My boomer generation father often tells a story of being a seven year-old in California during the 1960 presidential campaign. John F. Kennedy was to attend a fundraiser at my grandparents' house. On the day of the event, a telegram arrived from JFK saying "Sorry I can't make it. I'm sending my brother Ted instead." Somewhere we still have that telegram in the family archives...and this week, the generations seemed to come full circle, as Ted Kennedy, his brothers' living legacy for all these many years, still proves capable of inspiring young voters to support Barack Obama, much as JFK and RFK inspired the youth vote in their 1960s election campaigns that my father's generation remembers so well.
Ted Kennedy's stentorian speech endorsing Obama was a kind of a re-enactment of the words of JFK's legendary inaugural address, "Let the word go forth... that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans..." Aside from all the political punditry about the meaning of the Kennedy endorsement, to me one of the most notable aspects of it was the role of the generations: Ted Kennedy said he had been influenced to support Obama because of his niece Caroline's support for Obama, and Caroline, in turn, pointed out that what drew her to support Obama, and to the realization that Obama reminded her of what people told her JFK was like, was the inspiration Obama had kindled in Caroline's own high school and college-age children.
Among all the interesting twists on traditional political themes in campaign '08, the generational issue keeps coming up, with Time magazine even declaring in a cover story last week that 2008 is the "year of the youth vote."
Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill cited her daughter as a major reason for her endorsement of Obama. McCaskill's daughter, Maddie, reportedly told her mom that if she didn't endorse Obama, she would never speak to her again.
While Obama gets a disproportionate share of the "youth-influencing-the-parents" factor, other candidates are also benefiting from the same phenomenon. I have heard similar stories about Senator Clinton and Senator McCain, Governor Huckabee and Congressman Paul. Because young people are taking this election so seriously and are becoming so well informed about the issues and the stances of the candidates, they are exerting rarely seen influence on their parents.
Many Americans are recognizing that this is an election not just about America today, but the America to come, what it looks like and what it will look like in the future, not only for my generation, but for my generation's children and grandchildren. Americans are coming to understand that issues like the environment, healthcare, and America's role in the world are long-term inter-generational issues that have much more to do with how we will be living a generation from now than with the immediate circumstances.
Parents are really thinking about their children in this election...Mothers are thinking about the possibility that their daughters could one day be the Commander-in-Chief. African-American parents are seeing a new world of possibilities for their children. Many parents, especially those who lived through the Cold War, see this election, where national security and terrorism are frontline issues, as being about keeping their children safe. Many are thinking about whether or not their children will be able to find good paying jobs when they graduate college.
We hear politicians say all the time, "We want to leave a better world for our children..." When they say this, it is really an emotional appeal to parents, designed to suggest that "I will be the leader who make sure your children are safe, and allow them to grow, and prosper." It's also become such a part of political rhetoric, that it has long since ceased to be a meaningful differentiator. But in this election, parents have been sometimes surprised and often inspired by their progeny's motivation and desire to participate, and this factor is causing the older voters to pay attention to the thinking of younger voters.
One of the most effective ways to get someone to support a candidate is for someone they care about to ask them to. Children asking their parents to support a candidate certainly falls into that category. I think it says a lot to parents, when they see their children who might usually ask for money or a later curfew, asking them to support someone running for office. The fact that we have seen so many instances of this inter-generational exchange, is another great sign that young people are taking the reins in this election, and will be among the deciding factors in who wins this November, in the year of the youth vote.