With the Iowa caucuses only a week away, many young Iowans remain devoted to libertarian candidate Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). Paul’s supporters are notably young and tech-savvy, but millennials of every allegiance are stumping for their preferred candidates in a mounting frenzy of Likes, posts, and tweets. In some states (although not yet Iowa), young voters frustrated by their limited options can go online to back a third-party candidate through Americans Elect, the “first nonpartisan presidential nomination.” (2.3 million people have done so).
At first glance, our generation appears to be active and engaged in the political process, empowered by a new mix of technologies that promote choice and freedom. However, rather than use technology as a tool for change, I believe we are seduced by an app culture of effortless technology, where the ease of discovery and expression biases us towards superficial solutions and away from hard choices. We substitute Likes and tweets for the deliberation and action the country needs from us.
As evidence, consider that tech-savvy millennials often appear to support superficial causes and to support them superficially. Among these causes are Paul and Americans Elect, both of which appeal to novelty but neither of which offers serious solutions.
In the coveted 18–34 demographic, 1-in-5 young Republicans support Paul. Among Republicans older than 34, that number is less than 1-in-10. Why can’t we recognize that Paul’s campaign is a screed against government without a practicable agenda? He plans to cut $1 trillion from the federal budget, eliminate five government agencies as well as the Federal Reserve, and would prefer to do away with the income tax. Never mind that Paul can’t eliminate agencies by executive order and that his entire plan would need to be enacted by a congressional establishment that despises him.
I am reassured that young primary voters also support Mitt Romney in large numbers, not because I like him, but because he has long been the only other Republican candidate who can run a good campaign and tie his own shoelaces. Nevertheless, millennials support Paul disproportionately, resolved to back a snake oil salesman who has not resolved but instead aggravated questions about his judgment and character.
Similarly, I see Americans Elect as a rose-tinted solution designed to appeal to millennial tastes for web-based fixes to real-world problems. Registered voters can sign up on the group’s website, where they can participate in an internet-based convention to choose a third-party candidate in June. The group has gained ballot status in 12 states so far, including Ohio, Florida, and California. Users can participate in the online convention and still vote in their own party primaries.
I am hugely more sympathetic to Americans Elect than I am to Paul’s myopic platform. That said, the group shares Paul’s self-defeating focus on the White House: people of good conscience can disagree about how good a president Barack Obama has been, but it is the country’s legislature that is clearly broken. Congress is hamstrung by manufactured crises, Congress’ leaders are safe in gerrymandered districts, and Congress, of course, controls the budget. Electing Paul (or Buddy Roemer) won’t change that, or the face of American politics. Instead, we will have to fix Congress.
Of even more concern than what causes we support is how we support them. Since 2008, when young voters propelled Obama into the White House with record turnout, political participation has cratered. According to a Pew Research Center study, we’re as likely to volunteer for a campaign as older generations, but less likely to vote regularly or to contact our elected representatives. Many millennials don’t devote sustained attention to political issues in this era of political crisis.
Instead, we seem more likely to engage in politics in the same way that we engage with consumer brands, by clicking the inviting blue “Like” button that registers our approval. We wear our hearts on our sleeves and on our Facebook profiles, but many of us leave it at that. We are seduced by an app culture of one-click fixes.
I can’t stress enough that I love technology — as I’ve argued before, I just think we’re using it wrong. The Egyptian Revolution was organized in large part on the Facebook page We Are All Khaled Said, set up by Google marketing exec Wael Ghonim in memory of a young man beaten to death by security forces. Young Egyptians didn’t just “Like” the page — they clicked the blue button and then braved tear gas to battle riot police. Closer to home, you can say what you like about Occupy Wall Street: at least these were people who cared enough about their society to go outside in the cold.
If you are a Ron Paul fan and, after liking his Facebook page and pounding out some re-Tweets, you’re going door to door for him, excellent. You’re serious and engaged, and you don’t need me to tell you I don’t support your candidate. You’re not using technology as a crutch: You’re realizing its promise through tough decisions and hard work. I hope more of us start doing that.
Photo Credit: Allison Stilwell