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Youth enthusiasm faded for many reasons, panelists say

By Cody Bloomsburg

The discourse came on strong from the beginning, at Rethink ’08’s live Web debate on young people’s passion for politics.
The first question was fielded by University of Montana political scientist Jeffrey Greene . Did he think that young people were taken in by President Barack Obama’s charisma in the 2008 election?

For a transcript of the debate, click on this image.

Greene responded that he thought they had. He said that he had never seen an election that garnered as much enthusiasm from college students. But he didn’t see that enthusiasm result in policy changes that directly affect young people, he said, and he was surprised at how quickly it receded after the voting was done.

Ward 1 Missoula City Councilman Jason Wiener took the next question on what he thought boosted young voter participation in 2008. They were directly appealed to and saw the need to redirect the country’s priorities, he said.
Wiener punctuated his comment with a kick at the first question, indicating it made the election seem “like a confidence game, that there was some sort of deceit packed in with the appeals,” which he called presumptuous on the part of Rethink ’08. He challenged the debate’s organizers to provide evidence that young voters were somehow deceived by the Obama campaign.

The goal of Rethink ’08 has been to engage the Missoula community in a discussion about where they perceive the energy of the youth vote went after the election and what that might indicate about the state of political involvement in America.

Moderator Gillette Vaira (left) and Passang Norbu pore over a public comment, during Rethink08's Web debate. Photo by Carmen Irish

The third panelist, Ctibor Jappel, a UM political science graduate student from the Czech Republic, fielded the next question from moderator Gillette Vaira: Did he think young voters were gullible?
Jappel cited studies that have shown the general public to have little interest in politics.  He said the level of gullibility is probably comparable across age groups.
The debate drew its first substantial outside comment 16 minutes into the fray. It came from Erin Scott, neighborhood liaison to the Missoula City Council. She said she agreed with Wiener that the Obama campaign used young people to create a more engaging campaign, but wrote the volunteers may have dropped off after the election because it’s hard to keep people active in politics.

Trends and personalities

The discussion shifted to the question whether Americans identify more with a personality than a set of policies. Greene and Jappel both said that a candidate’s personality is important in American politics. But Greene noted that political party affiliation remains important, too.

Wiener said he felt that Americans’ focus on personalities results in limiting any individual to move forward with an agenda, as well as in the loss of the ability to keep legislators working on a policy agenda.
The debate turned to the idea of voting becoming trendy among younger voters. Jappel wrote that he thought it had, but because of the ineptitude of George W. Bush, not the appeal of Barack Obama.

Bush versus Obama

Wiener agreed that in his own experience he was more keyed up to vote against Bush in 2004 than for Obama in 2008, because by then his focus had shifted to local and state-level politics where he feels activism gets more done.
The panel was then asked for their opinions on whether youth still held on to the hope fostered by Obama’s campaign.
Greene wrote that he has seen hope fade among many of the students he has come in contact with. Commentator Erin Scott added that perhaps politics does not connect with the campus now as well as it did during the campaign.

Bitterness and hope

Jappel replied that he has run across many young people that were quite bitter about the state of American politics. But he said he still feels some degree of energy of change among the youth.
Wiener wrote that the frustrations he has seen lay with the slow pace of legislation in Washington, D.C. “The people I know are disappointed by the pace of changes and frustrated by Congress’s unwillingness to recognize the President’s electoral mandate,” he said.
At peak frenzy, the debate drew comments from representatives of Forward Montana, blogger Jay Stevens of Left in the West and four others interested in the discussion. It was followed by more than 70 people and had to be cut short because of time constraints.

The Rethink08 debate is archived at Coveritlive.

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