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A Generational Mandate

Young people can change the future of politics — but will they?

AP Images
AP Images

Many times over the last few months, we’ve been told that the future of liberal democracy looks bleak. People Who Know say that the current spasm of nationalism, xenophobia, and bigotry is a populist rejection of globalization, and it isn’t going away anytime soon.

Maybe. I don’t want to go all Thomas Friedman–in-a-Qatari-Uber here, but the flat world hasn’t gone very well for people whose jobs have been replaced by machines, computers, or workers in countries where companies are free to pay dirt-poor wages. Politicians in America and Europe didn’t cause the technological revolution of the last few decades, and it’s ridiculous to think they can reverse it. But they could’ve helped make life a lot better for everyone who isn’t wealthy or highly educated. You may not agree with me that Barack Obama has done a great deal to lift the fortunes of the average American — perhaps more than any president in the last 50 years — but I’ll certainly agree with you that we haven’t done nearly enough.

It’s entirely understandable and predictable, then, that as more people around the world lose trust in politicians and institutions, we’ll see more clownish hucksters like Donald Trump and British MP Boris Johnson. And just like all the demagogues before them, they’ll come bearing bullshit promises and lots of blame. Always blame. They blame the elites and experts. They blame the bureaucrats and intellectuals. They blame the rich and powerful in their cosmopolitan cities. And, most dangerously, they blame “them.” The immigrants. The foreigners. The Muslims. The Mexicans. The blacks. The people who look different, sound different, and pray differently. And all those lies, and all that blame, are amplified by an alternate reality of tabloids and talk radio and Fox and Drudge that exist to frighten and enrage people whose economic situation has already left them scared and angry.

This populist shtick worked for the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom. It may work for other far-right parties in Europe. It may even work for Trump, though he probably lacks the discipline, stability, and basic competence to pull off the con.

But there is good reason to believe that nationalist and nativist appeals won’t succeed too far into the future — and that reason is generational.

One of the most depressing numbers from the Brexit referendum is also the most optimistic for the long-term health and stability of British politics: a clear majority of Brits who are 44 years old and under voted to remain in the European Union. More striking is the fact that Remain was favored by 73 percent of Brits under 24. In polls taken after the referendum, a majority of Remain voters said that globalization, immigration, technology, environmentalism, feminism, and multiculturalism were all forces for good. The older Leave voters described every one of these things as a force for ill.

We’ve seen a similar trend in the United States. In the 2000 election, Al Gore captured only 48 percent of the 18-to-29-year-old vote. In 2004, John Kerry won 54 percent. Obama won 66 percent in 2008, and 67 percent in 2012. In 2016, 74 percent of these young voters have an unfavorable view of Trump, including 57 percent of young Republicans. The same poll showed Hillary Clinton winning 61 percent of the youth vote against Trump.

I was born in 1981, which means I’m just young enough to qualify as a millennial, and just old enough to hate that word. But for lack of a better alternative, it’s not just millennial voting trends that suggest a rejection of nationalism and nativism — it’s our views on a host of different issues.

Millennials are more likely than any other generation to believe that immigrants are making American society better in the long run. Nearly 70 percent of us believe that immigration should remain at present levels or increase, which is 12 percentage points higher than older Americans. Only 37 percent of us are in favor of Trump’s wall, compared to 58 percent of Americans over 50.

Millennials between 18 and 29 oppose (59 percent to 39 percent) sending more ground forces to the Middle East. We are more supportive of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran than any other age group (68 percent to 31 percent). We are the first generation to have a largely favorable view of China, compared to just 27 percent of Americans over 50. And millennials are the only generation in which a huge majority believes that international trade represents more of an opportunity than a threat to our economy.

This doesn’t mean, however, that millennials have blind faith in the free market. More than 60 percent believe that “we need a strong government to handle today’s complex economic problems” over the statement “The free market can handle these problems without government being involved.” Nearly 40 percent even think that government should guarantee a job and a decent standard of living.

American millennials are, without a doubt, the most racially diverse generation in history. About 43 percent are nonwhite, compared to 31 percent of the overall electorate. There’s also evidence that white millennials have more progressive racial attitudes than older Americans. We are far more likely to say that whites face no discrimination at all, and that we should be more racially sensitive in the language we use. And while half of all whites over the age of 70 believe the absurd conspiracy theory that Obama is a Muslim, only 19 percent of white millennials do (which, of course, is still too many).

