The power of youth to transform politics using the internet

Former philosophy professor and current policy analyst David Anderson has some extremely innovative ideas concerning youth, politics, and the Internet. His project,
Youth04, aimed “to empower youth to get involved and create a dialogue between themselves and politicians.” It was a non-profit, non-partisan organization that sought to transform the role 18-25 year olds played in the 2004 election through state grassroots efforts on college campuses. By the time of the election, Youth04 had 40 chapters in over 20 states and the District of Columbia. Anderson’s evaluation of the project was that the Youth04 project could have met more of its goals with more time and funding.

This, of course, sounds like many other youth voting projects. The crucial difference was that, according to Anderson, Youth04 focused on “trying to create quality, not quantity, relationships between 18-25 year olds and candidates.” Anderson claims in his book on the subject, Youth04: Young Voters, the Internet, and Political Power, that while most Get Out The Vote (GOTV) efforts have been aimed at registering potential voters and then getting them to vote “Youth 04 is focused largely on the space in between registering and voting. If it takes an hour to register in March and an hour, maybe two, to vote in November, Youth04 wants to occupy the months in between. For it is during these months that young voters need to become engaged in campaigns and campaigns need to pay attention to them.” Anderson would like to see young voters become empowered enough to make the system be more responsive to them and their needs.

Anderson likes to say that Youth04 is “synthesizing the best of the political Internet and the best of traditional grassroots organizing, and relying on the energy, ideas, and connections of college students to bring about the change.” He further explains in his book that if “you run a traditional grassroots organization and use traditional media as your PR outlet and then add a website that has no ties to your traditional media effort you’ve added something new, the website, but you have not integrated it with your old strategy. You’re a traditional organization that has done a poor job of integrating your web strategy into your overall effort. Even the worst efforts to integrate the Internet are better than this, but the main point holds. If you really want to synthesize two things, you have to find a way to integrate them so that the best elements of the one thing are working effectively with the best elements of the other thing.” Youth04 aimed to be the manifestation of this synthesis, but for this fusion to occur the digital divide must be meaningfully bridged.

And while the Youth04 project was disbanded after the 2004 election, the ideas behind it have not. These ideas include a shift towards issue politics, the use of the Internet’s asynchrony as a way of bringing people together, and the use of petitions to empower young voters.

Issue Politics

Anderson believes that in the future, issue politics will become more important than election politics. However, he thinks that it will be a slow evolution because issue politics is all year, not just once every few years like election politics, so the momentum behind issue politics must be continually built up. Election politics is what people engage in when they vote, volunteer on campaigns, donate money to campaigns, attend town hall meetings organized by candidates, and study candidates and their positions. On the other hand, issue politics is when people engage in politics in advocacy of a particular cause or issue.

The hope is that while young people might be apathetic (for many different reasons) to election politics, many are engaged in issue politics at a wide variety of levels. As Anderson writes, “Issue politics is focused on trying to change the way a local, state, or federal government addresses issue, whatever they are: the environment, education, energy, war, social security, health care, tax cuts, or civil liberties. The most obvious objective you’ll have in issue politics is to affect law-making, and the two things that you are most likely to be interested in doing are getting a law passed and preventing a law from being passed.” Issue politics is naturally more likely to engage citizens because citizens are more likely to do something that concerns something they want to see done – concerning health care, roads, education, whatever – than they are to get a person elected. People are more likely to fight for causes than individuals who say they will fight for causes.

Further, the Internet is a great method of engaging in issue politics, as Anderson said, “as with the Internet, in issue politics there already are tons of examples where citizens have used the Internet to get laws passed or block laws from getting passed.” For this reason, for issue politics to transform the political landscape the digital divide will need to be addressed.

Asynchrony of the Internet

One of the greatest things about the Internet is that people can work together and communicate with each other at their own leisure. That is, they don’t have to come together at the same time in the same place. Anderson calls this the “asynchrony” of the Internet. Youth04 attempted to use asynchronous Internet communication and extend it into the real world. In his book, Anderson writes, “Rallies are great, but they are also hard to pull off, especially if you are trying to engage millions of people. It would be almost impossible to get 10,000 students at the University of Washington…to show up at the stadium in order to rally for student empowerment in Election 2004.” So, instead of traditional rallies Anderson sees the need for what he calls “the silent rally.” He continues by stating that it will be viral, “it will be fun, and it will be covered by the school newspaper; but no one will be cheering, and no single person will be standing in front of thousands of young people speaking. In the twenty-first century, thousands of college students will be speaking—in restaurants, on discussion boards, and via petitions. And when this rally occurs…candidates and the media will start listening. And when they start listening and responding, then disengaged college students will start listening and responding too.”

This line of thought inevitably leads to a discussion of Internet chatrooms, discussion boards, document transfers, blogs, and other technological advances in tele-communication. And indeed these advances need to continue to be used more and more effectively. But another direction recognition of the asynchrony of the Internet might lead is into the real world. As Anderson writes, “one of our main strategies for harnessing both the information and the interactive capacities of the Internet is to develop innovative offline strategies to get young people online, most notably our idea of motivating restaurant managers to provide discounts to young people who express an interest in talking about elections in ways that are informed by the 'Net and who want to got back to the 'Net, especially our site, in order to express their convictions and become empowered.”

The restaurant forum uses the asynchronicity of the Internet in a real-world forum by allowing youths to come into restaurants and discuss politics whenever they want. This fits with the model of engaging youth in political action whenever it fits their schedule. In his book Anderson writes that “If the average disengaged college student can get engaged at a time that suits her and in a way that helps to empower her as a part of a group—young people—then we will come closer to harnessing the full power of the Internet. And if the private sector can make it fun by throwing in free milkshakes or muffins or other incentives, then maybe we have a recipe for harnessing the 'Net.”


Anderson highly values the effectiveness of petitions, which utilize the asynchrony of the Internet. He writes, “One of the most potent political actions will be signing a petition, an online petition. For it thousands of young people sign a petition, then this petition can be brought to candidates and the media. For purposes of illustration, suppose 15 million of 25 million young people signed a petition that called for X. Only 8 million young people are expected to vote in Election 2004. Don’t you think the presidential candidates would pay attention to young people then?”

Youth04’s emphasis on petitions might strike some as strange, but the reason Anderson gave so much emphasis to petitions – and he admits that this may have been a mistake – is that in “order for young people to have a voice they must speak in large numbers. Blogs are great, but they are designed for small numbers of people to communicate and reflect on hard questions. So 100 people each writing 3 comments – well, that’s already a lot. A petition, on the other hand, can engage 1,000 or 10,000 people, and the 'Net can aggregate the commitments – as we’ve seen with many online petitions, e.g., those of I was hoping that campuses could generate lots of signatures on petitions they wrote and thus engage huge numbers of students who would not go to blogs or rallies or get involved in other more time consuming ways.”

The Future

Even though Youth04 was disbanded after the 2004 election, Anderson’s ideas have not lost any of their relevance. In addition, he is continuing the project in a variety of forms. He said that “Youth04 has two interns working this semester on research projects designed to improve our effort for the 06 elections. We are also trying to figure out ways to engage in issue politics that would not be inconsistent with the nonpartisan, nonprofit status of our three hosts, CDT, JHU, and TWC. We will not do everything the same way, but I think we will stick to our guns on some major themes since you can’t get everything done the first time. We also had almost no funding, so with some decent funding, and with focus placed on state and local elections in 06, Youth06 will be ready to come up to bat again.”


Source: Francis Raven

License: Creative Commons