Rock the Vote’s new viral video1, aimed at boosting turnout for next month’s midterm elections among the so-called millennial generation, is symbolic of how bankrupt modern day U.S. politics have become.
“Turn Out for What?” stars Lil Jon and features alumni from Glee, Orange is the New Black and even Whoopi Goldberg for good measure. In the video, the rapper tries to get us to the voting booth via some crunk music and a list of causes that voting (or not voting) might have an effect on – things like marriage equality, abortion rights and student loan reform. It’s amusing in a click-bait way: sure to generate some buzz but ultimately forgettable. The attempt to get millennials politically invested is noble, but it will take more than cute videos to do it – even if it had been Beyoncé onscreen instead. It looks like less than 25% of millennials will actually cast ballots on November 4th.
Despite this, the idea that young people simply don’t care or aren’t paying attention to politics is a plain lie. Americans age 18 through 29 are further to the left than the national average on economic and social issues. On democracy, they are less likely to trust the institutions of state power – only 47 and 36 percent “trust” the U.S. military and Supreme Court, respectively.2 Millennials make up the backbone of low-wage unionization campaigns, the movement against police terror (like the Ferguson rebellion) and the LGBTQ movement. The answer can’t be reduced to mere apathy.
Rock the Vote President Ashley Spillane explains: “Politics right now is really disheartening. I think it’s why you see in the polls that young people are not affiliating with political parties.”3 She’s right. Having burned their fingers on populist or pseudo-populist politicians like Barack Obama or the train wreck known as Ron Paul, youth withdraw from a political system where Big Business rules and a combination of gerrymandering4 and a winner-takes-all5 setup ensure that no anti-establishment perspective gets in.
It doesn’t have to be this way. A small example of this is a Socialist Alternative candidate’s election to the Seattle City Council late last year. S.A. ran Kshama Sawant to her seat on the basis of building a movement for $15 in the city. This movement-based campaign, along with other basic socialist tenets – she pledged to take no more than the average worker’s wage if she won – galvanized support among youth, people of color, women, low-wage workers and part of the labor movement. Sawant and Socialist Alternative should be criticized for the way they approached their central demand and the tactics they used in the fight6, but it has to be said that an open socialist was able to mobilize tens of thousands.
We can do better and do more. For revolutionary socialists, elections present – or at least ought to present – an opportunity to take our message to a wider audience than is normally possible. Socialist electoral tactics are an extension of our non-electoral work, whether the given candidacy is a protest vote campaign or has a realistic chance of winning the seat. There are some socialist candidates on the ballot for November 4th, but not enough – and of those who are running, there is no initiative toward a united socialist front to present a common platform of independent class politics to workers and young people.
Now would be a good time to start building that common front for the 2015 and 2016 elections: not just running for running’s sake, but to create the organizational structure for a genuine revolutionary party whose reach goes far beyond what the various socialist sects are currently able to accomplish alone.
- Harvard Institute of Politics, http://www.iop.harvard.edu/Spring-2014-HarvardIOP-Survey
- Gerrymandering is the manipulation of electoral districts to drastically favor party or another, essentially locking the other party out of that district.
- The winner-take-all voting system used in the United States means that candidates win with 50-percent-plus-one; contrast this to the more democratic proportional representation systems that are more favorable to multi-party legislatures.