Something has become unmoored. I mean about young voters, that group we like to call Millennials as if to define them, as if they thought like a group. They don’t. They aren’t into group-think. They are unmoored.
This has been coming for a while, even before many Millennials were born, before the born Millennials were thinking about much of anything beyond a bowl of Cocoa Puffs and the latest episode of SpongeBob SquarePants.
I began to notice this oddity around the mid-1990s when I was teaching at Missouri State University. One of my students wrote a conservative column for the university newspaper, but he didn’t look like it.
He wore a black leather motorcycle jacket, always, never took it off. Pinned to the jacket was a huge safety pin, about five inches across. He wore jeans that were big and long, the cuffs rolled to reveal a good bit of his black combat boots. He had dark black hair, maybe dyed, and a pompadour.
If he had walked onstage at a Ramones concert, the crowd would have thought he was a long-lost cousin and a brand-new Ramone.
Even the editorial staff at the university newspaper had trouble understanding how a guy could look like this and write the conservative column, which was very conservative, like early Rush Limbaugh conservative. They often put his picture with the liberal column, and the picture of the guy who wrote the liberal column, who looked like your typical frat boy, with the conservative column.
After knowing this student, I often talked about him whenever I lectured on Semiotics. In a traditional (Modernist) analysis of signs, there should be some connection between the signifier (the sign, for example, a black leather motorcycle jacket) and the signified (the values of people who ride motorcycles).
In The Wild One (1953), Johnny, member of a motorcycle gang, dressed in his black leather jacket (played by Marlon Brando) is asked, “What are you rebelling against?” He answers, “Whadda you got?” That makes sense in terms of traditional semiotics.
When a guy who looks like Marlon Brando in The Wild One but writes like Rush Limbaugh, something has become unmoored. We have just gone a little Postie, as in Post-Modern. In Postie land, you can be a Punk Rock Ultra Right Conservative.
Since the mid-1990s, over years of reading student essays on politics, I have noticed a growing trend. My students don’t align with the ideology of a particular political party. I mean something beyond not caring about politics at all or not wanting to be labeled a Democrat or Republican.
I mean each student seems to have an interesting mashup of political views. A student might be a feminist and Pro-Life. Another one might want to shut down the War on Drugs and be against any form of gun control. With so-called Millennials, I have seen just about every possible combination of beliefs, and I rarely see in a Millennial a set of beliefs that neatly matches up with the platform of any major political party.
This raises an interesting question: How does a politician appeal to young voters who have such a mix of beliefs and values, none of which seem to be clear wedge issues?
The only core value, as far as I can tell, that works for Millennials as a group is authenticity. In 2008 and 2012, they felt that Obama was authentic. In the Democratic primaries, they felt that Sanders was authentic. When it was clear that Sanders would not win the nomination, some of his supporters considered shifting their support to Trump. To many of us over 30 and most of us over 40, this is confounding. But, some Millennials see Trump as authentic. They might not like some of his views or some of his behavior, but he is authentic, if only in a Postie kind of way.
As a clarification here, I am not saying that young voters are consistently going with Trump. Some are, but many are going to third and fourth party candidates. This might be, in part, because the Libertarian and Green party platforms are not very well know, which might make it easier for young mashup voters to move in their direction.
So, can Clinton, whom voters don’t seem to trust, attract some of these young voters? I am going to argue a position many might consider to be an implausible. I think Clinton can become more authentic.
When she is on college campuses, she needs to speak about student debt, which might be the one issue that has the potential to coalesce Millennials. More importantly, she needs to talk more about her long history of public service on issues relating to the welfare of women, families, and children: her work with the Children’s Defense Fund, her advocacy for legal rights for children, and her speeches promoting women’s rights in all countries. According to dailykos.com, Clinton has supported 417 progressive bills on these issues. She was actively involved in this issues even before her husband was elected Governor of Arkansas.
Certainly, too often, Clinton seems to waffle. She seemed to be for the TPP, now she is against it. But on many issues, she has been as consistent as Bernie Sanders—for about four decades. And I consider Sanders to be the Gold Standard of consistency. So the way Clinton can be more authentic is to embrace her own authenticity. Why is this so hard?