On the front of addressing young voters, the Democratic Party still isn’t offering a bold vision that can excite a demographic known for not showing up much on election day. For the 2018 midterms, the party decided to center on issues of corruption and ethics, as laid out in its “Better Deal for Our Democracy” platform. This is a modest step forward — especially the “Crack Down on Corporate Monopolies” provisions, which are overdue — but missing is a focus on the bread-and-butter issues that can materially affect young people’s lives, such as redirecting resources from our bloated military toward popular programs for free college education and Medicare for All.
Young people, more than their older counterparts, are increasingly against obscene military budgets and U.S. wars — as are Democratic voters in general. But citizens with those views are without powerful representation in Washington. Roughly 68 percent of House Democrats and 85 percent of Democratic senators voted for the record-breaking 2019 military budget. High-profile “resistance” lawmakers, such as House members Nancy Pelosi, Ted Lieu and Adam Schiff, voted yea on giving Trump a military budget of over $700 billion to expand America’s imperial footprint and devoting vast sums to expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. It’s noteworthy that most of the major prospective candidates for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination — including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Jeff Merkley — voted against the most recent Defense Authorization bill. Those who actually have to win over voters in the 2020 primaries nationwide see which way the wind is blowing at the grassroots. Why don’t Democratic leaders? At the top of the party, there is little-to-no “resistance” to the rubber stamp of bloated, violent militarism.
One of the main drivers of young people’s cynicism about the Democratic Party is the belief that there isn’t much of a distinction between it and the Republican Party. Case in point: nonstop war and support for Trump’s airstrikes, which are not just unopposed but praised by many Senate Democrats. Working to draw sharp contrasts to Republicans via principled opposition would likely be more effective than showing up to university campuses and scolding millennials for not voting, as former President Obama did in September.
On the issue of paying for college, something obviously key to exciting young voters, party leaders have made a bit of progress. But instead of taking a clear, aggressive stance in favor of free public college tuition — something a strong majority of Democrats support — congressional Democrats proposed a law in July that would subsidize community colleges only and work to “make college more affordable by reducing debt and simplifying financial aid,” as the Washington Post reported. This tepid, process-oriented approach hardly made big news. Again, it’s an improvement (and could legitimately benefit many) but is still bogged down in too many qualifiers and cost-neutral niceties — something the GOP has long given up on doing.
Free public-college tuition has support among a sizable minority of Republicans, at 41 percent. How many young, right-leaning voters could be drawn in with a clear embrace of free public college for all? Likely many. Most Democratic presidential contenders for 2020 have learned to push some compelling, simple policy measures. So have a growing number of successful candidates for local and state offices as well as congressional seats. But the Democratic leadership is still using a 1990s-era playbook of technocratic half-measures that don’t inspire — or bring out to the polls — America’s youth.