Uncertainty about the coming election is on everyone’s mind. Two factors come to the fore when predicting turnout and results for the 2020 election, party divisiveness and Millennial, GenX and GenZ disengagement.
The latter has proven difficult to quantify and explain even for experts, until recently. Millennials are now the largest living adult generation, and along with GenX outvoted Baby-Boomers in the 2018 election. One in ten eligible voters in the 2020 electorate will be GenZ and come to voting age facing recession, climate change and a worldwide pandemic. But much has changed in the past three months since Covid-19 brought the nation to its knees.
A fairly robust economy over the past seven years enabled many young voters to imagine a possible future, but predictions around climate change and the administration's continued scorched-earth policy on racial and social justice ignited outrage and mass protests, led mainly by Millennials and GenXers. Witnessing world leaders struggling and failing to convince US leaders to acknowledge responsibility and enact change reinforced a general consensus that the American experiment is a failure. As outrages piled up like cordwood, Millennials who had graduated from college burdened with insurmountable financial debt bent their heads and took up to four jobs just to tread water. Meanwhile GenXers were lucky to find jobs and face literally no hope of actually paying off school debt, being able to buy a home or pay for health care.
GenZ, now in their late teens and early 20s, grew up with endless school shootings, viral videos of police brutality and a political climate defined by President Trump. A recent Pew Research study shows that the GenZ generation (those coming of voting age now) are more likely to have a college-educated parent and be enrolled in college themselves. They are the most racially diverse generation in history. They have grown up with a pragmatic view of the political system compared to previous generations. And interestingly they are more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate in November. They all face growing challenges due to the pandemic.
There's little wonder that they would be apathetic about voting.
Knowing this it is still hard for many Baby-Boomers to relate. We grew up believing in the system and we had hope. We enjoyed the prosperity our parents' generation built after the second world war and the Depression. Inheriting that “hard-work” ethic, we believed that the government generally had our best interests in mind and that anyone could have a piece of the American dream. But what we see now is that the system is broken.
Electoral politics has quite literally disenfranchised three generations. Often Millennials don’t vote because they don’t believe our political system can be a vehicle for change and progress, and they don’t think their vote will make a difference. One thing is certain, shaming them is not an effective persuasion tool.
Hoping to gain a deeper understanding of the perspective of Millennials, GenX and GenZ, I reached out to a colleague from the 2018 congressional campaign. Gage Stewart is a Millennial and graduated in 2019 from Prescott College with an MA in Social Justice and Community Organizing. He now lives in Tucson, working on the social-justice front line as a community organizer with Justicia Para Todos, a campaign to institutionalize the right to counsel for all people facing deportation who can't afford an immigration lawyer in Pima County, where currently they are not guaranteed that right. I asked Gage to reflect on why he thinks young people are so disengaged from politics and voting.
“The basis of the problem is a political system that has not made us feel cared for or that we were a part of 'community,' and sadly, electoral politics are not sexy. Our generation is just disheartened.”
He posed the view that till the Bernie Sanders campaign, electoral politics weren't connected to the community or to organizing for the people, but rather connected to distant representative politics. That campaign ignited a mass movement and made people feel they have a voice in real change, but it hasn't been enough.
“Voting has not really served my generation. Half of my life I haven't been impacted by a candidate, and this is really instilled in the whole generation. It's political malpractice. We need to reclaim it.” He admits that since then we have seen insurgent candidates like AOC and Rashida Tlaib, and that happened through electoral politics and the massive social movement of #MeToo. But it is a continuing challenge to get his generation to engage. “We live in an anti-voting, anti-system culture,” he goes on to say, “We will not dismantle representative politics, but effective change is happening through social movement. This is something we can own and care about.”
Since my conversation with Gage things have changed dramatically across the country.
The death of yet another innocent, unarmed black man at the hands of police ignited a nationwide revolution calling for permanent racial and social-justice reform. Young people have taken to the streets in the millions, united in a single cause, to demand meaningful change and to dismantle systemic racial injustice.
Gage's theory that social movement is probably the only way to motivate young voters was confirmed in a recent Rock the Vote report. (Rock the Vote is a US nonprofit, progressive-aligned organization working "to engage and build the political power of young people." So far in 2020 it has registered 525,000 young people to vote, 35,000 in June alone. It sees this increase in registrations as a result of action rather than politics.)
“What gives me hope as an organizer is how we take the fire from this movement and make it useful in electoral politics.” says Gage. “Using the neo-abolitionist agenda could be a useful tool in motivating young voters, targeting down-ballot races where there is a lot of potential for neo-abolitionist reforms through electoral politics and initiatives.”
Ultimately it is still very difficult to predict how or whether young people will vote. What is clear is that “politics as usual” is not working. Our approach to reaching young voters needs to be more about mitigating the damage than about promising that if they vote it will fix America’s electoral system — that will take years if not decades. My conclusion is that we are about to see change on a scale not seen in living memory. Without doubt the votes of Millennials, GenX and GenZ will play a crucial role in making that happen.
Jewelry artist Lesley Aine McKeown serves as Director of Communications for the Yavapai County Democratic Party.