With the November midterms fast approaching, the 2018 cycle has already delivered two major primary upsets on the Democratic side in the House. In New York’s 14th, Joe Crowley, one of the most powerful Democrats in the country and state of New York, was unseated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Then, in Massachusetts 7th, Ayanna Pressley beat 10-term incumbent Mike Capuano.
Down-ballot progressives unseated even more centrists. In New York, seven state senators lost primaries, including the most powerful Democrat in the state senate. These two victories launched a thousand takes about the fate of liberalism. Were Democrats drifting to the left? Were Democratic Socialists taking over? But what has not broadly been understood is that this is only the beginning of young people remaking a new Democratic Party.
These two victories launched a thousand takes about the fate of liberalism. Were Democrats drifting to the left? Were Democratic Socialists taking over?
Data for Progress is a progressive think tank founded by myself, Colin McAuliffe and Jon Green. We analyzed the New York state voter file and found that young voters were overwhelmingly backing primary challengers in NY-09, NY-12 and NY-14 (where they were enough to put Ocasio-Cortez over the top.) Our analysis of Florida’s gubernatorial Democratic primary suggest the same pattern, with young voters and black voters (and young black voters) putting Andrew Gillum over the top in a tight race. Young people are challenging the party on racial justice, with the Black Lives Matter and pro-immigration Dreamer movements questioning the assumption that the humanity of the Democratic base should be sacrificed for electoral gain.
And an increasing body of polling research suggests there is very little limit to how far left young progressives are willing to go. Data for Progress has been polling a broad range of issues in partnership with YouGov Blue and Civis Analytics as part of our efforts to understand how progressive issues could reshape the electoral system. One of our most consistent findings is that young people are incredibly supportive of left policies, even those that are far outside of the mainstream. We found, for example, that individuals under 45 have net positive support (support minus opposition) for a 90 percent marginal tax on income over a million dollars, reparations for slavery, a universal basic income, universal basic wealth and abolishing ICE.
As part of our New Progressive Agenda Project with Civis Analytics, we found positive support nationally for employer governance, family leave, tuition free college, public housing and statehood for Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. Among individuals aged 18-34, net support (support minus opposition) for all the policies was at least 22 percent. For individuals over 65, free college and housing both have net opposition.
It’s clear that young people are supportive of a more left agenda. Why this might be true is also not a mystery. After coming of age in a brutal recession, many young people yearn for a better standard of living. Research suggests that experiencing a recession at a young ages permanently shapes your political attitudes and that these attitudes are sticky, meaning the recession could create a long-term progressive millennial generation.
The only problem is that for too long, it's true that there has been persistently low turnout among young voters. In the 2014 midterms, less than 20 percent of individuals between the ages of 18 and 29 voted. In 2016, about 46 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds voted, compared with over 70 percent of those 65 or older. There is even some evidence that millennials vote at a lower rate than their parents did at the same age.
So how can we change this? Finding and supporting young progressive candidates wouldn’t hurt. Voter file analysis suggests that turnout among young people drove Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise victory in NY-14, evidence that compelling candidates running on popular policies could bolster turnout.
There is also a persistent myth that young people are consistently more liberal than older people and that people become more conservative with age. This is not true. Take for instance, the 1984 New York Times headline, “Younger Voters Tending to Give Reagan Support.” Or the 1988 Times headline, “Political Memo; GOP Makes Reagan Lure Of Young a Long-Term Asset.” One does not need to go back very far to find young and old voters providing President George W. Bush with similar levels of support. Indeed, if anything the oldest voters were somewhat more supportive of Al Gore).
The growing liberalism of young people, combined with a political system that does not reflect their preferences, increasingly stretches democracy. The median American is almost 38 years old. However, the median voter is substantially older. And here are a few other numbers to ponder: The average age of members of the House of Representatives is 58 and the average senator is 62.
In the past, this was not a threat to democracy, but when the attitudes and partisanship of Americans seems increasingly divided by age, this gap reflects more than a pop culture clash. We are witness a lack of democratic responsiveness that threatens our core values. With less than a week left until one of the more consequential midterms in the past decade or so, young people can help push America back on track — if they show up.
To learn more about Sean McElwee's thoughts on the future of the Democratic Party, listen to his conversation with Chris Hayes on this episode of "Why Is This Happening?"