Book Review: “Is Voting for Young People?” (2E) by Martin Wattenberg

Watternberg, Martin. Is Voting for Young People? With a Postscript on Citizen Engagement, 2nd edition. Harlow: Longman, 2007.

In this concise work of political science, Professor Wattenberg of UC Irvine sketches the outline of a potentially serious problem facing modern democracies: the ever-declining political awareness and participation among youth.

Wattenberg analyzes election surveys and public opinion polls in order to ascertain the following points: Newspaper readership among youth is declining, political news consumption via television among youth is declining, and political participation among youth is declining.

Interestingly, these trends are apparent across almost all Western democracies, making explanations that emphasize single-country events (Watergate, etc.) insufficient. The explanation proffered by this book is that this is a generational issue: As the newer generations (about 1980 onward) have been socialized in the “TV Age,” with its emphasis on entertainment above all else, they have naturally been exposed to less political information, and thus have exhibited less knowledge and interest in politics.

The only limitation I could find with Wattenberg’s analysis is the failure to consider certain online alternatives of political information. For example, the only mention of the word “Internet” in the entire book is in reference to online newspaper websites, such as those of prestigious newspapers (New York Times, Wall Street Journal) and local newspaper websites (p. 28). Unsurprisingly, youth avoid such websites just as they avoid newspapers in general. However, such polls fail to take into consideration “unofficial” sources. Online resources like BBC’s “One-Minute World News” and blogs that youth may frequent aren’t considered at all.

In any case, this does not defeat the primary argument of the book, since political knowledge and participation continues to decline regardless. In short: “unofficial” sources don’t appear to be stymieing the flow of people away from civic participation either way.

Wattenberg asserts that lest modern democracies become governments “of the old people, by the old people, and for the old people,” something needs to be done. After (too) briefly examining alternatives, Wattenberg advocates for mandatory voting along the lines of Australia’s system. Wattenberg uses the analogy of banning smoking in public places: Sometimes it is best to force people to do what is good for them, even if it is construed as a violation of individual rights (p. 173). While I personally disagree, and in any case the proposition has very little popular or political support, it does get the reader thinking about the issue in a provocative way.

Finally, this edition features a brief postscript on unofficial methods of political participation. While activities like protesting and contacting elected officials are more common than ever, most of the increase can be accounted for in age groups excluding young people. Thus, the increasing prevalence of unconventional participation does not refute Wattenberg’s argument.

In short, this little book, which can be consumed in a single evening, is a worthwhile contribution to voting behavior, and should be of interest to political scientists, informed citizens, and those teaching voting behavior at the undergraduate level.

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