Youth voters ahead of the 2022 midterm election

A crowd of supporters responds to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) as he speaks during a Our Future is Now tour, which is hoping to register young voters ahead of Election Day, on November 6, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. With days left before U.S. midterms Bernie Sanders is on the campaign trail, holding nine rallies across five battleground states leading up to election day. (Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Defending Democracy While Waiting for the Cavalry to Arrive

The progressive viewpoint of many young Americans didn't grow out of youthful wild-eyed idealism, but from the realities of their lives. They are the nation's best hope.

If there is anything certain in today's political world it is that the Republican Party represents an existential threat to the survival of democracy. And it would be a mistake to take too much comfort from the recent midterm election results. The better than expected showing by the Democrats bought some time, but American democracy will remain at risk for as long as the GOP remains the party it is today. In two years there will be another election, then another, and another after that. To preserve a functioning democracy, the Democrats have to win every time in a closely divided country. To tear it down, the GOP need win only once. Just one election where they win control of both houses of congress and the presidency at the same time, and it's over (they already control the Supreme Court). And given the inevitable cycles of American politics, we know that day must eventually come. And when it does, America's 250-plus year experiment in self-government will effectively end.

We know this because the leadership of the Republican Party has repeatedly shown its willingness to ignore democratic norms. The most shocking example, of course, was the action of 147 GOP representatives in congress voting to not certify the results of the 2020 presidential election. Let that roll around in your mind for a time. A large proportion of the congressional representatives for one of the two major parties were ready to overturn the will of the voters, thereby chucking American democracy out the window, for no better reason than that their guy didn't win.

"If there is still a democracy waiting for them when today's youth reach full strength, the GOP we have today will have no choice but to change or die."

And that was far from the first time the GOP assaulted democracy. Probably the most extreme example involves Wisconsin. In 2010, the Democratic Party suffered its famous shellacking in the first Obama midterms. As part of this nationwide Democratic wipeout, Wisconsin voters handed complete control of the state government to the Republicans. While no doubt disheartening to Wisconsin Democrats, they had reason to believe this was only a temporary setback. They could work to turn things around in the next election. But the Wisconsin GOP had a different idea. They decided to use this temporary grant of political power to game the system in a way that all but guaranteed they would never lose another legislative election.

Using extreme gerrymandering, the following year they drew legislative districts in a way that made it essentially impossible for the Democratic Party, which had previously been very competitive, to ever again win legislative control. They also used their legislative power to attack unions, weakening one of the Democrats' biggest sources of support. Eight years later, when a Democrat was elected governor, the GOP again used this legislative lock to thwart the popular will, by changing the law to reduce the governor's power. And the highly politicized Wisconsin Supreme Court, also controlled by Republicans, upheld everything they did.

The end result has been that the state government of Wisconsin, once home to the progressive reforms of Robert La Follette, has in many respects ceased to be a functioning democracy. And, frighteningly, the GOP seems perfectly happy with this undemocratic state of affairs.

Can anyone doubt that given the chance, the GOP will do something similar to the nation as a whole, and that their handpicked Supreme Court majority will happily go along?

The good news is that our wannabe dictators have a problem. It turns out that Millennials and Gen Zers, the very groups that will soon become the most important voting bloc in America, don't much like right-wing policies.

The degree to which young voters helped Democrats in the midterm elections is debated. Some commentators think it was a substantial factor in the Democrats' favorable showing. Others insist this is being overstated. One thing that can't be debated, however, is the basic demographics of the situation. Regardless of your political allegiance, there's no denying that as elderly voters die off, young people continue to enter the voting pool.

It is estimated that by 2024, Millennials and Gen Zers will together make up the largest age group of voters in the country. While many resist identifying with a particular political party, an overwhelming majority of Millennial and Gen Z voters vote Democratic. Of perhaps equal importance, these new young voters strongly disapprove of the intolerance which has become the GOP's stock-in-trade. As the GOP continues to play to its declining base, the future walks in the opposite direction.

The big unknown, of course, is to what extent the progressive outlook of these young voters will survive the aging process. While scholarly research has had mixed results on whether voters grow more conservative with age, I would suggest Republicans not get too comfortable with the common assumption that these young liberals will magically morph into conservatives as they age. These younger Americans grew up in a different America than their parents and grandparents. They are much more diverse -- and much more tolerant of diversity. They inherited less economic opportunity than their parents. Many carry crippling debt from student loans that will stalk them for decades -- limiting what they can do, and what they can become.

They grew up with active shooter drills and the looming threat of climate change. They are inheriting a nation with extreme inequality of wealth, choking off economic opportunity. Current data suggests that unlike earlier generations, these young Americans cannot expect to do better than their parents.

I could be wrong, but I feel fairly confident the progressive viewpoint of these young Americans didn't grow out of youthful wild-eyed idealism. It grew from the realities of their lives. Perhaps over time some will gradually drift to the right, but any such movement is unlikely to be big enough, or to come quickly enough, to save the GOP.

And if that's true, and if there is still a democracy waiting for them when today's youth reach full strength, the GOP we have today will have no choice but to change or die. Either way, the health of our democracy will be much improved.

The cavalry may well be coming, but even if true it won't be at full strength for some time. We still need to do the work required to keep the GOP out of power, and far away from the machinery of democracy, during the next few election cycles, as we wait for this demographic transformation to become complete.

Otherwise, when the cavalry does finally arrive in full force, they may find there's nothing left to rescue.

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