Millennials Rising: The Challenges of a New Politics

April 8, 2008

Obama For Yo Mama

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Youth Movement: A New Political Majority?

Move over Baby Boomers—the largest American generation in history is moving onto center stage. Born in the 1980s and 1990s, the Millennial generation is approaching 30 million eligible voters in 2008, and will make up 30% of the entire electorate by the presidential election of 2016.

Observers Peter Leyden and Ruy Texeira conclude that members of this younger “creative” generation are now larger than the Baby Boomer generation, are more engaged than young people of previous generations, are significantly more Democratic in their voting patterns and are “a hugely disruptive force in politics.

Already no generation is able to compete with the Millennials for sheer size, their political influence will grow in the future as they grow older and vote more regularly, and we are already seeing them flex their political muscle in their surprisingly high turnout levels in the 2008 primaries and in catapulting Barack Obama to presidential front-runner status. Just like when the Baby Boomers began to hit their prime in the 1960s, changing American society forever with their demographic weight and young energy, American politics may be in for something of a youth movement in the decade to come.

Overturning the Conventional Wisdom about Youth Apathy

Such predictions run counter to standard lessons in political science texts of recent years. More often than not, textbooks have highlighted the declining influence of the younger generation, based on such data as persistently low turnout rates and political interest levels among 18-29 year old voters. One leading (and representative) political science textbook by George Edwards, et. al., (Government in America) highlights the substantial political knowledge and voter turnout gaps between 18-29 year olds and voters over 65, and concludes that:

“Fewer young Americans are heading to the polls compared to previous generations…even the most pessimistic analysts could not have foreseen the record-low participation rates of young people in recent years…It has become particularly difficult to convince a generation that has channel surfed all their lives that politics really does matter.”

But 2008 seems to be putting an end to all that old conventional wisdom. The youth vote in the primaries is at an all time high. The Cornell Sun reports that

“According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Living and Engagement (CIRCLE), youth participation in the New Hampshire primary rose sharply — jumping to 43 percent in 2008 from 18 percent in 2004 and 28 percent in 2000. A similar trend was apparent in the Iowa caucuses as the youth turnout rate rose to 13 percent from 4 percent in 2004 and 3 percent in 2000, and in Florida, where the youth turnout rate of 13 percent more than tripled the 2000 rate. In South Carolina, the number of young voters tripled from the 2004 election as well.”

Results from Super Tuesday states and beyond are continuing this same pattern. : Youth turnout is tripling and even quadrupling in numbers, compared to the 2000 primaries.

Youth voting patterns in 2008 are no fluke. Turnout among 18-29 year olds was up dramatically in both 2004 and 2006. If the patterns from 2008 primaries continue through the fall election, youth turnout will have grown three elections in a row. Overall youth turnout in 2008 may end up being close to the highwater mark of 55% set in 1972, the year 18-21 year olds first obtained the right to vote; such a result would require a rethinking of all those poli sci textbook conclusions about the apathetic and declining youth vote.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch Changes…”: A New Political Culture?

“Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?” Singer Cat Stevens asked this question to the baby boomers of his time, when they were upending the world in the 1960s and 70s—it is a question that has become important once again.

As the millennials become a driving force of politics, what will they give us this time?

One thing they are giving us is a new form of political communication and a new political culture. Heavy on the internet and on the do-it-yourself videos of Youtube, and light on television news, the millennials are constantly introducing new forms of political communication and different ways to taking on old political issues . Morley Winograd and Michael Hais call this process the “Millennial Makeover and attribute it with reshaping American politics from top to bottom, in a profound repudiation of the angry and overly-ideological battles of previous years.

Here’s how the Winograd and Hais describe the “Millennial Makeover,” in a Washingpost Post essay.

Millennials’…aren’t confrontational or combative, the way boomers (whose generational mantra was “Don’t trust anyone over 30”) have been. Nor does the millennials’ rhetoric reflect the cynicism and alienation of Generation X, whose philosophy is, “Life sucks, and then you die.” Instead, their political style reflects their generation’s constant interaction with hundreds, if not thousands, of “friends” on MySpace or Facebook, about any and all subjects, increasingly including politics. Since they started watching “Barney” as toddlers, the millennials have learned to be concerned for the welfare of everyone in the group and to try to find consensus, “win-win” solutions to any problem. The result is a collegial approach that attracts millennials to candidates who seek to unify the country and heal the nation’s divisions.

