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Young Voters, Once Buoyed By Obama, Turn Away


Four years ago, then-candidate Barack Obama rallied young voters to his cause with a message of hope and change. Polls show President Obama still ahead amongst the young but by considerably less. In an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times, Neal Gabler argues that the president severely disappointed many of his younger supporters and drove them away from established politics but toward new kinds of activism and public service. He calls it DIY politics.

So we'd like to hear from younger listeners who supported Barack Obama back in 2008. What's changed for you? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Neal Gabler is an author and cultural historian. He joins us now by phone from his home in Amagansett in New York. Nice to have you back on the program.

NEAL GABLER: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: And you cite Occupy Wall Street as, well, I guess the best-known example of non-political activism.

GABLER: Yes. You know, Occupy Wall Street's a very, very interesting phenomenon because it's not really a movement. You know, it often gets labeled as a movement, but as I point out in my piece, movements have vectors. They go in a direction. They are looking to achieve an end. They have leaders. They more or less operate the way institutions operate. But Occupy Wall Street doesn't have a clear leadership. It doesn't have a clear objective. It has a group of grievances. And I think it really amounts to more of a consciousness than a movement.

Now, I think this is actually rather promising if one is looking for real social change because a consciousness can kind of percolate from the bottom up and affect a greater change, although it may take a longer amount of time to do it. But it is one example of many examples of the sorts of things that are going on now that I describe as DIY politics, do-it-yourself politics, or even apolitical politics, by which I mean that they operate outside traditional political institutions.

CONAN: Give us some other examples.

GABLER: Well, there was the spring action movement just several weeks ago that fanned out across the country, sent 100,000 people into various communities to talk about economic inequality. But there are also movements that are operating under the radar, movements that - or consciousness, as I should say, that operate on the Internet and in local communities where people are getting together. And then there are things that more obvious and that people are much more aware of, things like the WorldTeach program or Teach For America or AmeriCorps, where people are operating within communities all across the United States and all around the world as individual agents, doing things by themselves to improve their society and to improve their world.

CONAN: It's interesting also. You say a lot of people are moving into activities like that, even though they are disillusioned by their - well, the person who inspired them in the first place, Barack Obama.

GABLER: Well, I would say not only even though, I would say because of. You know, they used to talk about a Kennedy effect back in the 1960s, by which President Kennedy inspired young Americans to enter the Peace Corps and do other forms of public service. Some people have actually described an Obama effect, that they say he's done the same thing, that Obama's election and his example has inspired young people into various forms of volunteerism. But I posit that there might be another Obama effect.

And that Obama effect is - and we see this from polling data and also from all sorts of anecdotal data - I spend a lot of my time on college campuses - of students who were so disillusioned, or young people, not just students, young people who were so disillusioned by Obama after his election, in part because their expectations were so high when he was elected that there was really only one place to go and that was down, that they decided, you want to know something, the political system really doesn't work. The things that Obama promised didn't come to fruition. I quote in my article a focus group that was ran by - actually by Republicans, in which they - one young person says, yeah, we promised just the moon, and he couldn't even deliver the upper atmosphere.

And I think the result has been that many young people have said, you know, the system doesn't work, and this convinces us, once and for all, that the system doesn't work. But he so disillusioned us that we have to find alternatives because we do want to help society. We do want to do things. We do want to engage. And what are those alternatives? And the alternatives are these various forms of individual agency where you go out and you work in communities, again, in the United States and around the world, to help people, individually, outside of the political system.

CONAN: And does it mean that they will not participate in mainstream politics? I remember similar arguments of people saying, oh, what's the difference between the Republican and Democratic candidates back in 2000, I'll vote a protest vote for Ralph Nader? It turned out to make a difference.

GABLER: Well, I think these young people are sophisticated enough to realize that it does make a difference who's in the White House. And poll - polling data right now, is showing that they're going to vote for Barack Obama, though nowhere near - as you pointed out - in nowhere near the numbers that they voted for him in 19 - in 2008. What, he got 66 percent of the vote versus 32 percent for John McCain. And right now, the latest poll I saw was 53-46 for Obama. And I gather that he'll do reasonably well with this young cohort. But even though they're not opting out entirely from the political system, even though they'll vote, I do think that they are voting in other ways, so to speak. They're voting with their lives.

I know my own daughters - and I have one daughter who is currently in Nepal doing medical work there, and is going to medical school, to Harvard Medical School this fall. And I have another daughter who just completed her first year of - at the University of Texas School of Social Work and had spent a year in AmeriCorps before that and a year in WorldTeach before that. And when we talk politics, it's very interesting. They tell me we live our politics. And I think in some ways that's a kind of mantra for many, many members of their generation; which is politics for us is not just voting, politics for us is not just that kind of traditional political activism. We live our politics. Our lives are dedicated to the things in which we believe, which are, you know, political activities in the broadest possible sense.

