By Paula S. Fass
As the primary process comes to an end, and the unexpected youth magnet Bernie Sanders now finds himself with practically zero chance to win the Democratic nomination, it will be interesting to see where America’s youth turn their attention. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump are youngsters – both are in their late 60s. Since neither explicitly articulates (at least not so far) the economic needs of millennials or Generation Xers, it might be worth thinking about what kinds of cultural issues could affect younger Americans and bring them to the polls. Three factors seem especially important – race, sex and sexuality, and media savvy. These are pulse points for young Americans and the candidates posture (more even than their positions) and the vibes they emit may provide young Americans with a reason to vote.
A reality TV star with the “in your face” attitude that young people have come to expect and to admire on television (even from liberal figures like Ellen DeGeneres and Jon Stewart), Trump’s ability to control the 24-hour news cycle and his short attention span on issues is both a product of a life lived in the media and one that attracts it. Trump uses the same biting and nasty attacks as reality stars whose insults are at once demeaning and funny. Hillary Clinton’s much more deliberate, thoughtful and well prepared approach to issues may be persuasive to people her age (like me) but can seem uncool and inhibited to young people. I don’t think Hillary should or could change this and no number of changes in hair styles and makeup can compensate for this lack of media friendly self-presentation (indeed it may have the opposite effect), but it may hurt her in turning out young Americans.
Donald Trump prides himself on exploiting the latent racial antagonism in America that some intellectuals and pundits believed had been largely quelled by the Obama election. Deep-lying historical patterns are not so easily overcome and some reaction might have been expected. Hillary manifestly reaches out to ethnic and racial minorities and this may mean that young Latinos as aspirants to full American cultural importance, especially, and African Americans will come out in large numbers where it matters most in states like Florida and Michigan. At the same time, Hillary does not have Bill Clinton’s natural appeal to African Americans (despite his recent missteps on his sentencing legislation) and for various reasons Hillary may be reluctant to bring Bill into the campaign in a maximal way (see below). Young African Americans, men especially, may find Hillary’s style uninviting and unless she begins to offer some real remedies for the problems experienced by black youth in the economy she may find that their appearance at the polls is not a sure thing.
On sex and sexuality (rather than gender), the picture is very fuzzy. Clearly Hillary’s strong pro-choice posture should appeal to young women whose ability to act as full sexual beings (something most of them take for granted today but was not true in the past) is made possible by the contraceptive and abortion revolution of the last half century. At the same time, young women today are haunted by rape and sexual harassment. Since Hillary trails Bill Clinton’s misdeeds (and her own complicit acceptance of his behavior) behind her, the sexual issue is by no means a certain win for Hillary. Trump has just begun his overt references to these matters. There is more to come. Even if Bill never raped anyone as Trump contends, Trump will make the most of how the first Clinton’s presidency was soiled by a man who could not control his sexual appetites and preyed on a young intern. This was a very public scandal, and unlike Trump’s escapades, it took place while Bill Clinton held the highest office in the land and in the White House. Trump, of course, has been married three times and in each case to someone who is or who resembles a model. That can be viewed even by young people as one of the prerogatives of great wealth. The president of the United States, however, is not like the king of France in the ancient régime, someone to whom all women in court were available.
Trump talks about women as bimbos or as disgusting and this is hardly the language of a potential president. This frat boy attitude may wear very thin as the campaign progresses and be viewed less as an expression of Trump’s anti-political correctness temperament than as a real threat to the safety of women. Rape is a real problem and the increasing attention given to it in the media and the growing publicity about sexual harassment in college sports (as well as among professional athletes) suggests that Trump may find that young women will go to the polls in droves to express their fears and signal their anger at being made to feel unsafe and under attack.
What their brothers will do is less clear. While sexism seems to have declined as young women and men become colleagues and share group experiences in adolescence, the growing sexual threats to women (even by friends and colleagues) indicate that something besides a new equality is being signaled. Perhaps it is the result of the latent hostility that has resulted from the real competition women offer as they assume the same jobs and roles as men. This competition and its economic consequences may well make Trump a far more attractive candidate to young men than we expect.
All elections are unpredictable; this one more than most. With Hillary still fighting off Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump gaining in the polls against her, observers should keep a keen eye on the inclinations of young Americans. Their votes may make all the difference.
Paula S. Fass is professor of Graduate School and the Margaret Byrne Professor of History Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of of Kidnapped and Children of a New World and editor of The Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World. Fass currently resides in Berkeley, California. Her latest book is The End of American Childhood: A History of of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child.