Barack Obama wanted to be a transformational president, and as we head into the general election, he may have gotten his wish — just not the way he or his supporters might have thought.
Obama seems to have transformed the cohort of 18- to 29-year-olds, a whopping 66% of whom preferred him over John McCain, from passionate voters who thought Obama really did offer change they could believe in, into people feeling, in the words of veteran political analyst Charlie Cook, "disappointment and disillusionment."
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg recently found Obama leading Romney among these same voters just 55% to 43%. And focus groups of young undecided voters in Ohio and North Carolina, conducted by the Republican organization Resurgent Republic, found them unhappy with the direction of the country, skeptical about an improving economy and deeply disappointed with the president. He "promised the moon," one young voter told pollsters, "and couldn't even deliver the upper atmosphere."
Disillusionment with partisan politics is certainly nothing new. Obama's fall from grace, however, may look like a bigger belly flop because his young supporters saw him standing so much higher than typical politicians. Yet by dashing their hopes, Obama may actually have accomplished something so remarkable that it could turn out to be his legacy: He has redirected young people's energies away from conventional electoral politics and into a different, grass-roots kind of activism. Call it DIY politics.
We got a taste of DIY politics last fall with the Occupy Wall Street sit-ins, which were a reaction to government inaction on financial abuses, and we got another taste when the 99% Spring campaign mobilized tens of thousands against economic inequality. OWS and its tangential offshoots may seem political, but it is important to note that OWS emphatically isn't politics as usual. It isn't even a traditional movement.
Movements have vectors; they head in a direction. The Occupiers don't have a coherent program or clearly identified leaders or a political dimension even in the way, say, the tea party does. OWS is more just a festival of grievance populated by those (mostly young people) who find no place for themselves in the system, which made the metaphor of their "occupying" the seat of American economic power ironic.
All of this is perhaps best defined as a consciousness — a way of thinking about change rather than a schema for it. That's one reason the Occupiers could collect so many disparate elements. OWS has spoken to a mounting sense among the disaffected that nothing quite works in America and that you can't really fight politics with politics anymore. In fact, you have to forget about traditional institutions, power and systems entirely. Americans typically don't think this way.
OWS is only the most visible manifestation of this consciousness; there are many other subterranean components. Their adherents find one another on the Internet or in community meetings or
in groups like the 99% Spring. Though many of the young seem to have given up trying to change the establishment frontally, what they are doing, though they may not realize it, is slowly creating a melding of minds that could eventually result in a new kind of politics in which traditional political institutions are basically irrelevant.
The DIY impulse seems to start with the most basic politics of all: individual agency. If it takes hold it will be from the bottom up, translating a way of thinking into a way of doing. Already you can see DIY politics in action, not just in young people camping outside City Hall but in their joining service organizations and NGOs where they can do good and seemingly apolitical — or at least extra-governmental — work. They don't abide endless debate and tit-for-tat strategies that result in gridlock.
I have seen this firsthand in my family. One of my daughters has spent the last few years in the developing world working in healthcare and will be returning to this country this year to attend medical school. My other daughter spent a year in American Samoa in the World Teach program, another year in AmeriCorps, and is now in graduate school in social work. Neither cares one whit about the political system generally or electoral politics specifically. When we talk about their lack of interest in the current campaign or about legislative initiatives, they tell me, "We live our politics."
And the evidence is more than anecdotal. AmeriCorps has seen the number of its applications rise from 359,000 in 2009 to 536,000 in 2010 to 581,000 last year. Teach for America has seen a similar rise, with more than 5% of the graduating classes at 130 universities applying, including 18% of Harvard's grads. Data collected by Morley Winograd and Michael Hais, who have studied millennials, show not only the same trends but also a changing mind-set. The number of college freshmen who believe that it is "essential or very important to help people in need" soared to its highest level, 70%, since 1970. But here's the most interesting statistic: Although more than 25% said they had demonstrated for a cause, less than 10% had worked on a political campaign. Indeed, a Pew survey found that 18- to 29-year-olds are paying less attention to the current election than any other demographic group.
There is a scathing irony in the fact that some attribute the rise in civic commitment to an "Obama effect," by which they mean Obama has kindled this idealism the way President Kennedy inspired young people to join the Peace Corps. (Of course, many more attribute it to the economy and the lack of jobs for recent grads.) Unfortunately, none of these surveys investigates reasons for increased volunteerism, but the data suggest another possible Obama effect: that he has driven them out of politics and into service.
Many longtime politicos find that outcome troubling. They fret that if young people abandon the system, the system will abandon the public good. Of course, to many of the young, it is the system that has abandoned them. If the polls are accurate, most of them will still vote for Obama but with less enthusiasm than in 2008 and with fewer illusions about what he will accomplish. Instead, they will assume the social burden themselves, opting out of organized politics to "do it themselves" with a politics of one that adds up to millions of ones.
Neal Gabler is writing a biography of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.