24 May 2010

The Youth Vote - 1861 vs. 2008

I've been thinking about this topic for some time and still haven't sorted it all out totally in my mind, but thought I'd post something to generate some discussion. Maybe my readers (all 3 of you) can help me. At most election cycles, most notably 2008, we hear much about "the youth vote' i.e., the excitement of college students, their unique perspective, new blood, etc, etc. We, or rather most, assume the youth vote is a good thing. But should we make that assumption?

Don't misunderstand what I'm asking. I believe that a well-informed electorate voting for their representatives in government is important for a healthy republic. But the operative phrase I want to focus on here is "well-informed." How well informed are most 18 to 20 year-olds? How many of them are able to consistently separate emotions from logic when making decisions and choices? 

Recent studies have shown us that many in that age group are still not fully developed emotionally and that this impacts the decision making process. Older adults differ simply "because they have a wealth of past experience" and younger adults "don't tend to regulate their emotions." (See one such study here. There are a number of others which come to the same conclusion. As if we needed a scientific study to prove the obvious.)

We often see youth attitudes and movements bent on overturning the established authorities, to one degree or another. I'm not necessarily referring to revolution, but "change" and an allegiance to anti-authoritarian movements simply because it is "anti-authoritarian" or "anti-establishment." Nothing new or profound about that.

But with all this in mind and the fact that Southern secessionists are often referred to as "hotheads" and "fire-breathers" what conclusions can we draw from the "youth vote" of 1861?:

"Reflecting Virginia as a whole, the students [At Washington College, Lexington, VA] strongly supported secession leading up to and during the Virginia Convention of 1861. Also mirroring the situation in Virginia as a whole, the older faculty members proved staunchly Unionist." (Source.)

Contrast this against the youth vote of 2008:

"An interesting aside is that while the youth vote is most closely associated with Barack Obama – he won under-30s nationally by 16 points, 57-41 percent . . ." (Source.)

Now, I completely understand that there is much more involved in both these votes than just their "youth" and that I'm speaking in broad terms. But youth is a factor and, given the high hopes placed on Barack Obama by many young voters, and their subsequent disappointment, what can we learn from the youth vote of 2008?

Is it safe to say that in both instances, 1861 and 2008, these young voters were really not "well-informed" before making their decisions, or made them for the wrong reasons? Were they just "jumping on the bandwagon?" Is it safe to say that, in both instances, these voters were against the established authority? Did many, if not most, base their votes on emotion and an "anti-establishment" attitude? Any thoughts?


The Warrior said...

Good question. Personally, the "youth vote" is troubling to me not because it's a "youth vote", but because of our youth.


msimons said...

Richard I think this study shows the lack on time Parents are spending teaching their children about voting and the Political Process. Before I was able to vote I knew about the 2 party system, the machinery and political ideologies. I cast my first Presidential vote to re-elect RR. My parents and grandparents taught me about voting before I was turned a loose to do it. I believe that OB will receive a Youth vote backlash when he comes up for re-election by either they won't vote this time or they will vote against him.

Leonard Lanier said...

With regard to young voters in 1860 and 1861, Peter Carmichael produced a solid study of their behavior entitled "The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion." He argued that college-age Virginians viewed secession as a positive break from the state's economic and political decline of the antebellum period.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


I'm familiar with Professor Carmichael's book, but have not read it. I believe there is something to be said of my broader theme, that "youth & wisdom seldom sit on the same shoulders."

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

I suppose all those academic historians who supported Barack Obama are struggling with this.