Will 2016’s Youngest Voters Even Remember Monica Lewinsky?

The state of millennial memory suggests young people won’t be thinking about Monica at the polls.

National Journal
Marina Koren
May 9, 2014, 9:11 a.m.

In Janu­ary 1998, one of the most shock­ing, dis­sec­ted, and sa­li­ent pres­id­en­tial scan­dals in Amer­ic­an his­tory was born. So were thou­sands of people who, two years from now, might be lin­ing up to vote for the wo­man who found her­self trapped between her hus­band and his mis­tress.

The young­est 2016 voters were born in 1998. And if gen­er­a­tion­al vot­ing pat­terns hold true, a siz­able chunk of them will vote left, for Hil­lary Clin­ton — if she ac­tu­ally runs, of course.

But since sup­port­ers, su­per PACs, and every­one else has already de­cided she will, the buzz sur­round­ing the new Van­ity Fair es­say by Mon­ica Lew­in­sky in­tens­i­fied around one ques­tion: What does her re­appear­ance mean for 2016? As my col­league Emma Roller wrote in re­sponse, “very little.”

That an­swer holds true for the young voters the former sec­ret­ary of State will be try­ing to reach.

The young­est mil­len­ni­als, between ages 18 and 25, first learned about the Lew­in­sky scan­dal in his­tory text­books, not think pieces. For them as people, 1998 feels like forever ago. For them as voters who tend to lean left, the polit­ic­al cli­mate of the late nineties is ir­rel­ev­ant. Back then, same-sex mar­riage was il­leg­al in every state. So was pot. There was no re­ces­sion, no Oc­cupy.

For these young voters, the name “Mon­ica Lew­in­sky” is filed away as a punch­line to a joke they don’t quite un­der­stand, or re­cited as a line in a Bey­once song. There’s an en­tire gen­er­a­tion out there who doesn’t even know who she is (and at least one young per­son is sad about that).

I turned eight two weeks after The Drudge Re­port re­vealed the af­fair. A re­cent im­mig­rant, I also didn’t speak Eng­lish at the time. I don’t re­mem­ber my par­ents talk­ing about it, nor do I re­mem­ber ex­actly when I first heard the name “Mon­ica Lew­in­sky.” Maybe high school. But I can tell you that, one day ago, as I scrolled through New York magazine’s “Where Are They Now?” roundup of im­port­ant play­ers from that era, I didn’t re­cog­nize any of the names. “Linda Tripp” vaguely rang a bell. Un­til this week, I knew about the blue dress, about im­peach­ment charges, but not about the ob­vi­ous — by 2014 stand­ards — slut-sham­ing, Jake Tap­per’s date, or what the scan­dal tells us about all wo­men in Amer­ic­an so­ci­ety, Mon­ica and Hil­lary both.

The way young voters will learn about the whole af­fair today is vastly dif­fer­ent than how people of the same age got the story in 1998 — in bits and pieces, in pub­lic deni­als and de­tailed testi­mon­ies. Now, curi­ous mil­len­ni­als can read the earli­est ac­counts, the fol­low-ups, Lew­in­sky’s own take penned 16 years later, and dozens of oth­er takes writ­ten just this week. They will re­ceive a fuller pic­ture of what happened, and one that’s un­doubtedly kinder to Lew­in­sky than the first one was.

Now, add polit­ic­al apathy on top of all of that. Last month, mem­bers of the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion re­por­ted the low­est level of in­terest in any elec­tion since Har­vard Uni­versity’s In­sti­tute of Polit­ics began track­ing them in 2000 — es­pe­cially among those who identi­fy as Demo­crats. Of course, voter turnout for midterm elec­tions is his­tor­ic­ally con­sid­er­ably lower com­pared with pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. But the in­dif­fer­ence is telling.

If mil­len­ni­als are “meh” about the polit­ic­al pro­cess and Wash­ing­ton scan­dals that don’t seem real to them, the name “Mon­ica” won’t in­stantly come to mind if the name “Clin­ton” goes on the 2016 bal­lot.

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