While the electorate is rarely excited for elections, the 2016 race takes place against the backdrop of a country on the brink of a crisis of democratic legitimacy. Congress, nominally the most important democratic institution in the country, has suffered from an approval rating averaging in the teens for more than four years. Facing a government held hostage by the 1 percent, many Americans are throwing up their hands: Turnout for the 2014 midterm elections dipped to a 72-year low.
The sense that solutions won’t trickle down from Capitol Hill or the campaign trail has particular resonance with a younger generation. Tellingly, a recent Gallup poll found that a full 69 percent of Americans ages 18–29 would vote for a socialist candidate for president. Millennials, born between 1982 and 2000, are coming of age in a world in which the American Dream—where working hard yields a life better than Mom and Dad’s—is increasingly exposed as a fraud. Millennials are the most diverse, well-educated, tech-savvy generation in American history; they’re also on course to become the first modern generation to be worse off financially than their parents.
The American people—recognized citizens or otherwise—are hurting, and the established political parties have been unable and unwilling to meet their needs. That’s where movements come in.
Millennials and people of color volunteered and voted in record numbers to elect President Obama, but the lack of progress on the issues they care about—unemployment, inequality, systemic racism, climate change, immigration—has led them out of candidates’ offices and into the streets. From Black Lives Matter to Occupy Wall Street, from the DREAMer movement to that for divestment from fossil fuels, young people and people of color have been at the forefront of a new generation of popular movements rising to fill the democracy deficit left by an unresponsive political system. Even as they tire of the morass of Congress and endless presidential election seasons, millennials are finding outlets for their frustrations in one another, and the strategies of disruptive power honed by their troublemaking predecessors.
Immigrant-rights leader Carlos Saavedra explains that, in the United States, “We have lost the avenues available for democracy.” As the former national coordinator for United We Dream, Saavedra saw politicians’ near-pathological intransigence on immigration reform firsthand. Eventually winning the uphill battle for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, brought him to a simple conclusion: “Popular movements are the only avenues for democracy in this country.”