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As Politicians Demonize Pop Culture, Young Voters Tune Out

September 03, 2000|Danny Goldberg | Danny Goldberg is president of Artemis Records and president of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California

Washington political pundits continually praise Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman for bashing popular culture and Hollywood. While many loyal Democratic Party contributors in the entertainment industry maintain their support, one group is consistently being overlooked by pundits and pols alike: millions of young people whose culture is being demonized by the vice-presidential candidate.

The political class seems to believe that popular culture is popular against the wishes and values of its fans. There's a disconnect here: Politicians and pundits profess love for the idea of America and its freedoms, yet speak with disdain and condescension about a pop culture that most Americans like and enjoy.

After all, when Lieberman said of prime-time TV, "You can put a label on garbage, but it's still garbage," Washington insiders of every ideology voiced approval. Pundits and the pols seem to be telling tens of millions of fans of edgy entertainment that if they don't agree, they are morally inferior to the political class.

Lieberman, like Bob Dole before him, acknowledges he does not view all the programming he attacks, relying sometimes on staff descriptions. Nor do the Beltway bloviators make any effort to explain the moral distinction between the art and entertainment they approve of--such as Jackie Mason and "The Godfather"--and that they condemn--such as Jerry Seinfeld and gangsta rap. Small wonder young people increasingly ignore them.

This condescension toward pop culture knows no ideological boundaries. Ralph Nader and Harvard professor Cornel West have been as outspoken as Lieberman, William Bennett and Pat Buchanan in condemning youth-oriented entertainment. Yet, the violence and sex in classic drama like Shakespeare or Sophocles is not considered harmful. Maybe this is because the classics use different words for these activities, or that the older audiences that tend to watch the classics have such a sterling moral track record they can handle "dark-side" themes blamed for inciting mayhem when young people are exposed to them.

The dominion of American pop culture is unaffected by such snobbery. Globalization, technology and the 1st Amendment all assure that the artists and businesses creating entertainment will be just fine. But one result of politicians' continual attacks on pop culture is to drive away from politics the new generations necessary to maintain democratic traditions that the Beltway elite professes to treasure.

In 1992, for the first time since 18-year-olds got the right to vote, young people's participation rose significantly among both the 18- to 20-year-old and 21- to 24-year-old cohorts. Bill Clinton, a youth-friendly candidate who not only appeared on MTV and "The Arsenio Hall Show" but looked comfortable there, is widely credited with attracting this vote. Organizations that targeted younger voters, especially Rock the Vote, helped, too.

But then, in 1996, Clinton ran for reelection with a campaign designed to "triangulate" GOP appeal to married suburban voters. He targeted and won those soccer moms. But largely unnoticed in his victory was the dramatic withdrawal of young people. Turnout among 18- to 21-year-olds dropped from 38% to 31%; there was an even larger decline among 21- to 24-year-olds, from 45% to 33%. These declines were far higher on a percentage basis than any other age group. In the 1998 congressional election, 18- to 24-year-old turnout was roughly half other age groups--less than 17%.

Why are young people so turned off by the political process? Is the answer really that the younger generation has less civic concern, that it is less moral than the baby boomers or the "greatest generation."?

It could be that lower participation by young voters is the result of political leaders refusing to reach out to them by communicating the moral and pragmatic relevance of government in their own cultural language. On those rare occasions when a candidate speaks their language--for example, as Jesse Ventura does--participation among young people skyrockets.

The establishment--the same people uncomfortable with youth culture--is fine with this. Lower and older turnout is good for conservative ideologues of both major parties. For it is the left that is most hurt by the marginalization of young people from the political process. And no progressive change has ever taken place without the young. As Abbie Hoffman, in one of his last speeches, said, "It is always the young that make change happen. You just don't get these ideas when you're middle aged. Young people have daring, creativity, energy and impatience."

In the electoral context, the Republicans benefit from low youth turnout, but Democratic consultants seem not to care either. About half of young Americans are single, and polls have shown that singles tend to favor Democrats by a margin of 10 points, while married voters favor Republicans by the same amount. Nonetheless, the speeches at the Democratic convention monomaniacally focused on married people with children.

America would be far more politically healthy if politicians and Beltway insiders treated young people and singles--the people who laugh at Farrelly brothers movies and listen to hip-hop and rap music--as if their ideas and concerns were as important as everyone else's. Of course, that would mean actually talking to and listening to some of them. *

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