Unlike the young baby boomers, millennials want to strengthen the political system, not tear it down. According to a study last year by the Pew Research Center, most millennials (64 percent) disagree that the federal government is wasteful and inefficient, while most older Americans (58 percent) think it is. A 2006 survey by Frank N. Magid Associates indicated that millennials are more likely than older generations to believe that politicians care what people think and are more concerned with the good of the country than of their political party.

Maybe it is just something of this kind of spirit that lies behind the popularity of that “Yes We Can” Obama video—which spread like a super-virus in the days after its release on Youtube.

We also see some of the surprising power of the rising Millennial generation in the Democratic primary. It is the rising youth voter that has turned the Democratic primary upside down, with Barack Obama upending presumed nominee Hillary Clinton on the strength of his massive victories among the under 30 year old voters (Obama typically posted a 10-30 point victory among these voters in Super Tuesday states) . It is these same voters who see Obama as “one of us,” and who may be poised to give America its first black president.

A black president??? Yes. What would be shocking to their parents seems natural to Millennials. The page may be turning in American politics. While John McCain represents an older generation, the generation that fought in Vietnam and battled bitterly over race and feminism in the 1960s, the youth of today have their own war, and their own stand on race and gender that has little to do with those old battles. As Harvard’s Elaine Karmarck notes, “Millennials are the most racially diverse and racially integrated generation in American history. They are civic-minded and post-partisan…They are inclined to cooperate, not fight.”

Karmarck is right to a point. Millennials may not appreciate some of the political bickering of their parents’ generation, but let’s not kid ourselves that the rise of the Millennials will be all kindness and light. The reality is that Millenials certainly have their own values that they are willing to stand and fight for—and these are values that are likely to change American politics in profound ways. This upcoming generation has profoundly different views on Iraq, global warming, same-sex marriage, illegal immigration, and economic issues than middle aged and older voters, who tend to support Republicans–and these values are likely to result in a coming political upheaval as the political clout wielded by Republicans since the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan is wrested from their hands.

According to a Democracy Corps poll, “young Americans have become so profoundly alienated from Republican ideals on issues that their defections suggest a political setback that could haunt Republicans for many generations to come.” . Indeed in the last two presidential elections, and in 2006, Democrats beat Republicans in the youth vote by 10% to 20%. Things don’t look to get better for the GOP in 2008: a recent Rock the Vote Poll notes that “just 28% of young voters identify themselves as Republicans versus 47% who identify as Democrats.”

The Millennial Challenge: The Great Education Gap

For all the talk of the Millennials rising, there is a deeply disturbing fact about young people’s voting patterns: they are deeply divided, in terms of political participation, between those who have attended college and those who haven’t.

In the 2008 primaries, 1 in 4 of college attending young voters voted in the primaries, while only 1 in 14 of non-college attending youth voted. Non-College attending young people make up 50% of the Millennial Generation, but only about 20% of its voters.

Forget the Generation Gap in voting rates—the real participation gap is between those attending college (and presumably on their way up, in terms of their personal prospects) and those who are not attending college (and presumably facing a much more difficult personal future).

As NPR reports, many of these non-college youth are personally turned off by American politics: they are deeply pessimistic about their futures, but they don’t see any way that politicians will ever do anything to help them. This cannot be a healthy path to the future—current patterns point to an even more harshly divided nation of the politically powerful and personally optimistic, and those who have politically checked out and who are facing a dismal future without college education nor political allies.

The Millennial generation is at the heart of this deepening divide, and as they come to take over political power, how they address and overcome this division will be a test of their vision and ability to leave the nation better off than when they ascended to power. Forty years ago, the youthful Kennedy challenged his Baby Boomer generation to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”—and the Boomers responded with historic civic action to address fundamental challenges such as the racial division of their time. Todays Millennials, standing on the cusp of power, face very real and very deep challenges and divisions of their own—it is their own high school friends, brothers and sisters, who are increasingly checking out of the political system and being left behind in America’s new economy. Clearly, Cat Stevens’ question is as important now as ever: “Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?”