How to politically mobilise youth in the USA.
With serious concerns swirling about Joe Biden’s ability to capture the enthusiasm and support of young voters, one of the most iconic stories from the Obama-Biden 2008 campaign provides a pathway forward.
Ashley Baia, a 23-year-old white Obama campaign staffer convened a group of volunteers in a mostly African American community in South Carolina. Before reviewing that day’s tasks, she asked each person to say why they were there. She went first. She explained that when she was nine, her mom was diagnosed with cancer and had to quit her job. The family lost their health insurance and filed for bankruptcy to cover the medical bills. Ashley decided she had to help, going so far as insisting that her favorite meal was mustard and relish sandwiches to save money. She was working in the campaign to lift up the other kids who needed to help their parents, she said.
One by one, the others explained their reasons for being there. The last person to speak was an elderly African-American man. His explanation was as short as it was powerful: “I am here because of Ashley,” he said.
The anonymous man’s six words captured the essence of the Obama-Biden campaign — a connection between an old black man and a young white woman to build hope and opportunity for a generation of Americans facing a difficult and uncertain future. The solidarity encapsulated in the statement is even more relevant today, and could frame Biden’s much-needed youth strategy:
Anger and injustice: In 2008, the statement resonated because it spoke to young people’s simmering outrage at the world they inherited from Baby Boomers: A dumb war in Iraq, an economy in free fall, a climate crisis worsened by the Bush administration and a broken health insurance system, to name a few.
Today, young people are even angrier. They’ve already endured a lifetime of crises: 9/11, the Great Recession, mass shootings and any number of natural disasters. Now, they face obstacles like never before — from a Depression-like economy devoid of internships and jobs that will burden them for years to the existential threat of climate change to broken and discriminatory systems of health care, immigration and education that limit their opportunities.
Joe Biden needs to let loose his Scranton emotion that’s too often in check. He must validate young people’s anger and anxiety, and shine a light on those injustices.
Shared values: The older man’s statement brilliantly defines the communitarian ethos many young people live by. The majority of young Americans take for granted that gay couples should be allowed to marry, trans people should be embraced and women should have reproductive rights. They put justice, inclusivity and tolerance at the top of their list of what matters most, from where they work to how they vote. Most have no time for Trump or Republicans, who represent all they oppose.
But they do question whether the former vice president fully shares their values. Biden must make clear that while his policy solutions may differ from those of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the values that animate his positions are the same. He must translate these shared values into a distinct youth platform that meets them more than halfway on issues like jobs, climate, education, health care and immigration.
Personal connection: “I am here because of Ashley” powerfully binds two people together in a cause bigger than themselves. After all, the complex pieces of a massive presidential campaign ultimately can be reduced to giving one person a better shot at improving their future.
Young people, especially those of color and of lower socio-economic status, need to believe that someone will fight to give them opportunity. Empathy is one of Biden’s great strengths, but he must speak to these young people on a personal level and make clear that their cause is his cause, too.
Action: Finally, the man’s statement, “I am here…” is central to any strategy. He took action. Young people are used to volunteering, but often they don’t translate that instinct into political action. The Biden campaign must make it socially desirable do so — through celebrities, technology and cultural cues. Young people march, register and vote when their friends do, as we saw in both Obama campaigns and the 2018 midterms. The bandwagon effect is real, spreading enthusiasm far beyond young people. Biden must make it cool to engage in the political process, still the surest way to effect the systemic change they crave.
Can a 77-year-old who has been in public office for more than 50 years energize young people? Yes, no question. Young people are pragmatic. The stakes are high. They have demonstrated that they will vote. They will do so again. But they need to believe that Biden gets their emotional and economic reality, and offers concrete plans to transform their fear into credible substantive change. “I am here because of Ashley” lights the way.
Rob Shepardson is co-founder of SS+K, the youth marketing agency for the 2008 and 2012 Obama-Biden campaigns.
First published in “The Hill”