Politicians, media and markets in a battle to engage

Written By: Doug Nicholls
Published: November 13, 2011 Last modified: November 12, 2011

This is an important work of detailed research that reveals a great deal about how young people between the age of 18-24 see the political landscape in the United States. Only 17 per cent identify strongly with either of the main political parties. Young people are increasingly dissatisfied with mainstream parties and seeking alternative forms of expression and organisation.

The authors try to understand and explain why an angry generation of highly politicised young people in the 1960s and ’70s gave way to something far less radical and visible. They examine why young people choose not to be involved in mainstream politics. They destroy the myth that young people are apathetic and argue that if young people see the political world as being impervious to change, it may be rational for them to opt out. If nothing you can do within the projected political system will make a difference, it can be logical to find other ways of changing things. A starting point is to define politics as everyday lived experience, perhaps.

There has been a withdrawal from partisan politics and this book makes what are many transferable observations. Its methods could usefully be applied in the British context, as politicians scratch their heads at the problem of re-engaging with young people.

In order to be engaged, people must be able to connect their everyday experiences with larger political events. In order to create meaning for ourselves, we need to be active agents able to negotiate our daily activities with the larger social structures. To be part of the picture, you need to have extensive interaction with the wider world . These processes also convey a sense of identity and empowerment.

In a world where the markets and the media may not encourage political engagement, and where we have increasingly mechanistic concepts of learning and mass youth unemployment, young people endure various forms of isolation and alienation which actively discourage democratic participation and the critical questioning that underpins political discourse. Studies show that young people who are less likely to vote are more economically alienated.

The authors say that young people, if they are Republican-minded, distrust political leaders, whereas Democrat-inclined young people are concerned more about the progress of issues, which they see as problematic within a distrustful political system. But, like non-aligned young people, they distrust the sources of information through the media about politics. The most popular form of political education turns out to be the The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a blend of satire and journalism about current affairs.

Differences between parties are conceptualised widely among young people as differences between brands of commodities. There is a style or demeanour associated with the Democrats and the Republicans, just as there is with McDonalds or Starbucks. As the authors say: “For a generation that has grown up entirely in the world where parties, politicians and policies have been sold like soap, opting out from politics is no more consequential a decision than to avoid pop music or shop at Gap. Attachment to a party is superficial, saying no more about an individual than the clothes they wear.”

The commoditisation of politics has a lot to answer for. We have to get back to face-to-face dialogue with young people to highlight the profound ideological differences between plans for change and find new ways of appreciating their strengths and their legitimate rights and demands. Politicians should stop selling and start listening.