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.