Mid-term elections are supposed to be “turn out the vote” elections. Because voter turnout is so much lower than during presidential election years, the aim is not swaying a general mass of undecided voters. Rather, since most of the people who vote in midterms are assumed to be staunch ideologues, whichever side is able to get more of their ideologues to the polls will win. Here, Republicans have the advantage, because their base of ideologues is old white people. There is no history of voter discrimination or suppression among old white people. They are not a group that has systematically denied their rights without redress. They’ve had a pretty good go of it in these United States and find no issue participating in the sacred tradition of voting.
It’s a little different for Democrats. The Democratic Party has a assembled a ragtag coalition of the huddled masses shunned by the GOP. Among that group is young people—called “millennials” this time around—who are supposedly the most apathetic of all voting blocs. Each election cycle, a mix of guilt-tripping, shaming and celebrity-driven get-out-the-vote campaigns attempt to get young people to the polls. And each election cycle someone wonders, “Why don’t young people vote?”
But young people do vote. They vote at about the same rate in most midterm elections, with the 18-to-30-year-old vote making up around 13 percent of the total electorate. But it’s not the 19 percent that Obama brought in during his presidential runs, and therein lies the problem for Democrats. They believed they had an energized new base that they would be able to turn out even in off years, one that would sway elections in the forseeable future. Twenty fourteen was a huge disappointment for them. And now the “Why don’t young people vote?” questions have begun.
If I had the answer for what would have gotten millennials to vote in midterm elections, I wouldn’t be writing for The Nation; instead, I’d be charging exorbitant amounts of money in consulting fees to both major political parties. Besides, what I do have to say is hardly novel. It’s a message Democrats don’t seem to want to hear, but it remains true nonetheless: If you want voters to show up to the polls, you have to give them something to vote for.
Particularly millennials. Democrats have to understand that the coveted millennial vote comes at a greater price than “the other side is horrible.” That’s an old script that works for an old way of seeing the world, where voting is harm reduction at best. millennials want their votes to count. That’s why, in the past few years, you’ve seen people who cast their first ballots for Barack Obama sleep in Zuccotti Park and occupy the Florida state capital. For all the lofty rhetoric about change, the machinations of Washington felt eerily similar after Obama’s election, and local governments no better, even though millennials had been sold on the idea that voting would have this incredible impact. In turn, they’ve found their voice in other forms of participatory democracy.
At the same time, though, things have changed, and this is where it becomes tricky. In their young adult lives, millennials have seen the tide shift on marriage equality, moves toward legalizing marijuana, the largest representation of women in Congress (which has directly impacted the conversation around sexual assault in the military), the election of the first black president, a black nationalist (may he rest in peace) win the mayorship in Jackson, Mississippi and a socialist be elected to city council in Seattle. The understanding of what is possible politically is being stretched and millennials aren’t willing to settle for what is “practical” or “pragmatic.” They’re interested in change happening now.
The issue is, who are they going to vote for?
Progressive policies—that, by the way, enjoy broad millennial support—are winning but progressive candidates aren’t. Why? Because there aren’t any progressive candidates. Democrats are afraid setting out an acutal progressive agenda, for fear of losing the magical center. Maybe that’s a strategy worth adhering to in presidential years, but when the game is “turn out the vote” and you’re not willing to engage the issues that your base wants addressed, of course you’re going to lose.
That’s not entirely fair. They did try. A little. In southern states, campaign literature and radio ads connected Republican-supported policies such as Stand Your Ground to the death of Trayvon Martin. It’s one way of nodding to African-American voters, particularly the young people who have taken Martin’s death and the deaths of other young black people up as their cause. But it’s not then connected to any calls for police reform and decarceration, two looming issues that get to the heart of criminalizing black youth. And it’s a bit hard to swallow this message when a state with a Democratic governor has pointed tanks and thrown tear gas at young black people exercising their right to protest in pursuit of justice for another slain teenager, Michael Brown. Democrats’ lack of self-awareness borders on egregious.
The Dream Defenders, a youth-based organization formed in the wake of Martin’s killing, also did GOTV work, notable for the provocative nature of the campaign. The “Vest or Vote” billboards and videos, a play on Malcolm X’s “the ballot or the bullet,” were meant to make the same connection as the previously mentioned Democratic efforts, but with the images of otherwise smiling and happy children being made to wear bulletproof vests in order to protect themselves. But Dream Defenders didn’t endorse any specific candidates, and they aren’t a large enough organization as of yet to turn out a substantial number of voters.
Millennials know what the stakes are, but aren’t willing to participate in a system they see as inherently unjust, especially if their issues are consistently ignored. I know I’m probably ruining my potential career as a “millennial political consultant” here, but if anyone wants millennials to show up to the polls, even when Barack Obama isn’t on the ballot, they could try running candidates that speak to the issues they’ve taken to the streets to protest.
That’ll be a million dollars, please.