For a Political party attempting to rekindle its glory days of the early 1960s while luring the youngest of today’s voters to its ranks, the
symbolism was perfect. At a fund-raising party during last week’s Democratic national convention, Massachusetts congressman Joseph Kennedy, 35, son of the late senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, put his arm around 31-year-old Martin Luther King III, heir of the slain black civil-rights
leader. Above them on a giant television screen flickered newsreel footage of their illustrious fathers, who were both felled only months apart by assassins’ bullets 20 years ago. That generational theme recurred
throughout the four-day convention in Atlanta. Most Americans recall John F. Kennedy Jr. as a toddler saluting his father’s funeral procession in 1963. Last Tuesday night, he resurfaced in the public eye as a 27year-old law student who introduced a speech by his uncle, Senator Edward Kennedy, to the convention crowd. And to introduce Jesse Jackson’s powerful address to the delegates, all five of
the Jackson children spoke briefly. Their message was not just one of praise for their father. Instead, they used the spotlight to appeal to young voters to rally to the Democratic ticket. Said Jesse Jackson Jr., a 23-year-old campaign worker for his father: “Those that say this is an age of cynicism and despair are wrong. A new generation—my generation—is coming.” Like the Jackson clan, Michael Dukakis’s three children have also shared campaign tasks. It is a stark contrast to the Democrats’ 1984 campaign when
presidential candidate Walter Mondale’s family played a relatively minor role. The emerging prominence of young Democrats with famous surnames also comes at a crucial time. President Ronald Reagan scored highly among the 72
million American babyboom voters—those born between 1946 and 1964in the elections of 1980 and 1984. The Democrats are determined to reverse that trend. The majority of potential U.S. voters are under the age of 45. And Edward Rollins, a Republican consultant and former White House political director, acknowledged that the Democrats could capture the majority of those votes.
Said Rollins: “They aren’t committed to our camp unless we have an appeal to them. The younger Democrats, the new Democrats, could have a real appeal.” Like many young Democrats, Joshua Newman, a volunteer for the Democratic National Committee at last week’s convention, believes that the main challenge in attracting younger voters to the party is overcoming apathy, not Republican sentiments. Some Democratic leaders say that they hope to rekindle the idealism of young Democrats that dissipated after the 1968 assassinations of King and Kennedy, and the alienation of progressive young people at the party’s convention that year in Chicago. “The biggest surprise to me is that most of my classmates are apolitical,” said Newman, 30, a recent MBA graduate of Harvard’s elite business school. “In the cafeteria, you don’t see people reading newspapers or talking about the news.” A major factor in reversing that apathy may be Jackson’s flamboyant, although unsuccessful, bid for the party nomination. His dramatic speaking style and idealistic platform, according to many analysts, have already attracted many young converts to the Democrats. Other active campaign roles are those of Jesse Jackson Jr., a recent graduate of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, and John Dukakis, the candidate’s 30-year-old stepson, who was an aide to Massachusetts Senator John Kerry before leaving to work on the Dukakis campaign. Said Ed Fry, president of the 200,000-member Young Democrats of America: “Attractive, bright, articulate young people like a Jesse Jackson Jr. have to encourage others to become involved.”
But Fry contends that issues are playing a role as well as personalities. He said that cutbacks by the Reagan administration in student-loan and aid programs are making a university education financially difficult for even middle-class students. And older members of the so-called youth vote, Fry said, are frustrated by high housing costs and eroded public services.
The Dukakis family members are sure to promote those and other issues in the coming months. But convention volunteer Newman, for one, doubts that the Nov. 8 election will spark a new political movement among the young. “What they really need to do is restore respect for elected and appointed officials,” said Newman, who says he favors Dukakis’s policies but finds the candidate uninspiring. He concluded: “Until the party does a better job of supporting people interested in public service rather than private aggrandizement, younger voters are going to remain skeptical.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.