Politics has always been plagued as being
dated, an exclusive club for wealthy white men, out of touch with
the common person. This reputation is heightened among young
people, who for the most part see politicians as talking heads who
don’t listen to us, empathize with our issues or represent in
any capacity the diverse cross-section that is modern America. We
manifest this disillusionment in lackluster voter turnout —
in 2000 just 29 percent of eligible voters age 18 to 24 cast a
ballot for president which politicians incorrectly translate as
disinterest and therefore continue to ignore our needs.

Sowmya Krishnamurthy

In this close and very important election, it seems that
everyone is trying to remove the stigmatization of politics and
bolster interest among the youth demographic. Über celebrities
and fashionistas have gained a sudden civic-mindedness and are now
using their powers for good by making voting en vogue. Through
T-shirts, catchy slogans and guest appearances, casting a ballot
has never been cooler. Granted, it is refreshing to see the rich
and famous stand for something greater than commercialism and
vapidity, but the overall effectiveness of the cause is
questionable.

This year the problem will not be dismal turnout; quite the
contrary. With all the hype and money being pumped into
high-profile voter initiatives, I’m sure that more young
people than usual will be present at the polls, at least out of
trendiness if nothing more. What concerns me is the quality of that
vote. Star power is great for advertising, but the vast majority of
celebrities come up short when it comes to truly informing and
educating voters. What’s the point of making people vote when
they have no idea what they’re voting for?

Some of the most promising initiatives are the gravest
offenders. Ubiquitous mogul Sean P. Diddy Combs’s Citizen
Change project for instance, is intended to be a nonpartisan and
nonprofit organization created to educate, motivate and empower
18-to-30-year olds to vote — the generation dubbed the
“forgotten ones.” Citizen Change’s official
mission: to make voting hot, sexy and relevant to a generation that
hasn’t reached full participation in the political process.
Sounds great, but making George W. Bush and John Kerry “hot
and sexy” is a bit ambitious even for Puff. The result is
that little of the mission statement is accomplished at all. The
website devotes more web space to promoting its celebrity
endorsements and venues to purchase those snazzy “Vote or
Die” T-shirts (for a whopping $30 by the way), than
contributing actual information or insight on the election. The
“Issues” section amusingly just links to other
websites. As a businessman there is no doubt that Combs should be
applauded for his marketing prowess, but without any substantive
content, this campaign proves little more than a thinly veiled
opportunity to hawk merchandise.

Citizen Change is by no means alone. The vast majority of hip
voter campaigns fall flat with more bark than bite. Even when there
seems to be a genuine civic concern, celebrity agendas invariably
override anything from coming to fruition.

The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, which utilizes hip-hop stars
to encourage political activism, was supposed to undertake a
large-scale protest to raise public awareness about New
York‘s Rockefeller drug laws — which mandate prison
terms for individuals found guilty of possessing even small amounts
of drugs — but reneged later. One reason actually cited for
this was the timing of the 2004 MTV Video Music Awards in Miami;
apparently a silly and pointless awards ceremony takes precedence
over an issue intimately related to the hip-hop community. With so
much intra-group devotion, it’s no wonder people don’t
take this organization seriously!

In the fickleness of pop culture, novelty is fleeting and
authenticity is dubious. Without anything tangible to attach to
election 2004, voting is at risk of losing its essence in the
wringer of commercialism. Bicyclist Lance Armstrong’s popular
Live Strong campaign is a case in point. Founded on the ethos of
fundraising for cancer research and advocacy, it has been malformed
into a fashion statement, with more people concerned about wearing
those cheap yellow bracelets — the new must-have accessory on
campus — than contributing to the fight against cancer.

If young people are expected to get involved and more
importantly, retain an interest in politics, we need to be educated
as to why. War and foreign policy, gay marriage, the future of the
U.S. Supreme Court, education costs — this year’s
election has no dearth of pertinent issues. Celebrities and the
like must realize that gloss and glitter can only motivate so much
before running risk of the ultimate faux pas —
un-coolness.

 

Krishnamurthy can be reached at
“mailto:sowmyak@umich.edu”>sowmyak@umich.edu.

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