President-elect Obama’s remarkable showing among Millennial voters, ages 18-26, who supported him by a more than 2:1 margin was a direct byproduct of his unprecedented ability to utilize online communication tools to mobilize these core supporters 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 candidate and the incoming administration must decide how to maintain their new offspring’s enthusiasm while ensuring that it channels their energies into the most productive activities. The answer to this challenge can be found by leveraging the spirit of service that is so much a part of the Millennial Generation and their ability 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.” This idea is strongly supported regardless of gender or party affiliation. While many of those surveyed thought of public service in the context of going to work 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, President-elect Obama should create an entity that his administration can use to help Millennials find ways to rebuild all of America’s civic institutions.
Just as MyBarackObama.com was not an ordinary political website, this “Sprit of Service,” social network should not be an attempt to replicate email lobbying efforts like 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 email addresses. Instead the site should provide direction to all its “friends” without attempting to assert control over their decisions. As Republican online campaign consultant Mike Turk pointed out to the relatively deaf ears of his party’s leadership last year, “What makes you successful online is not how many emails 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.”
Already we have evidence that the Net savvy Obama operatives get this distinction. At the official website of the transition, change.gov, viewers 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.” Millennials have enough energy and tech savvyness to run with this ball once it is handed to them. As members of a “civic” generation they believe their personal involvement will make government work again, reinforce the power of the Democratic Party, improve the education of their siblings, and help their local community manage through difficult times. What change.gov or its successor can provide them 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 which gives it a connection to the President without drowning it in bureaucratic rules or short term political priorities. Despite the ultimate benefit government will receive from the volunteer activities the site will generate, it cannot be housed inside of government—even as part of the official national service “Corps”—because of the perverse impact some of the provisions of the Paperwork Reduction Act and our Freedom of Information laws have on dealing with volunteers. Even though those who are attracted to the site are likely to become even 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 devoted to the cause of harnessing Millennial’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 ranks of the online experts of his campaign. Properly funded, organized and structured, this “Spirit of Service” will enable Millennials to satisfy their desire to rebuild America’s civic institutions and restore our national pride.
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 one of the 10 best books of 2008 by the New York Times.