When Youth Was King: But the “Youth Vote”, even in the 1960s, was never much more than journalistic shorthand. It was born out of liberal wish-fulfilment and made vaguely plausible by left-wing academics. Discovering that many of the Left’s supporters are young does not mean that the young support the Left.
DO YOUNG NEW ZEALANDERS vote in ways that diverge markedly from the voting patterns of older New Zealanders? Does it still make sense to talk about winning the “Youth Vote”? And, if it does, which of our political parties stands the best chance?
There was a time when people took the notion of a Youth Vote very seriously indeed. By the mid-1960s, the early cohorts of the Baby Boom Generation were entering their late teens and early-twenties. Middle class children in unprecedented numbers were pouring into new and expanded university campuses. By the end of the decade, the impact of decolonisation and the Vietnam War had transformed, “students” into an important political category.
The oft-demonstrated political activism of college students, when combined with the explosion of what Time magazine called “Youth Culture” (forever associated in the minds of “anyone over thirty” with popular music, long hair, sexual licence, recreational drug-taking and Dr Timothy Leary’s infamous formula: “turn on, tune in, drop out”) encouraged the notion that “anyone under thirty” shared a common set of generational expectations and interests. Without this “Youth Vote”, it was suggested, the electoral success of mainstream political candidates could not be guaranteed.
This was by no means as fanciful as those living fifty years after the watershed year of 1968 might think. Had not President Lyndon Johnson been routed by Senator Eugene McCarthy’s “Children’s Crusade”? Supported overwhelmingly by young anti-Vietnam War student activists, McCarthy had run the President embarrassingly close in the New Hampshire primary of January 1968. Days later, Bobby Kennedy, also running on an anti-war platform, entered the race for the presidency. By March, Johnson was telling Americans that he would not seek, nor would he accept, his party’s nomination. The “Youth Vote” had driven LBJ from office.
Four years later, right here in New Zealand, the “Youth Vote” was being taken just as seriously. Mass demonstrations against the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War had been a feature of the early 1970s. University students comprised the overwhelming majority of these anti-war protesters. Few political scientists questioned the importance of the anti-war movement in securing the Norman Kirk-led Labour Party’s landslide election victory of 1972. Two years later, Labour attempted to lock-in the Youth Vote by lowering the voting age to 18.
But the Youth Vote has always been a political illusion. Middle class university students in the 1960s and 70s made up only a small part of the Baby Boom Generation. Most young Americans and New Zealanders of that era did not go to university. By the time many of them turned 18 they had been working full-time for two or three years. Factory workers and shop assistants had much more in common with their parents and co-workers than they did with placard-waving varsity students. If they voted Labour it wasn’t on account of the Vietnam War, but because voting Labour was what Mum and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, had always done.
And even among the university students themselves there were sharp divisions. The long-haired, left-wing radicals might be the ones everybody saw on the television news, but back on campus there were thousands of politically conservative students who thought and voted very differently. A university education was – and remains – a middle-class rite-of-passage. And most middle-class people then, as now, support National – not Labour.
In truth, the “Youth Vote” has never been much more than journalistic shorthand. It was born out of liberal wish-fulfilment and made vaguely plausible by left-wing academics. Discovering that many of the Left’s supporters are young does not mean that the young support the Left.
So, why the Greens believe that positioning twenty-somethings Jack McDonald and Chloe Swarbrick high on their Party List will attract the support of “Millennials” (the latest journalistic coinage) is anybody’s guess. To be young does not necessarily make one Green – just ask David Seymour and Todd Barclay!
The best evidence for something called the “Youth Vote” is, paradoxically, the large number of young people who do not vote at all. Whether out of ignorance, indolence, or principled resistance to a perceived lack of credible electoral alternatives, tens-of-thousands of 18-25-year-olds simply do not make it to the polling booths on Election Day.
Of those who do make it, the vast majority come from voting households. Ballots, like apples, seldom fall far from the family tree.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 7 April 2017.