How can Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, Divergent, ABC’s new Last Resort, and NBC’s new Revolution help us understand the 2012 election?
Each features protagonists struggling against an oppressive, abusive government that cannot be trusted.
Each already is, or seems poised to be, very popular in the coveted 18-35 age range.
And, since art imitates life, the popularity of these books, movies, and TV shows leaves little doubt that more and more young people are embracing negative feelings about government in ways that they did not four years ago. With Barack Obama advocating Federal control of our health care, our energy consumption, and our financial system, it should be interesting to see how young Americans’ disillusionment impacts the election’s results.
Barack Obama and the Democrats swept to victory in 2008 on the strength of the second highest youth voter turnout in American history. Sixty-six percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 cast their ballots for Obama, the highest percentage of youth support ever for a presidential candidate.
Four years later, Obama’s promises of hope and change from the top down have rung hollow as the recession has hit young people particularly hard, leading several experts to suggest that the recession has caused young people to feel broadly disillusioned with politics in general.
At the same time, millions of young people have continued a long-term trend of enthusiastically embracing books, movies, and TV shows with increasingly intense anti-government themes.
The Potter series, probably the most popular thing on paper since the Bible, features a young man fighting an evil, conscience-less bigot, and often his own government as well. Even when his government is not Harry’s obvious enemy, it is clearly corrupt, self-serving, and arbitrary.
The Twilight series features a young woman whose government harasses and threatens her and her family for the crime of living a peaceful, harmless life.
The Hunger Games series features a young woman’s struggle to survive the 24-person fight to the death that her cruel, all-powerful, exploitative government televises annually to keep its people desperate and downtrodden.
The Divergent series features a young woman’s struggle to live under an all-powerful government that controls where she lives, who she knows, what she does, and what her personality traits are. Though less popular than Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, Divergent’s first two books have sold over 3 million copies, and a second sequel and movie are currently in the works.
These four sagas have captured and held young people’s attention for well over a decade, both on paper and on the silver screen. And during that time, the anti-government messages have grown louder. Though the Potter and Twilight series have strong, obvious anti-government themes, The Hunger Games and Divergent series positively beat readers over the head with it. The first Potter book came out in 1997, followed by the first Twilight book in 2005. The Hunger Games hit shelves in 2008 with a much more obviously anti-government theme, and Divergent echoed this more intense anti-government message with its 2011 release.
Now ABC and NBC are getting into the anti-government act with Last Resort and Revolution. Last Resort is based on the premise that the U.S. government attacked and attempted to destroy a high-tech American nuclear submarine that was deployed in international waters with a full crew on board. ABC has been aggressively advertising the show, ending each TV spot with the sub’s captain proclaiming, "We do not recognize or obey a government that tries to murder its own.”
Revolution explores the aftermath of a 15-year long worldwide blackout that gave rise to a terrifying world ruled by violent, arbitrary warlords. Both networks have been aggressively marketing their shows, and both networks have scheduled these dramas in coveted prime time slots.
With the anti-government messages growing louder, and young people continuing to consume these stories by the millions, there is little doubt that young people are much more receptive to the idea of “government as the enemy” than they used to be.
This may seem like a bit of a reach – and it’s possible that it is. There is, of course, no way to prove a relationship between people’s entertainment choices and their perceptions of the real world. But there is no doubt that book publishers, movie producers, and television executives are constantly scrambling to attract the 18-35 demographic, and are, at their core, in the business of giving people what they want. And what people want is often art that imitates life. It can’t just be a coincidence that tens of millions of TV sets in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s featured a bunch of 20-somethings kickin’ it in a coffee house, while 20-somethings were piling into the Starbucks that were appearing on every corner at the same time. Others have maintained that 24’s depiction of a strong, wise, trustworthy African-American man as president paved the way for Barack Obama’s rapid rise to the same office. And it can’t be a coincidence that Modern Family’s groundbreaking depiction of a same-sex couple in a committed relationship appeared as legalized gay marriage has swept the country.
If art really imitates life, and it certainly seems to, then the recent runaway success of stories with anti-government themes indicates that people, and especially 20-somethings, are more accustomed to thinking of government as the enemy than they used to be.
With the Tea Party and increasing numbers of young libertarians championing limited government, it is clear that “anti-government” is a theme that is as prevalent in young people’s politics as it is in their entertainment. This election is, in many ways, a referendum on whether the government is the problem or the solution. Do we want the government to run our health care system? Do we want the government to manage our energy consumption or our financial system? Can we trust them to?
In 2008, young people turned out in record numbers and put Obama into the White House because they believed that under his leadership the government would be the solution, not the problem. Four years later, young people are downtrodden and disillusioned, less willing to trust government, and consistently embracing entertainment that depicts government not just as a problem, but as an enemy.
Will President Obama be able to overcome the rising tide of disillusionment and negativity about government? There’s no way to know. Either way, it should be interesting to see how young people vote this time around, or if they vote at all.