Young Voters, Identity Politics

07/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There is no generation immune to the bug that is identity politics.

While driving through Mississippi and Alabama, I found that the country's youngest voters, like many of their parents and whether they liked to admit it or not, considered identity high on the list when deciding whom to back for president. In Hazel Green, Alabama, and Clarksdale, Mississippi, many of the young people I spoke with were either repelled by or drawn to Barack Obama because he is African-American.

In Hazel Green, I attended a tractor pull, which I had heard was a local youth hangout in addition to being a feat of agricultural-mechanical strength. One guy I talked to even described it to me as "the perfect place to find girls."

Beside the bleachers, groups of young people gathered away from the roar of the tractors, beside concession stands shilling corn on the cob and T-shirts that read, "I love HIS big tractor" and "Long Live Dale, Jr."

"Here's what I have to say about politics," said a friendly sounding baby-faced high school graduate named Adam, 18, "fuck it. Still though, I'm going to vote for John McCain because I don't want a black Muslim in charge of this country. You just can't trust a black man with this country, what can I say?"

His girlfriend, Brittney, 18, stood beside him smiling. Parting her short blond hair and standing up as tall as she could, (no more than 5'2") she spoke next.

"It's nothing personal to Obama," she said with an eerily sweet drawl, "but it's like I learned in church: As a black man trying to be a leader, he is like the anti-Christ. If he were to become president, it would be the beginning of what could be called an apocalypse."

The third member of the group, another recent high school grad named Chris, chimed in.

"There's really nothing I can do about it," he said. "I'm a Southern boy, born and bred, and I just can't have a black president, and there's nothing more to say about it."

The next group I approached was a group of six, the most prominent of which was a 19-year-old who weighed well over 300 pounds and went by Big Cal.

"Ah, man," he said, "you don't want to know what I have to say about it." When I told him I wanted to hear what everyone had to say, he reluctantly responded in a slow southern drawl, "All I know is I'd rather not see that Jew win. Having a Muslim nigger as our president, that's not OK."

It was disturbing, not just that this group of people believed Barack Obama -- a self-proclaimed "dedicated Christian" -- to be a Muslim and Jewish, but also that these terms could be thrown out so contemptuously.

While in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the birthplace of the blues and home to a 70 percent African-American population, I found that identity can cut both ways.

"I'm voting for Barack because he understands where we come from, having come from the same place himself," said Salena Moore, 18, when I talked to her on the campus of the historically black Cohoama Community College. "McCain understands people like him better than he does people like us, so his tax plans will help the rich, not the people that need it the most. I'm trying to save my money, and I want to vote for someone who will look out for me in the next four years."

The belief that Obama would look out for poorer black citizens was repeated to me time and time again. This may be true, but when pressed for particular policy stances that supported this claim, the information got murky. One particularly interesting comment I heard many times was that Obama would help the community by lowering gas prices.

"Vote Obama all day, Obama all the way. That's my rhyme, Obama all day, all the way," said Chris Wallace, 19. "I'm voting Obama for gas. If we stay in Iraq like McCain wants us to, gas will be $10 a gallon. I got my car right there with two flat tires and an empty tank. I'm voting so I can use that car again."

Voting for Obama based on issues such as gas prices may be dubious, because it is nearly impossible to really know what will happen. Whether or not he is the best candidate to lower gas prices is debatable. Both candidates have similar energy-saving policies, from boosting alternative energy technology, to pressing for more fuel efficiency and implementing caps on carbon emissions, to lessening the effects of global warming. Where they differ is on offshore drilling and the temporary respite from the 18.4 cents per gallon tax, both of which McCain supports and Obama does not. What's at play here has less to do with what Obama will really do about gas prices, and more about how people perceive him as a person.

What was just as striking as those who admitted identity was a factor, however, were the people who claimed that race or personality had no affect on them, but seemed to be misinformed about the candidates' policy positions. A white man named Jay Moore, 25, told me he wanted to vote for Hillary, but would never vote for Obama, and come November, would punch the ticket for McCain. He said that his biggest concern was getting out of Iraq, but couldn't vote for a guy who would put a mandate on healthcare.

"I had two fingers cut off," he said, "and I couldn't get them sewed back on until he signed a $1,300 check. How can I afford that? How can I afford to vote for a guy who will make me pay more for healthcare?"

Did he not realize that Hillary was the one with the proposed mandate on universal healthcare? If exiting the war was this guy's top priority, and he had been supportive of Hillary's healthcare plan, what would make him jump from Hillary to McCain? Moore didn't have an answer for this other than to say Obama's negatives outweighed his positives.