President-elect Barack Obama’s remarkable showing among Millennials (voters 18-26 years old), who supported him by a more than 2:1 margin, was a direct byproduct of his groundbreaking effort to utilize online communication tools to mobilize these core supporters. The Obama campaign took full advantage of the ability and willingness of Millennials to self-organize on behalf of the campaign and its voter turnout efforts. Now, like proud parents unsure of how to handle the success of a child who has just graduated, the former candidate and his incoming administration must decide how to maintain their new offspring’s enthusiasm while ensuring that it channels its energies into the most productive activities. The answer to this challenge can be found by leveraging both the spirit of service that is so much a part of the Millennial Generation's lifestyle and the ability of Millennials to self-organize using social network technologies.
According to Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, almost 60 percent of Millennials are “personally interested in engaging in some form of public service to help the country.” The ethos of service among Millennials is strongly supported regardless of gender or party affiliation. While many of those surveyed see public service as working for government, or even running for office, there is no reason to channel the generation’s enthusiasm solely into these more politically oriented activities. Instead, the incoming Obama Administration should create an entity to help Millennials find ways to rebuild all of America’s civic institutions.
Just as the Obama campaign's Web site, MyBarackObama.com, was not an ordinary political Web site, this “Sprit of Service,” social network should not be an attempt simply to replicate e-mail lobbying efforts like those of MoveOn.org. That kind of activity can be turned over to an Obama-friendly DNC, which is already salivating at the prospect of inheriting the campaign’s estimated 13 million e-mail addresses. Instead, the new site should attempt to guide its “friends” without asserting direct control over their decisions. As Republican online campaign consultant Mike Turk pointed out to the almost totally deaf ears of his party’s leadership last year, “What makes you successful online is not how many e-mails you can amass, but the quality of the people on the list. [Letting them interact] is the free pizza, Cokes and music with which you feed your volunteers.”
We already see evidence that the net-savvy Obama operatives get this distinction. At the official Web site of the transition, change.gov, visitors are invited to join discussions on critical policy issues, such as health care reform, in the “hope it will allow you to form communities around these issues.” As the 2008 presidential campaign demonstrated, Millennials have enough energy and technological ability to run with this ball once it is handed to them. Millennials are members of a “civic” generation, one that believes, among other things, that their personal involvement will make government work again, reinforce and extend the power of the Democratic Party, improve the education of their siblings, and help their local community successfully cope with difficult times. What change.gov, or its successor, can give Millennials is information on how to get involved, a place to share ideas, and a chance to link to others with similar interests and energy.
The key will be to port this community-building online activity into the post-Inaugural world in a way that gives it a connection to the President without, at the same time, drowning it in bureaucratic rules or short term political priorities. Although government will ultimately benefit from the volunteer activities generated by this site, the perverse impact of provisions of the Paperwork Reduction Act and Freedom of Information laws on dealing with volunteers suggest that the site cannot be housed inside government--even as part of the official national service "Corps." Even though those who are attracted to the site are likely to become more closely identified with the Democratic Party, it cannot be housed at the DNC, which would inevitably succumb to the temptation to overly politicize the site.
Instead a non-profit organization, devoted to the cause of harnessing the Millennial Generation's interest in civic engagement, should establish the site with an advisory board of directors made up of “friends of Obama” and an operational staff drawn from the online experts of his campaign. Properly funded, organized and structured, this “Spirit of Service” will enable Millennials to satisfy their desire to rebuild the country's civic institutions and restore America's national pride, while at the same time advancing the policy and political goals of the Obama Administration.
NDN Fellows Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows of NDN and the New Policy Institute and co-authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics (Rutgers University Press: 2008), named by the New York Times as one of the 10 best books of 2008.