Millennials’ Non-Voting Habits, Explained

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Millennials’ Non-Voting Habits, Explained

Students take a selfie with presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. (Photo: Phil Roeder/cc/flickr)

What’s the matter with millennials? The latest person to ask and answer this question is Vox’s David Roberts. Listing out a series of polls explaining how supportive 18-29-year-olds are of climate action and clean energy, Roberts reaches a crossroads: If millennials care so much about global warming, then why aren’t they doing anything about it?

“The problem is, too few of them vote,” he says, pointing to low voter turn-outs in the last few elections.

The article itself is filled with cheeky stock photos of millennials taking selfies and walking around college campus sporting vests and fedoras. Look at all the stylish fun they’re having while not voting! Millennials, for Roberts, are a perplexing but — ultimately — useful herd of sheep in need of a good shepherd.

The man for the job, says Roberts, is Very Serious Man Tom Steyer, a hedge fund billionaire and top donor to liberal candidates and causes. He founded NextGen Climate and its associated PAC to bring millennials out to the polls, tapping into their widespread support for stopping climate catastrophe. NextGen was founded in 2013 and is now launching a $25 million campaign to “register and mobilize young voters in seven key battleground states to help elect climate champions to the White House and the Senate this fall.”

While going into detail on NextGen’s plans for the coming months, Roberts somehow gets through a (not-short) piece on millennials, voting and the 2016 election without once mentioning Bernie Sanders, the candidate who has captured double-digit leads among that demographic —  even in states that he’s lost. Millennials would even choose a dinner with Sanders over one with Beyonce or Justin Bieber.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Roberts doesn’t bring up the millennials who’ve already pushed the climate conversation this election into the mainstream, cornering Clinton into a firm rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline and prompting a national conversation about the role of fossil fuel money — including hers — in politics. Also absent are the now hundreds of students who’ve been arrested to stop the Keystone XL pipeline, and the over 60 of them jailed this spring for fossil fuel divestment.

These are serious gaps, but relatively standard from the pundits who’ve built a cottage industry on making bad predictions about this election — largely by underestimating the importance of political outsiders. But if Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s surprising success has shown anything, it’s that political elites are more subject than ever to outside forces, and movements. Roberts isn’t alone in leaving the grassroots out of the picture of this election. Winning on climate, though — at the scale science demands — requires a more holistic understanding of the political arena than simply voting and non-voting. Why, beyond the Sanders campaign, haven’t millennials been engaged en mass in elections in traditional ways? What are they doing instead?

As a younger millennial, here are a few #MillennialFacts — in Roberts’s words — to help explain what’s happening in 2016, and why my generation has such a complicated relationship to the ballot box.

I was born in 1992, meaning my first real memories of the Oval Office are of Bill Clinton. Not of NATO bombings or crime bills, but of Monica Lewinsky and the Starr Report. I was too young to understand the controversy that marked the 2000 election, but old enough to know I shouldn’t like the guy who came out on top or the process that put him there.

Before reaching double digits, two planes had hit the Twin Towers and the Bush administration had launched us into a war that’s followed me into adulthood, the reasoning for which I don’t understand any better now than when I was learning algebra. Two years later we entered another war I understood even less — that one sending my brother on a brief and thankfully uneventful tour in Iraq. No Child Left Behind gifted my mother with the task of preparing her special education students for tests she and the school both know they couldn’t pass. The 2004 election inexplicably brought on four more years of Bush. So, by the time there was a chance to elect someone I was actually excited about, I knocked on doors in the hopes of something different, even if I couldn’t yet vote myself. The millennials who could vote came out in record numbers for Obama in 2008, and thousands organized for the campaign. Maybe — just maybe — he could dig us out of a nasty recession and perpetual, bloody conflict in the Middle East.

By the time I was old enough to actually vote for Obama, though, the hope and change that colored his election had faded. Rather than sweeping progressive reform, we got a more tech savvy version of the same wars, and an economic recovery that brought my generation’s economic prospects to a deflated and precarious new normal; five-figure student debt was ready to greet me at graduation.

It should be said, too, that I was lucky. My family’s assets remained largely intact after the crash. Black households, by comparison, saw their wealth decline by a full 31 percent between 2007 and 2010. I also wasn’t subject to the round-the-clock surveillance that’s stalked Muslim communities since the advent of the Patriot Act. Nor do I have loved ones incarcerated by the War on Drugs or deported by draconian immigration policies.

In the midst of all this disappointment, it wasn’t a call for four more years of the same that inspired me. It was the scrappy, stubborn millennials who decided to camp out in public parks around the country. Fraught as Occupy was — and it was plenty fraught — it stood for something electoral politics never had: a better future, and the radical demand for a world without want or rule by the 1 percent. I was too young and too suburban to be a part of the anti-war movement, so Occupy first showed me what it could look like for people, not politicians, to shape a national conversation. It even managed to turn Mitt Romney’s background in private equity from a selling point to a liability, painting him as the candidate of, by and for the elite. The years since 2011 and 2012 have seen an uptick in similarly transformative movements, most recently in the movement for black lives.

For good reason, then, millennials have placed more faith in protests than in politicians. But Roberts’s data isn’t wrong: Millennials don’t vote at the levels we should, even as we rally behind Sanders’s Occupy-inspired campaign. NextGen’s work on this front is important; getting more millennials out to the polls is vital. And though Steyer has a penchant for taking chummy pictures with Koch brothers and dissing activists, he’s funding a project that needs to exist.

At the same time, however, it’s also no magic bullet for cracking the seemingly impenetrable nut of millennial civic engagement — let alone to getting the kind of comprehensive climate policy and energy system overhaul that Roberts outlines so skillfully in his other writing. In its mildest form, adequate climate action means a dramatic reimagining of America’s economic and political system, both in terms of the story we tell about them and the people in charge. (That might be one reason why some 43 percent of millennials favor socialism and 51 percent reject the capitalism that’s wrecked our paychecks, planet and political system.)

To beat a familiar drum, social movements and upheavals are the driving force behind transformative political shifts and realignments. Climate will be no different. Where NextGen can ensure that millennials show up to vote, movements determine who and what goes on the ballot. The political weather that movements help create determines everything from the kinds of candidates running to the policies they’re feasibly able to push. Of course, it’s a street that runs both ways: Just as Occupy laid the groundwork for Bernie Sanders’s candidacy in 2008’s wake, the Tea Party — in its years of dedicated grassroots organizing — has paved the way for Trump. It wasn’t FDR, after all, who created the foundation for a bolstered welfare state after the Great Depression. It was the armies of the unemployed, who marched tens-of-thousands strong on Washington and congressional districts around the country.

Knowing all this, millennial movements have developed an increasingly nuanced understanding of the interplay between protests and politics. Their leaders, emboldened — but not limited by — the Sanders campaign, are exploring the prospects of independent political power. Us millennials want a new kind of politics to vote for, and are already building it — not because we feel entitled to it, but because it’s our collective best shot at a livable future.

Kate Aronoff

Kate Aronoff is an organizer and freelance journalist based in Philadelphia, PA. While in school, she worked extensively with the fossil fuel divestment movement on the local and national level, co-founding Swarthmore Mountain Justice and the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network (DSN). She is currently working to build a student power network across Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff

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