David Hill: When politics fails

In my last column, before Thanksgiving, I described President Obama’s lost generation: the young Americans who were inspired to enter the political process in 2008 and 2012. 

My prediction is that a large share of these voters are becoming cynical about politics because of Obama’s failures, and could henceforth become wholly alienated from participation in the political process. 

But it’s not just the stench of broken promises and failed initiatives killing this generation’s enthusiasm for politics — it is just practical personal economics. Too many of Obama’s fawning admirers can’t find work, or if they do, they’re severely underemployed.

It’s embarrassing to be living in your parents’ basement while you are trying to get your feet on the ground financially. (Your parents are embarrassed, too, that you’re down there.) It’s super stressful staring at all those “past due” notices about your overdue student loan payments. It’s definitely discouraging to spend so much time trying to snag an interview for a hot job and then never hearing anything back from the employer’s HR people. And it’s undoubtedly depressing to work for an hourly wage doing a temporary job for which you are hopelessly overqualified.

I am not belittling any of these plights. To the contrary, I totally feel the pain of this lost generation. And I appreciate their resulting angst about the promises of politics. Should they hang in there, pursuing political goals like a bailout of student loan debt, or should they just go ahead and admit that would never happen? 

Most probably have learned their lesson. Even if the politicians promise free money for student debt repayment, and even if they mean it — which they may not — they might not get it done because “the system” won’t allow it. 

Like the promise of “affordable” healthcare, you just cannot count on the system providing student-debt relief. Doing so would just end in more disappointment. Ask young Americans who have stopped doing job interviews. They will tell you that nothing ever comes of it, so why try? They’ll soon assume the same about voting.

I think that technology is also hastening the Obama generation’s alienation from politics. You can buy and master new technology, and it empowers you. Does politics empower? Not really. People keep their focus on areas that offer some hope for success — pouring themselves into smartphones, personal computers and even video games allows these young Americans to have some sense of positive accomplishment that politics seldom conveys to most voters. Heck, if you are good at it, technology can even offer a career path.

Culture is getting in the way, too. It’s way more awesome to go to clubs with the gang than to register more (victim) voters. Taking pictures of your latest culinary feast, whether at Taco Bell or a real restaurant, and then texting them to friends is fun, and confers way more status than texting the latest political poll results around. The lost generation, given the choice of watching “Breaking Bad” on video or catching CNN on the tube, sees no contest. The lost generation likes beleaguered fellow traveler Walter White way more than the plastic Anderson Cooper. Music matters, too: It soothes the soul, whereas politics ruffles it.

My commentary here is not precisely normative. While I understand why this generation is on the way to checking out, I am not endorsing it. But I have empathy for their plight and their response. They were let down and are still being let down. Political man is somewhat rational, and politics is transactional. The lost generation hasn’t been given any justification for continuing down the political road. 

It’s no longer enough to invoke the obligation of civic duty. People need something in return.

Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns and causes since 1984.