By: Angel Zhong
Since the ratification of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18, youth voter turnout has been the lowest relative to other electoral age groups. In addition, many young voters report feeling socially disenfranchised and having their political stances invalidated due to a perceived lack of experience or intellect. However, an emerging online phenomenon may be reframing the national conversation about the true power of young voters. As politicians such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Senator Bernie Sanders have shown in recent years, dedicating time and energy to connect with and thereby mobilize young voters in digital spaces is a valuable endeavor that can empower historically underrepresented electoral groups.
In September, now President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris pleasantly surprised the internet by unveiling an island in the wildly popular video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons devoted to promoting their campaign. The island is decked out with Biden-Harris signs, red, white, and blue houses, and even Biden and Harris themselves in miniature Animal Crossing forms. Players can visit the island and briefly converse with Biden who will, at times, respond with a characteristic “No Malarkey!” By younger voters especially, this move was well-received and marked the Biden-Harris campaign as personable. But why is that?
A phrase that has dominated political discourse in the U.S. for quite some time now is “who’s the guy you’d like to grab a beer with?” Embedded within this rhetorical inquiry is the idea that what really distinguishes politicians from one another is their perceived quality of character. In other words, people naturally gravitate towards politicians who appear relatable and authentic, as opposed to policy-driven. According to Dr. Keith Smith, Associate Professor of Political Science, most politicians want to engender policy-neutral positive feelings when reaching out to constituents. Fundamental to this is interactivity, which is something that is easily provided through digital mediums. Platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitch enable politicians to meet young voters where they are, and, as a result, form parasocial relationships with them. Dr. Jeremy Johnson, Lecturer of Communication, describes a parasocial relationship as a “‘real’ relationship with someone you don’t actually know”. A common example of this would be characters in movies or T.V. shows that people feel palpably connected to.
When AOC cooks on Instagram Live or Bernie Sanders sits down for an interview with renowned rapper Cardi B., they are telling young voters they are a demographic worth being heard and that they are here to listen. Though they certainly won’t be able to read and respond to every comment, just the fact that their constituents can comment with the possibility of their opinion(s) and/or idea(s) being seen is profoundly impactful and unprecedented in U.S. politics. As stated by Dr. Charles Ecanberger, Lecturer of Communication, traditional broadcast media (e.g. mainstream news networks, radio shows, etc.) is a one-way form of communication; readers of newspapers or watchers of CNN or Fox don’t necessarily feel personally connected to the journalists, anchors, or politicians from whom they’re receiving information. New media bridges this gap by creating an avenue for two-way communication between public figures and the actual public. For the most part, these efforts have succeeded in mobilizing and empowering the youth, as exemplified by the record-setting turnout of young voters in this past election. This can’t wholly be attributed to the aforementioned online campaigning initiatives of politicians, but, as stated by Gavan McCoy, Media X and English ’21, “These new methods of connecting to new voters is certainly a reaction to the low turnout for 2016. When young people are discouraged to express their beliefs, they are less likely to vote for candidates with whom they agree; it’s not quite as simple as that, but it was definitely a contributing factor.” Thus, as politicians continue to meet young people where they are, we can hope to see a positive trend in youth voter turnout and overall political engagement.