significant force behind Bill Clinton's election.

This election season, Rock the Vote stepped up its high-profile efforts to register new young voters, sponsoring a Democratic presidential debate in Boston, holding a televised Rock the Vote Latin Grammy party, launching an online voter registration drive, offering free Ben and Jerry ice cream giveaways and planning a series of automated celebrity phone calls to target young voters. Its goal? To register some 1,000,000 new voters by the fall.

"We've registered 225,000 as of May," says Jay Strell, communications director of the Rock the Vote campaign. Rock the Vote has raised $5.5 million from corporate, foundation and individual donors, including 7UP, Motorola and the Pew Trust. "We need corporate partners to help us do the good work that we do," says Strell, who adds that there also has been unprecedented levels of coordination between the various youth and grassroots organizations that register young voters and encourage them to turn out come Election Day.

Mixing Celebrity with Grassroots

Despite the show of civic-mindedness, full-time political activists often struggle to say something nice about these strategies.

"Well... [Rock the Vote] does, uh, what it does well," says Adrienne Brown of the League of Pissed-Off Voters, an innovative youth group that encourages young people to take a permanent, regular interest in politics.

"Well, MTV has its own way of doing things, I guess," says Rob Ritchie of the Center for Voting and Democracy, which like Brown's group appeals to young voters by helping them agitate for electoral reform and systematic change.

"It has a role," says Veronica De La Garza, Executive Director of YouthVote, whose coalition includes over 100 groups (among them Rock the Vote) and represents the single largest coordinated effort to get young people to register. "We need those big media organizations to get the basic message out. But they have to work hand-in-hand with other groups that are actually working on the ground."

Complaints about the big-media groups generally center around two themes.

The first, which has been embraced in practice by grassroots groups like Brown's and Ritchie's and also supported by new academic research by Yale University, is that media/celebrity-based appeals to young people are extremely ineffective, compared with face-to-face appeals from friends and peers.

Donald Green, a political science professor at Yale University, published a book in conjunction with the Brookings Institution called "Get Out the Vote!" which cited experiments held across 18 states over a span of five election seasons. He found that activist campaigns which used personal contacts and telephone calls from peers helped increase voter turnout in some elections by 8 to 12 percent, while even well-funded campaigns that use the methods favored by Rock the Vote -- viral e-mail campaigns, television advertising, celebrity appeals and other media -- had almost no effect on voter turnout.

"[The big media groups] would seem to be neither the problem nor the solution," says Green. "But what does seem clear is that the most important factor in whether or not a person registers to vote is the presence of a personal connection encouraging him to do so."

Green is reluctant to criticize the specific big-media groups targeting young people, but he does say that the general trend in politics to rely more on media and other impersonal forms of communication may have contributed significantly to voter apathy. "Politics have moved in that direction because campaigns are not particularly interested in increasing voter turnout," he said. "They're interested in winning, and those methods have tended to be the ones used, because they're cost-effective. Campaigns are content to win with low turnout."

Green also believes that the actual message of candidates and activist groups is, ironically enough, probably irrelevant as a factor in encouraging young people to vote.

"I've never seen any evidence that the specific message matters," he says. "What does matter is the presence of a personal contact."

Staying Hip While Avoiding the Issues

Activists like Brown, Ritchie, and David Smith of the grassroots group Mobilizing America's Youth (MAY) agree with Green's emphasis on personal interaction, but disagree with him about the message. Their view represents the other chief complaint about groups like Rock the Vote and teh related MTV Choose or Lose initiative: that they do nothing to address the disgust and cynicism over an intractable two-party system which remains, their view, the primary obstacle to energizing youth. In this view, groups that merely encourage young people to choose between existing evils run the risk of further turning off young voters.

