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Leaving the Streets for Tweets: The Shift of Young America

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Health care reform in America stands unrivaled as the most effective prism through which to understand the emergence of a new political landscape in 2009.

The stakes are as high as they can be. Discussion about health care -- even if opaque from a policy perspective -- incites a number of our primal impulses: protection of the weak and elderly; mitigation of physical suffering; preservation of the integrity of the body. Whether you fear the cause of your death may be an empty bank account or a 'death panel,' being dispassionate about our system of health care is a rejection of basic genetic wiring. The stakes are existential.

Young Americans, however, don't usually get sick and don't usually die; thus they are immune to all the clamor about health care. Or at least that's the orthodoxy amongst many policy analysts, who often use the term "Young Invincibles" to explain youth apathy toward health care reform.

But the explanation isn't entirely convincing. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that 30% of Americans ages 19-29 are uninsured -- the highest of any age group. Polls show that 60% of those under 30 are in favor of Obama's comprehensive reform plan -- more than any other age group.

So where are they? More specifically, for the sake of this analysis, where are the young progressives who voted in astonishing numbers in 2008 for the Democrats struggling to pass the health care reform they promised?

There are at least two reasons -- aside from "invincibility" -- for which young progressive Americans are absent in this debate. The first is that they have been appropriated and made complacent by the agenda to elect then-Senator Obama. The second is that they are domestic and boring; the media loves guns, sex, and melodrama, and young progressives currently offer none of these. Young progressives have left the streets for tweets: their public outrage has been supplanted by a clean virtual connectedness, and movement conservatives have succeeded in exploiting the space left behind.

"Young people are the backbone of the campaign apparatus that elected Barack Obama to president," says Matt Adler, a former Deputy Regional Field Director for Obama's campaign in Florida. Adler saw the quest to elect Obama as leading many young progressives to think of politics "as a sprint, when it's actually a marathon." Some run out of breath by the time they get to the voting booth. What might explain the disparity between the physical and civic vigor of the youth?

One explanation can be found in a phenomenon known as "the cult of the presidency." In a critically acclaimed book by that title, Gene Healy, Vice President at the Cato Institute, explains that the Framer's conception of limited presidential power is tragically obsolete: the president -- now the state's "guardian angel, shaman, and supreme warlord" -- is expected to singlehandedly resolve all the nation's problems. Americans' obsession over the conduct of the president comes at the expense of appreciating the role of Congress, Washington's labyrinthine bureaucracies, local government and ordinary, civically engaged citizens in advancing our republic. Only a third of Americans can name the three branches of federal government, and major news networks exploit special White House access by spending several minutes showing the president ordering a hamburger. There's good reason to think the youth are particularly likely to be unhealthily mesmerized by the awesome spectacle of power that is the presidency.

Young progressives -- traumatized by an ideologue who made for an uncomplicated villain -- came upon a man whose swagger made MTV producers salivate. They anticipated an inversion of the past 8 years. They craved a hero. They ensured his rise. And now most of them sit and watch until the next election.

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As of yet, young progressives don't have a compelling role in the stagecraft of politics. Their main disadvantage compared to the conservative movement is that they are typically not unhinged. They don't brandish guns in public, roughhouse in town hall meetings, question the birthplace of the president, or believe he masterfully hides his secret identities as a Muslim, communist, or fascist. They don't have a counterpart to the conservative movement's Glenn Beck, whose shrill incoherence results in profiles in big magazines, boycotts by big companies, and big splashes in news narratives. They lack a palpable public presence that serves as an enticing hook for a story.

This is most likely in no small part because the youth can channel its convictions and rage through the distinctly private experience of social media and the blogosphere. The Internet is a public forum but its participants are often isolated from one another. They share links rather than link arms.

In an increasingly information-centric society, politics becomes more about spectatorship and less about participation. One has to ask: Is a digital diatribe as powerful as the tribal energy unleashed by public protest, community organizing, or fund-raising for interest groups? One must also ask: If public dissent is about engaging or grating against those who might not agree with you, does the privacy of virtual space put it at an inherent disadvantage in some instances?

Adler is optimistic about the prospect of new internet-based youth organizations. He is convinced that young Americans aren't suffering from apathy as much as they just need to know how to reorient their energy: "It was easy to be angry. Now we've put someone in the driver's seat who should be held accountable. Social media should not just be reactive, but also proactive."

As a co-founder of the recently-formed Young Americans for Healthcare Reform (its main presence is currently as a facebook group that has garnered nearly 1500 followers in 2 weeks), he is confident that groups like his can help the young re-articulate themselves on the national scene and provide fairly precise input on health care legislation. He admits that while young people don't have money to throw around, they can stay informed and organize virtually as a constituency, and track how Congress is performing according to their priorities in health care reform. He listed phone banking, voter registration drives, and natural knack for organizing (as evidenced by the '08 elections) as their main weapons when "targeting legislators."

The formation of lightweight operations like these and the ironically named Young Invincibles (whose motto is "Because no one is invincible without health care") who try to extend beyond the simple digital petition sound appealing on paper, but their ability to affect change remains to be seen.

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But perhaps singling out the youth in is misguided. Bruce Ackerman, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University, insists that movement progressives of all ages have not mobilized on the issue of health care due to the "absence of an economic justice center piece" in progressive thought. Over the course of the past few decades, the Democratic Party has become more of a coalition party that attempts to harness the interests of specialized progressive sub-movements that center on issues of identity, national security, foreign policy, and climate change. "But what kind of progressive movement is there today that has a distinctive diagnosis of the economic crisis? There isn't one," says Ackerman.

Indeed, the progressive movement didn't have a broad and coherent economic prescription for the crisis; the future of the economy was "a conversation between Larry Summers and Joseph Stiglitz -- and Obama elected the more conservative side." That is to say, the basic guidelines of progressive economic discourse today have emanated from technocrats and academics, rather than any normative progressive economic vision cultivated by movement progressives. Health care reform has been a traditional concern for Democrats for the past three quarters of a century, but the only truly economically-centered progressive sub-movement that exists today is organized labor, which is still a shadow of its former self, and unfortunately might remain that way.

This is all to say that young Americans aren't any more absent on health care than most the progressive movement. This stands in stark contrast to conservative movement politics, which has been able to filter all economic problems through the analytical lens of resistance to imminent socialism.

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When you don't have money in politics, you have to do extraordinary things to get noticed. Without the participatory ethos at the foundation of the public protest, counter-cultural statements, direct action, and civil disobedience that young Americans have historically excelled at, can they really develop an organized lobbying apparatus or activist infrastructure sophisticated enough to make an impact on health care reform? Facebook groups don't turn heads. Yet. But being rambunctious and rough around the edges still gets you pretty far these days. Just ask Mr. Beck.