Beware of chasing the progressive youth vote

Jeffrey Denny

I had a weird fantasy during the Democratic presidential candidate debates.

Amid all the yadda-yadda, attacking racist Uncle Joe and vying to break from the pack, a candidate says: “Ok, everyone. All these issues we’re discussing are important, and we all generally agree. But our number-one goal is to get Trump out of the White House and end this scourge, am I right?

“So let’s each ask ourselves honestly: Can I beat Trump? How? And if any one of us has any doubt or doesn’t have a solid plan, then get out and support someone who can.”

I know: Stupid. This is why I’m not a multimillionaire Washington political consultant/former White House or Congressional staffer paid fat fees for trenchantly stating the obvious to corporate clients and gets cable TV bookings as an “expert” political commentator even when my candidates always lose.

So also forgive me that I also don’t understand the Democrats’ race to the left. Especially when, as a lifelong Democrat, my party’s candidates bloviate, trumpet and one-up each other on “progressive” issues young people are so passionate about. You know, free college, free healthcare, free planet-saving CO2 reduction, cost-free subsidized housing and living wages for everyone, free culturally respectful sushi at Oberlin and most of all, reparations for Joe Biden’s segregationist past.

Whatever their undeniably powerful merits, running on youth issues and ganging up on old Joe will not defeat Trump for a simple reason: You can’t trust young people to vote.

Whoomph! If I were, say, a famous comedian, Harvard professor or Joe Biden, Twitter would melt down in a mushroom cloud. And I’d be on apology tour.

“A youth wave is sweeping this nation,” Teen Vogue quoted the head of the nonprofit Advocates for Youth just after the 2018 midterm election. “Young people are outraged by politicians whose rhetoric and actions embolden extremist bigots. They don’t accept this world of racism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism, nor the violence and harm that goes along with it. In record numbers, they voted for change.”

Yay! You go, kiddos!

But let’s look at the youth vote “record numbers.”

For all the mouthing off on social media, college campuses and polling, the 18–29 voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections — an urgent referendum on the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Trump — was still in the low 30s.

This “youth wave” was applauded for raising its typical embarrassing low 20s turnout, like bench-warmers getting participation trophies.

Meanwhile for the entire country, the 2018 turnout hit a 50-year high of 47 percent. For voters aged 30–44, it was nearly 50 percent; for 45–64, nearly 60 percent; and for 65+, over 66 percent.

For all their political passion and activism, while youth voters made a difference in 2018, 65–70 percent didn’t bother with ballots. Every other age group made a far bigger difference.

This is par for the course, as older people who golf say: “Young people have failed to meet expectations in the past, even when they have appeared unusually enthusiastic,” the New York Times noted just before the 2018 election, and quotes the director of a Tufts University center that studies youth turnout: “Young people have a pretty bad reputation when it comes to turning out reliably in high numbers.”

Without meaning to sound condescending, patting the poor dears on their pretty heads, the Times piece explains why youth turnout is so low. Registering and voting the first time can be confusing. Youth are away in college or move a lot so they need to re-register and update their addresses. Or they don’t have driver’s licenses needed in some states that require picture IDs.

Also, “When young people feel like their vote doesn’t matter,” the Tufts center head told the Times, “they don’t vote.”

Call me confused:

The youth vote matters or it doesn’t? Is voting too hard for smart college kids to figure out? Are they busier than middle-class families with kids and both parents working to pay the mortgage? Or maybe the youth don’t care as much as beloved gram and gramps who set up their college funds?

Or, forgive me, could it be youth are merely “online progressives,” as one conservative commentator put it? Maybe just Macbeth’s sound and fury signifying nothing, strutting and fretting their hour on the stage and then are heard no more? (Until they have families and pay mortgages?)

Cong. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently clapped back at Nancy Pelosi when the House Speaker suggested the “far left” had little following beyond its “Twitter world.” But Pelosi’s right. While Americans 18–24 are the top social media users — with 76 percent on Facebook, 75 percent on Instagram, and 73 percent on Snapchat, a recent Pew survey found — and social media has brought more youth to the polls, it’s a stretch to say their torrents of posts, likes, hashtags and retweets reflect overall U.S. “public sentiment,” as Ocasio-Cortez insisted.

AOC’s own election was a quirk not a trend— she won a safe Democratic district by unseating a tired, lazy incumbent and then faced a ridiculously scandal-scarred Republican opponent. (The local GOP tried to un-endorse him after learning about the restraining order against him for punching his wife in the face; plus, he couldn’t fund raise because his assets were frozen.)

Sorry, Bernie Bro: The 2018 Blue Wave that retook the U.S. House was not driven by progressives or democratic socialists.

It was mostly middle-road Democrats, including a platoon of military veterans, who ran on local, common sense, kitchen-table issues that adults — the vast majority of voters — care about.

You know, like reliable, affordable healthcare (public and private), Social Security and real Medicare (not “Medicare for all”), childcare, eldercare, public safety, infrastructure, taxes, good schools, smart government, job training, responsible fiscal policy and the overall tenor and direction of the country.

Running on adult-y issues — and restoring normalcy, decency and dignity to the presidency — will beat Trump. Not what’s trending on Instagram.

Democrats: Take a page from “Slick Willie.”

No, not Bill Clinton, as his Republican critics liked to call him, although Clinton’s cross-partisan moderation is a good model. I mean the notorious bank robber Willie Sutton (1901–1980) who stole more than $2 million over his 40-year career and escaped from jail twice.

The apocryphal story goes that when reporters asked Sutton why he robbed banks, he quipped, “Because that’s where the money is.”

This became “Sutton’s Law” in medicine to reach the most likely diagnosis rather than investigate every other possibility. It’s like “Occam’s Razor,” that the simplest explanation is usually the right one.

If Democrats want to win back the White House, let’s go to where the votes are, people 30 to 65+, and speak to their concerns.

As for the young people, how about if you stop chasing waterfalls, focus on what matters most — sending Trump back up his golden escalator — and post your views where they count, at the ballot box. And if you’re triggered by my comments here, prove me wrong by voting at least as much or more than your parents and grandparents.

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer



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