Even before 2016 became a gladiatorial showdown between American openness and American xenophobia, this election was always destined to be a watershed moment, in a subtler way. November 8 marks the first time that Generation Y makes up the same share of presidential voters as the Baby Boomers. Generational description sometimes obfuscate more than they illuminate. But in this case, the transition is significant because young voters are clearly to the left of the rest of the country, and their emergence as a powerful voting bloc holds significant implications, not only for Tuesday’s election, but also for the future of American economics and social policy.
Millennials’ liberalism was blindingly obvious long before Bernie Sanders’ revolution. Polls repeatedly found that this under-35 group wants an especially activist government. They are more likely than any other age cohort to say that it's the government's responsibility to insure all Americans, according to a 2014 survey. Today, the federal government spends $7 on the elderly for every $1 on kids, but Millennials are by far the most likely to say that Washington should shift its spending toward young adults, perhaps for both substantive reasons (more investment in kids should improve social mobility) and self-interested reasons (more investment in young people would profit young people).
Youthful liberalism has revealed itself in polls, too. Today, Clinton leads Donald Trump 49 percent to 21 percent among voters under 30, according to the Harvard University Institute of Politics. That’s similar to Barack Obama’s margin over John McCain and even larger than Obama’s Gen-Y advantage over Mitt Romney.
But as many writers have already pointed out, young people who once thrilled to Obama and Sanders have merely, well, lukewarmed to Clinton. Her healthy margin over Trump is entirely the result of Trump drawing support far below both Romney and McCain among voters under 30. Furthermore, in a sign of the generation’s trepidation, the number of undecided and third-party voters in the under-30 group has increased by a factor of three since 2012, from 9 percent to 30 percent.
The great irony of Clinton’s uneasy relationship with the young liberal voting bloc is that she is by a clear margin the most liberal Democratic presidential nominee in American history, blending social liberalism—an openness to immigration and gay tolerance—and social democracy—an enthusiasm for redistribution and government activism—in precisely the measure that young voters have clamored for.
On social issues, no previous Democratic nominee has so consistently and unabashedly defended gay marriage and the pro-choice movement throughout a race; not even Obama, who only announced his full-throated support of gay marriage in May 2012. On criminal justice reform, Clinton has emphasized the systemic nature of racism while expressing empathy for both victims and police units. “There is something profoundly wrong when African American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts,” she said in a February 2016 speech at Columbia University.
On economic issues, Clinton’s liberal bona fides are even more historically unusual and deeply underrated. Clinton has proposed what Dylan Matthews at Vox smartly calls a "minimal viable product for social democracy” or a “starter home” for Nordic-style welfare. From cradle-to-grave, her proposals would:
For children under four, provide universal pre-kindergarten.
For college-age adolescents, make college tuition-free for students coming coming from families that earn less than $85,000.
For young workers, invest an additional $275 billion in federal infrastructure spending, which could bring more prime-age men back into the workforce.
For parents, provide progressive and subsidized child care, offer 12 weeks of paid family or medical leave, and double the child tax credit for families with young children, while using the same tax credit to help the poorest families make money from the federal tax code.
For almost-seniors, expand Medicare to adults aged 55 and above.
Clinton’s proposals wouldn’t just redistribute income; they would also “predistribute” income by rewriting rules on labor unions and mergers that would give workers more bargaining power and create more competition in industries that have calcified into quasi-monopolies.
This plan is not anywhere near as ambitious as Bernie Sanders’ one-time promise to Denmarkify the country in one fell swoop. But Clinton’s policy matrix is both radical in its breadth and incremental in depth. It touches nearly every station of economic policy, from entrepreneurship and immigration to welfare and retirement, while using the soft clay of existing policy to sculpt a more liberal country.
Will any of these policies actually become law? Eh. The GOP will almost certainly keep control of the House of Representatives, while the Senate remains a toss up. Republicans have demonstrated no interest in helping the Oval Office achieve its aims in the past eight years. With some Republican senators now promising to block any Clinton Supreme Court nominee, bipartisanship in Washington now seems to be an act just shy of treason.
But this is where young voters come in, again. Generation Y is the largest in American history, with the power to shape electoral politics for decades. But for now, this power in numbers is merely hypothetical, since most young people simply don’t show up to vote. Baby Boomers currently outvote their children's generation by almost 30 percentage points. In midterm elections, even more young people stay home, and at local level, the median age of voters in mayoral elections is 60. That means local elections essentially have the demographics of primetime cable news.
In politics, young voters are at risk of becoming the opposite of the cliche of an orderly child: heard, but not seen. In the last few years, young people have successfully staged several boisterous outbursts—first with Occupy Wall Street and then again with the Bernie Sanders campaign. Both episodes were the political equivalent of a sharp yell, reaching a high volume and then returning to relative silence.
But political change is less like yawping and more like droning, a boring of hard boards. “Boring,” young liberal readers might be thinking, “is the perfect word for our candidate.” But if those same readers are serious about remaking the country in their preferred image, change will indeed require the maddeningly slow and arduous cumulation of vote after vote after vote. The next one comes on Tuesday. Whether or not they realize it, liberalism’s young revolutionaries and Hillary Clinton are perfect together.