August 22, 2004

Frat boy nation

By: Peter Schorsch

This fall, across many of the nation’s college campuses, thousands of teenage boys — only a few months removed from their high school prom — will take part in the time-honored tradition of Rush, the process during which prospective members join fraternities.

At the same time, and with striking similarity to the eagerness of fraternity pledges, two middle-age men will be “rushing” this nation, seeking not to gain admission to a Greek organization, but to win the presidency of the United States.

Election 2004 is shaping up to be the first presidential race decided between two true Frat Guys. George W. Bush and John Kerry act like unabashed rush chairmen, full of swagger and bluster. On one hand, Dubya deals out nicknames with the cruel ingenuity that can typically be found only within a circle of pulled-together used couches upon which twentysomething frat brothers tease each other. On the other hand, Kerry embraces his VP selection John Edwards with the closeness and camaraderie that becomes second-nature to anyone who has worn Greek letters.

Soon one of them will work a rope line and introduce himself as “Eric Straton and I’m damn glad to meet you.” That was the memorable line from Animal House‘s Tim Matheson, who, naturally, went on to play the Texas-born vice president on TV’s The West Wing).

As far as their campaigns go, Bush and Kerry’s operations have all the makings of an interfraternity rivalry. There are chants like “Bring It On,” dirty-tricks, name calling, even taunts about whose hair is prettier.

Yet, Bush and Kerry may know what they are doing. That’s because much of America has become one big pledge class. This is, after all, a time when teenage girls are growing up too fast, thirty-year-old boys don’t grow up at all, and everyone else wants to be nineteen again.

Our entertainment and marketing is increasingly geared for this Frat Guy audience. The numbers 18 to 34 — as in the key age demographic to advertisers — “have never been more important. That’s because never before has a generation of supposedly adult men had more disposable income.

So it’s no longer what plays in Peoria that matters, it’s what plays at the Pi Kap house that dictates.

Movies and TV shows depict flocks of thirty-year olds going on 13. Music’s biggest moneymaker is Dave Matthews Band, a jam-band that earned its chops playing college parties in Virginia. Frat house hobbies like fishing and poker are all the rage. Even our latest fashion choices began in the frat house: Palm Beach Spring in the warm months, wrinkled khakis and tweed this Fall.

And just as there are negatives to fraternity life, so are there with the dominance of Frat Guy. Perhaps the worst is the complete Mardi Gratification of the female sex. This is an environment in which pornography runs rampant, Hooters runs an airline, and breast implants runneth over.

Make no mistake, though, Frat Guy is not to be confused with Macho Man, Patio Dad or any other David Brooksian character of the suburbs. Frat Guy is educated and affluent. He’s not a musky response to the feminism of Sex and the City. Nor is he a urbanized version of the NASCAR Dads that were supposed to be the target audience of this year’s candidates.

In fact, winning over the Frat Guys and their ultra independent Sorority Girl Friends (notice the space between the last two words; nobody under thirty-five dates anymore) may be the key to this presidential election. According to many strategists, heavy turnout among younger, educated, urban voters is the key to a Kerry win. Meanwhile, Republican strategists believe they own the young vote and will benefit from a heavy turnout of this cohort.

It may come down to which party knows how to throw a better kegger.

Peter Schorsch is a political consultant.