CONAN: Neal Gabler, author and cultural historian. We'd like to hear from those of you who supported Barack Obama four years ago and what's happened to your politics since. Are you living them? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Gavin is on the line with us from Holland, Michigan.

GAVIN: Hey, Neal. Thanks so much.

GABLER: Hi, Gavin. How are you?

GAVIN: Oh, I'm really glad to be on air. I would agree whole heartedly with the thrust of this discussion thus far. I was a Barack Obama supporter in 2008. It was really what thrust me into political consciousness. I worked for the campaign. I was very excited about it. It was, you know, I was at a young age. I was very, very idyllic.

And, now, that I'm in college - I'm at Georgetown University in D.C. - I have definitely become one of those disappointed Obama supporters. I'm - I have been - although I can't be anymore active in the Occupy Movement along with many of my friends who were Barack Obama supporters. We all felt very enthused by his election, but then like we've been saying, you know, we've really lost faith in the system since then. We don't really believe that Washington can deliver on our progressive goals. We just - we've lost faith in the system, and that's why we've kind of gone into these extra political activities, trying to change the system from outside rather than from within.

GABLER: And, Gavin, I'm kind of interested. What sorts of things are you doing, sorts of extra political things are you doing?

GAVIN: I would say there's - a lot of the activism that you see spring off on campuses these days, is kind of an extra political activity. It's not like trying to position yourself within a government job or within the political system to run for office, or to, like, impact it from within. A lot of people - and I would say I do this to a lesser extent. But a lot of people are trying to be activists or trying to be radicals or trying to be out there and push the political system with protest and with picketing and things like that to push it like the Tea Party pushed the system right. They want to push it left. And they think that they can do that by influencing the political system from the outside, rather than from within because they think the political system is broken.

CONAN: The Tea Party did influence it from within, and made some real change.

GAVIN: They did. They did, but they - I think it was - once they were co-opted by the system, that's what happens when it...

CONAN: I see. All right.

GAVIN: I'm sorry.

CONAN: I said, oh, thank you. Thank you. Thanks very much, Gavin. Let's see if we go next to - this is Shaun, Shaun with us from South Bend.

SHAUN: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

SHAUN: Yeah. I was just calling to make a comment about just some observations I made about some of my friends here in this area. You know, I've been trying - I think a lot of people engaged with the Obama campaign back in 2008, and a lot of things have changed since then. People have seen how, kind of, his policies have continued to kind of reach towards, you know, continuing the geopolitical kind of efforts of the Bush administration in a lot of ways, and, you know, remaining in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it's been discouraging. So people have kind of turned to more local sources for trying to engage in activism, you know, starting farms, starting local co-ops, trying to engage in study of economics and history and politics on a local scale to try and change things - have more direct power.

GABLER: Exactly my point. Exactly my point that, you know, local efforts and even one-to-one efforts, I think, maybe the wave of the future. You know, I end my article by talking about ones that add up to millions of ones, and that is, you know, single individuals doing things at the local level and one on one. But when you add that up in a gigantic aggregate of young people - and not only young people, but lots of people who are doing this all around the world - you can have tremendous impact. But in a sense, it's extra political impact.

SHAUN: Certainly. I think, you know, the distance there is that, you know, I think people thought that Barack Obama, from the top down, was going to provide support for that - those similar efforts and...


SHAUN: ...they haven't felt that recently, and so they're taking matters into their own hand.

CONAN: Sean, thanks very much.

SHAUN: Thanks.

CONAN: Let's see if we'd get one more caller in. This is Dominic. Dominic with us from Houston.

DOMINIC CALLER: Hi. Hi, Neal. How are you doing?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

GABLER: Hi, Dominic. How are you?

CALLER: Pretty good. My main thing is I supported Obama in 2008, and I still support the main crux of the political argument that President Obama is trying to espouse. But one thing that I think that I didn't understand and that a lot of young people don't understand, is that President Obama sure has a lot of the things that we want to see in a president, but we have to elect a actual government to be able and actually get this passed for President Obama, such as the Congress.

Like - one of the things that I wasn't very happy about was him passing the Bush tax cuts again in 2010, but he was basically forced to do it because of the Congress. So I think that if we actually understand that we need to elect a Congress that helps him, then we'll be able to see the change that we actually want to see.

CONAN: And are you working towards that, Dominic?

CALLER: Yes, I am. Actually, you know, I do live in Texas, and I did work on the governor's campaign. So it wasn't necessarily going to be unsuccessful. But I have been trying to work here in Texas to help and try and get the people that I want to see. But I think that it's an entirely - the entire government needs to be addressed so that we actually have people that are able to know that government actually does help out.

CONAN: Well, don't be discouraged. One time, Texas Republicans thought they would never get elected in the state.


CONAN: So things can change. Thanks very much for the call. And, Neal Gabler, thank you very much for your time today.

GABLER: Thank you, Neal. Appreciate it.

CONAN: Neal Gabler, author and cultural historian, with us by phone from Amagansett in New York. You can find a link to his op-ed on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.