Revisiting the youth vote

I went to see the best pundit I know to understand what the primaries mean so far. Of course, she must remain anonymous. Otherwise, everyone would consult her too, and I would lose my best source.

Her real name is not Anabelle but that’s the one she wants me to use when I write about our conversations.

Anabelle has lived through enough history to have an expert perspective and she has traveled internationally. After a rather acrimonious divorce she started a business. She faced women’s issues before there was a movement. Today, she lives from her investments. By my estimation, she has lived through 16 presidential elections.

We met for tea and a biscotti.

Our chat began by sharing perspectives on how the candidates are marketed. Anabelle, a grandmother, is struck by how youth are portrayed. In earlier elections it was soccer moms in mini-vans. Now the imagery has shifted to one about young people having found the national pulse. It is faintly reminiscent to the story about how youth discovered rock-n-roll. Only this time their parents don’t want to get left behind.

Look at how Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius endorsed Barack Obama. She said she was persuaded by her two 20-something sons. The governor, a Democrat, claimed Obama has an ability to bridge the generations. But there is no national crisis between the generations like there was, say, in the 1960s.

California First Lady Maria Shriver similarly made an unexpected appearance at the UCLA rally headlining Oprah Winfrey, Caroline Kennedy, Michelle Obama and labor leader Maria Elena Durazo. Shriver explained her kids encouraged her to do it.

Obama is tapping into a unique something for this time, Anabelle tells me. It’s a youth revival. The last movement of hope like this was symbolized by John Kennedy’s short presidency.

Then youth became alienated from the rest the rest of society. Robert Kennedy was pulling them back in during his short-lived campaign.

“So where are the disaffected young people?” she asks me. “Where are the youth movement’s demonstrations against the war? The only ones who hit the streets were the Latino kids leaving school to join their parents for immigration reform. And look at the trouble they got in. And look at where we are with that reform.”

She finally tells me where she’s going. The system is exhausted. The checks and balances on the presidency completely failed. Everyone is looking for someone to blame without pointing the finger because he isn’t in the race. And no one has a reform to make things right again.

Now comes Obama with a political gospel of hope and the image of a youth movement. “You see,” she says, “children and youth are a society’s symbol of hope. Children mean there is a future, something to live for, to build for, no program, but a prospect.”

Anabelle then says, “Barack Obama is the Joel Olsteen of presidential politics.”

She’s referring to the pastor of the mega Lakewood Church in Houston. Olsteen is a leading exponent of an evangelical gospel of optimism, brotherhood and success. It is an over-easy, feel-good, consumerist faith in positive thinking. His books “Your Best Life Now” and “Seven Steps to Living at Your Full Potential” have hit the New York Times best-seller list.

The last time a new generation came on the scene to replace the old guard like that happened after the Watergate hearings exposed how the Nixon government had lied. The looming Constitutional crisis pressured the president to resign. By then, the Vietnam War had shown youth were willing again to take to the streets.

There was stagflation. In the mid 1970s fewer were earning a good living. Even then, Mexican immigrants were blamed for the nation’s domestic problems — for taking jobs, having too many children (zero population growth was popular) and even water shortages (because of scarcities in parts of the Southwest.)

Jimmy Carter symbolized the new generation. Then after one term of the new generation, the nation elected the oldest person ever to the presidency in 1980.

(Jose de la Isla, author of “The Rise of Hispanic Political Power,” writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail joseisla3(at)