Hey Kids: Get Out There and Vote!

April 2020, national

Disappointed young progressives and Bernie Sanders supporters should consider the alternative.

By The Editorial Board NYTimes.com


With Joe Biden the last man standing in the Democratic primary race for president, there is increasingly anxious discussion within the party about how — or even if — the former vice president can win over disappointed progressives. Of particular concern are the younger voters whose energy and idealism fueled the campaign of Bernie Sanders.

On April 8, just hours after Mr. Sanders suspended his campaign, a collection of eight progressive groups “building political power for young people” sent Mr. Biden a four-page letter detailing how he could win their support. Their to-do list called on him to embrace a range of progressive policies — including Medicare For All, the “frameworks of the Green New Deal” and a wealth tax — as well as to add progressive advisers to his campaign and, later, his administration. “With young people poised to play a critical role deciding the next president, you need to have more young people enthusiastically supporting and campaigning with you to defeat Trump,” they wrote.

The next day, the former candidate Tom Steyer added his voice to the call, urging Mr. Biden to pursue young progressives. “There’s going to have to be a process to convert” them, Mr. Steyer told Politico.

This is a daunting challenge. Mr. Biden is a 77-year-old moderate who has spent his entire adult life in politics and in many ways embodies The Establishment. So far, he has been running on a backward-looking platform of restoration — not exactly a message to electrify the youth vote. Yet regardless of how hard Mr. Biden might try to overhaul his image, the unfortunate electoral reality — dramatically spotlighted by the Sanders campaign — is that betting on the youth vote remains a losing proposition. An enduring truth of politics is that, whether in presidential years or midterm races, younger voters consistently turn out at a lower rate than older ones. (The 18-29 year olds trail the 30-44-year-olds, who trail the 45-59- year-olds. Voters 60 and up are the Election Day rock stars.) Until that changes, young people will have a tough time getting their concerns taken as seriously as they deserve.

More than any other presidential contender in modern memory, Mr. Sanders built his candidacy around younger voters. He inspired them. He championed their issues. He explicitly cast them as the key to his success. While Mr. Biden held sway with voters age 45 and older, Mr. Sanders dominated with the under-45 crowd.

And how did this work out for Mr. Sanders? Not well. In state after state, young voters’ enthusiasm for Mr. Sanders failed to translate into cold, hard votes.

It’s not that the Democratic primary electorate was, on the whole, unmotivated. Before the coronavirus pandemic upended the country, overall turnout was exceeding turnout in 2016. But among younger voters, turnout was flat or down in many states. In the 14 states that voted on Super Tuesday, participation by those younger than 30 did not top 20 percent, according to exit polls — which also showed these voters making up a smaller share of the electorate than in 2016.

It’s not a mystery why young Americans are fed up with politics. The system feels rigged against them. Even politicians who profess to care about their problems rarely make things better. The current administration may most kindly be described as revanchist.

Mr. Sanders struck many young people as their last, best hope — and made clear that he saw them as his. Fair or not, their inability to deliver on his behalf will not go unnoticed in political circles, and going forward, candidates will be that much more hesitant to pin their chances on this demographic.

This is a terrible dynamic for young voters and for the nation. Moving America forward requires focusing on the future, which is hard for politicians to do when the electoral influence rests so heavily in the hands of older voters. But politicians go where the votes are, and older voters are reliable — even when they aren’t especially excited about a candidate.

One unexpected voice making this point is Cardi B. In a hilarious, highly profane rant posted Thursday on Twitter, the 27-year-old rapper went after young people for not delivering for Mr. Sanders. “I’m seeing all over Twitter: ‘I love Bernie. I love Bernie.’ But y’all wasn’t voting. Y’all wasn’t voting!” she scolded. “Now, you know who be voting? Older people.” And on she went about how the nation is facing perilous times, how President Trump is not up to the challenge and how this is no time to be messing around by not voting.

Cardi B may not be best known for her political punditry, but she is not wrong here. Sitting this election out for whatever reason would not serve young voters’ interests in the short or long term. They need to show up and be counted like never before, even if only to write in a protest candidate. Once they establish themselves as a reliable force, they won’t again have to beg and bargain with politicians to take them seriously.