I say none of this to suggest that our generation has somehow escaped the pain and dislocation wrought by globalization. To the contrary, millennials earn less and have more student debt, fewer job opportunities, and higher housing costs than any previous generation. We were too young to remember the mass outsourcing of blue-collar factory jobs, but we now live in a world where plenty of white-collar and professional jobs are also being outsourced and automated out of existence.

The difference is how our generation is responding to this economic anxiety. We’re not as likely to be swayed by politicians who tell us to blame our Muslim friends or immigrant classmates or international coworkers. Talk radio and cable news may spend all day yelling at a shrinking audience of the oldest Americans (the average age of a Fox news viewer is 67), but most viewers under 40 seek a diversity of viewpoints from online and social media sources. As a Washington Post reporter from Norwich, England, recently wrote: “There are those of us who grew up with the Internet, and those whose lives go largely unaffected by anything digital or global in nature. We’ve grown up believing in a future that transcends national borders because we experience that world in our work, interests and social lives online.”

Yes, there are far-right parties in places like Poland and France that skew young. Yes, there are plenty of young Trump voters in the United States. But to see the future of liberal democracy as a battle between a cosmopolitan elite and a mass movement of nationalists and nativists is to miss the rise of a generation that is more diverse, connected, pluralistic, and global than the one currently in power. Millions of struggling millennials are still likely to reject the elites and institutions that have failed them. But they’re more likely to support candidates like Bernie Sanders than Donald Trump.

The bigger question about our generation is not whether we believe in a more progressive politics, but whether we’re willing to do something about it. Millennials are an embarrassment when it comes to voting and political participation. The Brexit vote had one of the highest turnouts the U.K. has ever had. The 65-plus crowd, who overwhelmingly voted Leave, turned out at a rate of 83 percent. But even though three-quarters of young Brits preferred Remain, only 36 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds bothered to vote. Thirty-six percent! It’s hard to blame an older generation for stealing your future when most of the people your age declined to fight for it.

Not that we’re much better in the United States. Millennials now outnumber baby boomers as the country’s largest living generation. But while boomers made up 38 percent of the electorate in 2012, millennials made up only 19 percent. Americans 71 and over make up just 12 percent of the overall voting pool, but 72 percent of them voted in 2012. Just 46 percent of millennials did. We barely showed up at all for the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014. And even now, older Trump-supporting voters are more likely to tell pollsters that they’re certain to vote than younger, Clinton-supporting voters.

I get it. Politics can often seem phony and disconnected from our lives. People who talk about politics can sound like they’re speaking in a dead language. Politicians and political campaigns can come across as patronizing and cringe-worthy in their attempts to reach young voters. If you want to laugh/cry/smash your phone on the ground, check out the Remain campaign’s “Life’s better in the EU” ads, or Hillary Clinton rapping next to a river in Iowa, or Clinton dabbing on Ellen. (Fortunately, the campaign hired a youth vote director who seems to get it, as she recently told Politico, “[Hillary] doesn’t need to be cool. She just needs to be who she is.”)

For those of us who’ve participated in politics, it’s true that the process can seem perpetually frustrating and disappointing. I’ve heard a lot of Sanders supporters say that the system is rigged and corrupt, and I can understand why they might feel that way. I’ve heard a lot of the young Silicon Valley crowd suggest that maybe technological innovation can replace politics and government as the best way to improve people’s lives and solve the world’s most difficult challenges. And yes, some of these companies have revolutionized everything from communication and transportation to health care and the environment in profoundly positive ways.

But life in a society with millions of different people will always involve arguments over just about everything. And politics is the means by which we have those arguments — arguments over war and peace, justice and opportunity, rights and responsibilities, and all kinds of issues with far-reaching consequences. In a democracy, you can choose to show up and influence those outcomes with your vote, your voice, your time, and your energy. Sometimes, your side will lose. Sometimes, the politicians you elect will disappoint you. Sometimes, you’ll have to settle for half measures or incremental progress. And when that happens, you go back to the drawing board, and you do more to persuade, organize, mobilize, and keep challenging the status quo until it finally starts to change.

It’s not always satisfying. It’s not often easy. It sometimes seems impossible. But if you choose not to participate — if you decide to not even show up — then you allow a lot of other people you don’t agree with to make some very big decisions that will directly affect your future. You give away the only power you have in a democracy. That’s how we got the Brexit. And that’s the only way we might get Trump.

A generation is now coming of age with a set of beliefs that could sustain pluralistic, liberal democracy long into the future. The only question is whether we’re willing to actually fight for it.