"I don't think you can have real activism without it being centered around at least some sort of value system," says Brown. "Young people are hungry for something to believe in, for real change. Groups like Rock the Vote don't offer them anything along those lines." Like all non-profits, Rock the Vote can't agitate for any one party or candidate. But the political issues it chooses to highlight are notable for their broad, inoffensive, fit-on-a-t-shirt character. Digging into its million-dollar budget, Rock the Vote encourages kids to worry about free expression, youth violence and crowded classrooms. Issues like war, commercialism, and corporate media control are nowhere on the map. Rock the Vote's aesthetic trades heavily on a punk/hip-hop anti-establishment look, but its message is strictly work-within-the-system: vote every four years, wear a $14.99 "Give a Shit" t-shirt, watch MTV and buy 7UP and Motorola phones. There is not much difference, in terms of marketing approach, between Rock the Vote's appeals to vote and its parent company's appeals to shop.

Brown's group encourages young people to campaign for electoral reforms like instant run-off voting, which would allow voters to rank their electoral choices. Already used in several municipalities across the country, including San Francisco, voters under this system could for instance choose Nader, but if he loses, the vote would automatically be passed, say, to Kerry.

"I think that is the bigger issue," she says. "Many young people feel that there is not that much difference between the two parties. As a result, they feel like they have very little power to change things. If they could break some of the constraints of the winner-take-all system, they would feel more motivated to participate."

Ritchie agrees. "Frankly, no, I don't think you can really address the apathy problem without there being some sort of ideology," he says. He adds that the slick marketing techniques favored both by the major candidates and by the big-media youth groups can increase the distaste of young people for politics in general.

"Young people have good B.S. detectors," he says. "They don't want to feel manipulated."

'Capturing' Youth at Street Level

Smith, who used to be an organizer for Rock the Vote, left that organization to form MAY, which forms cells of young people across the country that help re-create the political networks that were lost when politics became a more top-down, media-based effort.

"Working with Rock the Vote, it was a quote-unquote name brand... it was a great door-opener," he says. "But at some point I found that handing out Winterfresh gum, or occasionally there would be CDs... the organized activism wasn't there, it was more of a product."

Smith believes that one of the reasons that young people don't vote as much as adults is that "they have so many other things going on in their lives"-- that they've just moved out of their homes or gone away to school, or are displaced somehow, and lack the community roots they need to feel energized. MAY, which uses an Amway-type system to attract interlocking groups of peers to get together to talk about politics and work on local campaigns (members seek to attract 10 people apiece to the movement, at which point they become "teammates" and lead their own groups), seeks to "re-create that community," he says.

"What's going to get you to get up off that couch is someone you know... some sense of being involved with something, and working to find the way that politics touches your own life," he says. His group, which successfully lobbied the State of California to spike a proposed increase in state tuition fees (saving California students $100 million), and also works to change laws like curfews in Orange County, is effective because it shows young people how to have an effect on their day-to-day existence. Just voting, he says, can't teach that to young people.

"Even just voting isn't strictly being civically engaged," he said. "There's a difference."

Despite all of this, Rock the Vote and other organizations have begun an ambitious campaign called 20 Million Loud, which seeks to use a variety of promotions to increase youth voter turnout for the 2004 race by two million voters, to 20 million. Along the way, there is evidence that the big media groups, while perhaps not changing much in the area of ideological appeal, are finally dispensing with their traditional reliance on media to get out the vote. Rock the Vote has organized 75 street teams to encourage face-to-face contact, and other groups in the 20 Million Loud Coalition, including the New Voters Project (an offshoot of the successful grassroots organizer Public Interest Research Group), are relying almost exclusively on street teams and door-to-door efforts to help meet their targets. Green's research, which has been widely publicized by groups like YouthVote and CIRCLE, another youth-and-politics think tank, may have turned some heads.

All of which may only mean that mainstream youth activism is changing its methods, not its politics. While corporate groups streamline their efforts to "capture the youth vote," it's going to remain up to independents like Brown and Smith to help young people capture real power.

"We're not wild animals to be captured," says Brown. "Everyone's hungry for us as numbers. We're out for the qualitative change. And no one can make that possible but us ourselves."



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