By Doctor Comrade
One of the foremost complaints about Millennials is our historically low voter turnout. A valid concern, considering that Millennials outnumber elderly voters 46 to 39 million; and only 21% of Millennials voted in the 2014 midterms. They were trounced by the 72% of elderly people who voted.
Unsurprisingly, politicians continue to cater to older people—or at least that’s the narrative surrounding the dearth of young voters. The media tells us, “In order to get lawmakers to focus on the policies that most impact the generation born between 1980 and 2000, young people must become more engaged in the political process,” an argument made in the aptly-titled editorial "It's Up to You, Millennials."
Yes, that makes sense. In order for politicians to be held accountable, they must represent the entirety of their constituencies, of which young people ages 18-29 make up a significant bloc. Young people can be safely ignored because they don’t vote in high enough numbers to scare politicians into considering youth voters’ interests. However, the implications of this narrative are more problematic than simply getting Millennials to vote.
The assumption made about young voters is that they will elect more progressive candidates that are more sensitive to the needs of young people, like minimum wage, welfare, affordable health care, racial inequality, and same-sex rights. However, these pundits have never examined the voting records of young people, choosing instead to cast Millennials in overly-simplistic terms. True, young people tend to favor Democrats, but in 2014, only 55% of young voters cast their votes for Dems—not an overwhelming majority by any stretch. More importantly, in contests like Iowa, young people were the only age group in which a majority voted for the Democrat candidate, and even then only 54% went that way.
Clearly, young people do not favor Democrats over Republicans by any substantial margin. Even Obama, who was swept to power in part because of Millennials, is hemorrhaging their support. White Millennials gave him a 34% approval rating, and black Millennials approve of him at the lowest rate compared to Blacks of other age groups (though he remains at 80% approval).
Young people’s ethnic makeup skews more towards non-whites than older people, which partially accounts for this trend. Yet it’s also important to remember that Americans, as a whole, do not believe in issues that are strictly applicable to young people. A Gallup poll, which controls for age so young people are fairly represented in the results, showed that Americans continue to think the economy is the most important issue facing the country. The economy and jobs scored 32%, while issues like education, poverty, wealth inequality, and racism languished around 3-4%. The polity as a whole does not care about so-called youth issues, so an increase in young voters would hardly make politicians more accountable because young people care about the same stuff everybody else cares about. Millennials are not a monolithic voting bloc, unlike how we’re treated. Millennials do skew more liberal, but that hasn’t stopped us from forming voting factions that look a lot like the demographic breakdowns of our parents and grandparents. Millennials are made up of a diverse conglomeration of people from numerous racial, ethnic, regional, political, and ideological backgrounds. Yet for some reason we are treated as though we all think alike.
Other critics have also blamed young people for never solving the social problems that face our society, an attitude that seems to dominate on sites like Cracked.com and Reddit. In a recent Cracked photoplasty, a submitter listed several Twitter and Instagram hashtags. The poster laments, “We made our voices heard. Except where it mattered. Worst voter turnout in 72 years.” The hashtags listed were #bringbackourgirls, #Ferguson, #heforshe, and #icantbreathe. This is an excoriating critique of the political apathy of the Twitter generation. However, this argument is completely fallacious.
Those who harangue young people for not voting insinuate that Millennials are therefore to blame for political and social problems because we didn’t help Democrats get elected. We must challenge this narrative.
If young people voted, how many of our girls would have been returned by President Obama? Congress would not have declared war on Boko Haram; Seal Team Six would not have been deployed to rescue them. On the eve of the midterms, #bringbackourgirls was abandoned by Twitter, and no politicians made it a central issue in their campaigns in an effort to win young voters. That would have been an easy score for any Democrat looking to win the social media vote. But any pandering to the Twitter generation would have been completely transparent: a pathetic attempt to muster young voters on an issue far more complicated than “send in the troops.”
If young people voted, how many cops would be indicted by grand juries for their crimes against black people? Grand juries are not selected by tribunals of young people looking to solve racism. The District Attorneys prosecuting the cases, elected officials who have been widely criticized for not pushing for harsher indictments, will still be beholden to local police departments, and they will still be forced to bend to the will of police officials because other critical areas of their jobs are intimately linked to cooperation with the police. Moreover, the media and proponents of the youth voter myth never offer a compelling reason why young people voting in slim majorities for Democrats would change deeply-entrenched social problems like racism. An explanation for how young people would overturn a racially-prejudiced grand jury system is never offered. Racism can’t be addressed in an election-by-election basis; there must be a groundswell in all parts of society over years or decades before anything meaningful can be changed. The media and other critics rely on ahistorical and non-contextual critiques of stagnant social conditions, placing blame on young people rather than criticizing the systems that have entrenched those problems to begin with. Young people are not to blame for the persistence of racism; capitalism, imperialism, poverty, intersectional oppression, and any number of other ideologies are to blame, and several million young people will not deconstruct those ideologies by voting.
The Democrats are not the answer. The problem is too complicated to be boiled down into Get Out The Vote campaigns.
If Millennials voted, we’d have so many Democrats to stand up for us! Yet all these narratives accomplish is reinforcing the dominant two-party system, relying on the Democratic Party to remedy our social ills. By harassing young people for not voting, older people are teaching us to be complacent about the political system rather than demanding radical change or worthwhile alternatives.
We must continue to criticize the political establishment and demand radical change. We must also criticize journalists, politicians, and others who claim that we are complacent, ignorant, lazy, or apathetic. 2008 demonstrated that young people do care, and when they become excited about a candidate, they mobilize. Refusing to vote in 2014 was a widespread rejection of the candidates offered to us by a political establishment that looks more monolithic than the youth voters it marginalizes. Radical change will not occur by settling for the milquetoast Democrats; radical social change will not occur by settling for spineless “progressives”; radical cultural change will only occur if we continue mobilizing our criticisms of the conservative mainstream until we produce our own alternative.