Just recently, America elected its first black President in former Illinois Senator Barack Obama. Compared to most American Presidents who have occupied the Oval Office, Barack Obama rises to the Presidency as something of a real neophyte. Barely three years into his first term as a U.S. Senator, Barack Obama announces a run for the U.S. Presidency. His campaign upstages Democratic Party star NY Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and then he trounces veteran Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. Barack Obama ran the first winning presidential campaign that took full advantage of the Internet, and his support from the blogosphere and his use of mobile electronic communication brought him into contact with more youthful voters than ever before.
I saw Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean speak at the 92 Y in New York City’s Upper East Side less than two weeks ago, and he commented about how the election of Barack Obama represented a generational sea change within the American political electorate. Voters 35 years old and under had signaled their clear break from the divisive political contentiousness that both defined the formative college years of the baby boomers and led to the divestment of Generation Xers from American political life. Turnout among youth voters reached its second-highest level since 1972, the first time 18 year olds received the right to vote under the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In the 1972 election, CIRCLE (a non-partisan research institute at Tufts University studying the youth vote and youth civic engagement) stated that 55.2% of American voters aged 18-30 participated in the election that resulted in Richard Nixon’s reelection to the U.S. Presidency. In 1992, the energetic campaign and charismatic personality of Democratic Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton inspired young people to head to the polls where 52% of them participated and helped swing the election towards Clinton. However, the election of Barack Obama featured youth turnout at an even higher rate than 1992; with over 53% of youth voters participating in this election—making it the second-largest youth voter turnout since 1972.
Yet, for all of the hoopla about Barack Obama, the first African-American man to win the the U.S. Presidency, the country faces an unprecedented crisis. On the surface, surprisingly youth voter turnout was not higher than it was in 1972. However, the eight years of corruption, scandal, foible, incompetent policies, and outright mendacity that defined the Bush-Cheney years had finally resulted in economic collapse on the eve of the 2008 general election. Although many heeded Barack Obama’s clarion call to vote for change and cast their ballot for him on the historic day of November 4 and the 2008 election witnessed historic levels of voter participation no matter how you analyze the data, I think the continuing problems with American society and its political self-identity will continue. In many ways, we are living, as Newsweek journalist Fareed Zakaria states in the title of his recent book, in “A Post-American World.” The U.S. will likely remain the world’s global military superpower for perhaps a generation, but the two disastrous wars in which the United States finds itself embroiled in Afghanistan and Iraq have seriously sapped the manpower strength of the U.S. armed forces and stretched its many other security commitments nearly to the breaking point. Economically, the leadership of the U.S. over the world’s financial system is all but over after the 2008 credit crisis and Wall Street financial meltdown. Even with Keynesian New Deal policies carefully planned to reinvigorate both Main Street and Wall Street through investing in workers and infrastructure, the indebtedness of the U.S. government and the intransigence of both public opinion and the academy to embracing new economic philosophies make a quick recovery appear quite doubtful. Culturally, doubts about American ways of life are slowly increasing. The world’s educated people are increasingly finding themselves attracted to cosmopolitan social identities that transcend the boundaries of the nation-state. Americans not so globally aware are left increasingly bereft of new sources for their identity. Cultural and ethnic heterogeneity are also continually uncomfortable realities for older Baby Boomers and Americans born during the Great Depression and World War II, as they recognize the unspoken and disturbing inkling inside of them that America has entered a period of overall decline.
Barack Obama will have his hands full with both Wall Street and the Detroit automakers, especially G.M., going up in flames. Barack Obama will be expected to show leadership and deliver on his promises for change, however nebulous that concept may appear to be given the hypnotic utterance and re-utterance of that term throughout the course of the campaign. Clearly, a younger generation is becoming active in the political, cultural, and economic activities of America. There is a palatable hunger for a politics worthy of sustained commitment. There is a desperate need to feel connected to fellow and a desperate need to feel a part of some greater entity that provides authentic satisfaction.
But, all of these longings are vague and they are mediated through the mass political infrastructure of the Information Age. Can the Information Age mediate the desires of today’s young people? How do they come to participate in the phenomenon of democracy in a post-American world where the economy will be unlikely to deliver the middle-class visions so many had thought would be their right-of-passage into the mainstream of American culture? How will older Americans respond to decaying economic conditions that will greatly reduce the ease with which Americans enter retirement? Many who have accepted the norms and dictates of the American economic system will find themselves woefully unprepared for the dark and perilous future that awaits them going forward.