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
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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