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Younger voters look for a new kind of politics

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Ted and Jan Simmons
Ted Simmons, 24, and his mother Jan, 60, don't always agree when it comes to politics. Jan, who lives in Duluth, has been a staunch DFLer for nearly 30 years. Ted calls himself an "extreme moderate," who votes for both Democrats and Republicans.
Photo courtesy of Ted Simmons

Now age 60, Jan Simmons has voted a basically straight Democratic ticket going back to 1980. But she's known for quite a while that her 24-year-old son Ted doesn't share her politics.

"When he was about five, Ted asked his babysitter who she was supporting for president," Simmons recalls. "And she was somewhat stunned -- well he was supporting President Bush, candidate Bush at the time. That was the first of his Republican inclinings."

Ted Simmons calls himself an extreme moderate. He's leaning toward the Democrats for president this year. He voted for John Kerry in '04, but he's also cast votes for Minnesota Republicans like U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman and Gov. Tim Pawlenty. More than anything, Ted prides himself on his independent streak.

"It's difficult for me to take one side and be on the extreme right or extreme left," Ted Simmons explains. "I like to take both parts of their arguments and make something of it rather than keep butting heads."

Ted is part of a generation demographers have dubbed the Millennials -- people born after 1980.

As with any generation, the Millennials exhibit every imaginable political persuasion. They are not all Ted-Simmons-style ticket-splitters.

But there are things about Ted's approach to politics that researchers have found are typical of Americans his age: a belief in pragmatism, a general sense of optimism and a trust of large institutions from the federal government to corporate America. Those characteristics also set the Millennials apart from their predecessors, the more cynical Generation X.

Steven Schier
Steven Schier has taught political science at Northfield's Carleton College since 1981, and he's watched the politics of his students shift over that time. He says students these days are far more pragmatic, and are more interested in international and environmental issues than "class-based" politics.
MPR Photo/Curtis Gilbert

Steven Schier has witnessed the generational shift from the political science department at Carleton College in Northfield. When Schier first showed up on campus in 1981, 60s-style protesting was still very much in vogue there.

"Politics tended to be liberal and points left of liberal," Schier says.

And Schier remembers students had an all-or-nothing approach to their activism in those days. Now things are different.

"Students don't protest much anymore," he says, "and I think it's probably because they are much more interested in results than presenting their arguments in a dramatic fashion."

That's not to say Carleton has turned conservative. Schier says when it comes to the presidential race, the student body has made up its mind.

"It's all Obama all the time on my campus," he says, "and I think that's true on most college campuses."

A quick visit to the dining hall confirms that assessment.

"I think Barack Obama is probably who I'm going to vote for," says Daniel Levy.

"I think I'm probably going to vote Barack," says Caitlin Ubumb.

Nathan Wilairat chimes in: "I'm supporting Obama."

From Iowa to South Carolina, Obama has been the clear choice of the under-30 set. And that might not seem terribly surprising, except this is Carleton, the place where Paul Wellstone taught for more than 20 years.

The late Sen. Wellstone was a populist -- an old-school liberal who spoke out against big corporations and stood up for the little guy. 

Here's a typical snippet from Wellstone on the campaign trail in 1996: "If from time to time, in order to change the system and have reform, we have to take on tobacco companies, the oil companies, then so be it! So be it! We'll do it! We'll do it!"

Steven Schier admits Obama isn't the presidential candidate you'd equate with Wellstone.

"I would say that Paul Wellstone was more like John Edwards," Shier says. "Paul's approach was a populist, class-based approach. But I really don't find that resonating terribly much with my students here. Politics to them is really more about environmental and social change, rather than traditional class issues."

Carleton Sophomore Theodore Wolff sums up his response to Edwards' anti-corporate message: "I think it's kind of bull****. Can you say that on the radio?"

"No, you can't," replies the guy with the mike. "Can you think of another way of saying that?"

It took Wolff the better part of a minute to figured out how to rephrase his response.

But the point is: Even here, at the heart of Wellstone country, the Millennials seem to be looking for a new kind of politics. They don't want to bring down the man; they want to work with him.

Jan Simmons notes young people aren't marching in the streets like they did during Vietnam. But she sees it as a sign of progress.

"There is maybe a better thing," she says. "If Ted and his friends are talking about politics, and then they go and they vote, they're living what they believe. And that's a better thing, I think."