Every election season is a time of bemoaning why millennials won’t vote for politicians boldly committed to picking at the edges of their problems. Consider a snapshot of the situation young people face: the unemployment rate for workers under age 25 is 18.1 percent; unemployment for black people who have not graduated from high school is 82.5 percent; the people most likely to be shot by police are black 25–34-year-olds; the national student loan debt has surpassed $1 trillion; and the only jobs lucrative enough to pay off college loans are in the financial industry that detonated our economy or Silicon Valley companies deregulating working-class industries.
The future doesn’t hold much hope either, with median household income declining 12.4 percent between 2000 and 2011. Having a family is simply harder to afford now. Meanwhile, each new year sets another low record for union density, meaning we have few levers for turning those income numbers around. Unlike most wealthy countries, the United States lacks universal childcare and maternity leave, so women are stuck with the same old debates over an impossible work-life balance.
We were told that in the knowledge economy good jobs followed higher education; there are few jobs, and we lock ourselves into miserable ones as quickly as possible to feed the loan sharks. The magazine writers who report on self-indulgent 20-somethings (think Time’s “The Me Me Me Generation” cover), the well-meaning guidance counselors who coach kids to “invest in themselves”—they should save their breath. You don’t need a college course to know when you’re getting screwed.
The most grotesque feature of the 2016 election is the razor-thin spectrum of solutions proposed by the front-runners to a historic set of problems. Lost in the noise of the 2016 election cycle is the fact that no viable candidate offers any hope for a radically more equal society: The policies on offer would merely mitigate the dire inequality that has been growing since Reagan. And this is despite the fact that a majority of Americans express widespread discontent with the country’s extreme consolidation of wealth: about three in four Americans think that inequality is a serious problem in the United States. (This places Americans in the mainstream of world opinion, where in all 44 nations polled by Pew, people think inequality is a big problem facing their countries.) It is this popular dissatisfaction that no doubt accounts for the unexpected surge of support for the unlikely long-shot Democratic candidate, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist.
Indeed, the most obvious source of this election’s futility is that popular opinion, expressed through elections, has essentially proved to have no influence on policy. According to a now-famous 2014 Princeton and Northwestern study measuring influence in American politics, “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” On key issues like gun control, financial reform, and education spending, the policy-makers’ divergence from popular opinion has been particularly stark. The United States is now, in effect, an oligarchy. Beyond this sad reckoning lies an even more fundamental problem: There is no better alternative on offer. We need a vision of a better future, one that turns our modern capacity for abundant food, shelter, and health into a guarantee that no one will suffer for their lack.