This article was originally published on the Huffington Post.
As the inauguration approaches and Washington gears up for battle, Americans tired of seeing our government held hostage by rigid ideologues, take heart. Help could be on the way in the form of young voters who flexed their political muscle in November.
Remember the predictions that young voters had had their fill of Barack Obama and wouldn’t show up in the voting booth? Whoops. One point twenty five million more of them voted for the president in 2012 than in 2008. If Progressives build on what drove them back to the polls, then they have a chance to secure an enduring majority.
That, of course, is a big “if.” The challenge is remaining faithful to the surprising complexities of young Americans’ views.
Our research shows that young people have a complex but coherent set of values that sets them apart from previous generations. They value open-mindedness and inclusivity, and abhor injustice. They embrace different races, sexual orientations and views. They are individualists who want to put their own innovative mark on the world. However, their individualism is wrapped in the collective. They collaborate in their personal lives and support it in politics. The Progressive bedrock value of communitarianism is in their DNA — to them, we are better and stronger together.
Yet, they are not wooly-headed dreamers, but pragmatic idealists. They came of age during the 2000s — the decade of 9/11, two wars and the Great Recession. They are ready to work hard, applying their mastery of technology and belief in education to get ahead. They believe in themselves and think their generation is uniquely capable of solving big problems. They admire Mark Zuckerberg and suspect that they, too, could be successful entrepreneurs. They are optimistic, but know their American Dream will be different than their parents’. And that’s OK by them; they think the Boomer generation was blinded by the materialism that caused our economic troubles.
The hard part for Washington to admit is that young Americans think politics and politicians aren’t worthy of their time. Typical politics, and political speech, alienates them. Yet, for them, President Obama is different. They feel he “gets” them and the way their modern world works. His life speaks to them: his international, mixed-race roots; the fact that he and his wife finished paying off their student loans only a few years before entering the White House; his comfortable use of technologies like Reddit, Twitter and YouTube.
Beyond his personal attributes, the president’s priorities proved his values were theirs: making college and healthcare more affordable; ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; maintaining a women’s right to choose; calling for a fair tax code; investing in clean energy; reforming Wall St.; and perhaps most notably, supporting gay marriage.
These policies reflect young people’s idealism but also their practicality. They reason it is downright stupid, especially during a challenging economy, to discard children of illegal immigrants, gay Americans, young women dependent on Planned Parenthood for everyday healthcare, or people with preexisting medical conditions. Yes, it’s morally wrong, but it’s also bad economics. Because who knows where the next Zuckerberg will come from?
The really bad news for most Republicans is that young people don’t think they get any of this. How could they, if they oppose gay marriage, abortion rights, or enlightened approaches on immigration, education, foreign policy or the environment? Most young Americans see the Right as too narrow, focused only on big business and an outdated way of life that’s not coming back.
But what rankles them most is the Right’s perceived intolerance. How dare they impose their values on us? Who are they to keep any American from living happy, hectic, productive, confusing, meaningful, boring lives — just like the rest of us?
Perhaps nothing in the presidential campaign better captured how far removed the Republican establishment is from young Americans than its reaction to the TV ad our firm created in which the actress Lena Dunham endorses President Obama. Viewed over 2.5 million times on YouTube, Ms. Dunham advised young people why their “first time” was so important. Young people got the joke, but Fox, Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the Right erupted. Erick Erickson, editor of RedState.com, said the video was “further proof we live in a fallen world destined for hell fire.” Could there have been any better evidence that the Right doesn’t get it?
Young Americans’ pragmatic idealism gives Progressives, and the president, a built-in advantage in current debates. Young Americans believe it’s no longer possible to defend the indefensible: you can’t argue against more gun control in light of Newtown; against a more fair tax system in light of our country’s income inequality; against immigration reform in light of our historic embrace of immigrants; against climate change in light of extreme weather like Sandy; and against gay marriage in light of the obvious inequities.
To young Americans, these Progressive ideas are good for both the soul and a secure economic future. It’s not about politics, but their unique value system molded in the blast furnace of our changing world. It’s shrewd and inspiring, and for them, a blueprint for life.