Millennials Want Hillary to Make History

At least among young voters, Hillary Clinton's sex may be a positive signal for 2016.
Ready to see me in the history books, kids? Photographer: Kevin Lamarque/AFP/Getty Images

This week we received a small piece of nourishment on the long march toward Hillary Clinton announcing she's running for president. The Author's Note of Clinton's "Hard Choices" was released, and amid platitudes and broad statements was this somewhat funny, somewhat revealing bit:

When I began this book, shortly after leaving the State Department, I considered a number of titles. Helpfully, the Washington Post asked its readers to send in suggestions. One proposed "It Takes a World," a fitting sequel to It Takes a Village. My favorite was "The Scrunchie Chronicles: 112 Countries and It's Still All about My Hair."

With this clever, calculated construction, Clinton allows someone else to make the point: No matter what she has done, or will do, Clinton will always be characterized by her sex, with her political acumen and hairstyle choices judged side-by-side. This isn't a promising indication of progress on gender equality. But at least among young voters it may be a positive signal for 2016.

Why? History.

In March, the Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire wrote: "Young voters gave Hillary Clinton trouble in the 2008 presidential race and it's not clear whether they'll warm to her should she campaign for president again in 2016."

Yet, the 2008 race is not a bad sign for a 2016 Clinton run, but a good one. For a time, 2008 offered an embarrassment of riches: the possibility to elect either the first black president or the first female president. Barack Obama's race and age, his capacity to mobilize history and voters behind his candidacy and the resonance of his message -- he was "change" incarnate -- won the day. The first time I voted, I broke history wide open and helped elect the first black president of the U.S. What's next?

Idealism and a desire for change on the cheap are both markers of youth. Millennials in particular were weaned on technologies providing instant gratification. It seems only natural that using an election as a hinge of history would appeal to us. We like minimal efforts yielding quick results -- swipe right to find the love of your life; pull this lever in November to end centuries of inequality.

Eighteen percent of Americans in a March Gallup survey indicated that if she were elected in 2016, "the best or most positive thing about a Hillary Clinton presidency" is that she would be the first female president. "Nearly one in five Americans mention this historic possibility as a positive, including 22% of women, 27% of 18- to 29-year-olds, and 30% of Democrats," Gallup noted. Similarly, in a June 2007 Gallup survey, 22 percent of Americans and 37 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds suggested that if she was elected in 2008, her being the first female in the role would be the best part of a Clinton presidency. As the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza noted, in the 2008 race Clinton and her team made the egregious error of not matching Obama "history for history." In the 2016 race, "Putting the historic nature of her candidacy at the forefront might well be Clinton's best pushback against the idea that she is part of an old style of politics. She could well be the only candidate in the field whose election would amount to a never-before-seen moment."

March 2014 survey. Source: Gallup


A preoccupation with making history is not necessarily beneficial, not only because it can make us blind to more incremental forms of progress, but because politics as history-making is unsustainable. In the approach to the 2012 election, I bemoaned the notion that young voters might not vote without the glitz and glamour of making history. Voting is a responsibility, and sometimes a dreary one.

But history is waiting for the first female president -- and those who would elect her. The bargain is there to be had, and I have a feeling that young people will be eager to grab it at the discount price of a mere election. We've seen "change" vanish like a lascivious Snapchat, only to be replaced by the slow grind of partisan warfare. Still, many of us still have that 2008 history in our back pocket. It's ours to keep.

Nothing about Clinton is new. Her hairstyles have already been scrutinized ad nauseum. Her new book is a sequel. She's experienced most of the presidency -- the White House, the scandals, the global cache -- save presidential power itself. But the U.S. has never experienced a woman holding that power. And for young people, the historic import, not to mention cheap thrill, of putting the presidency in her hands might just be enough.

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