This November will be a watershed moment for the American electorate: It will be the first presidential election in which Generation Y—a.k.a.: Millennials—makes up the same proportion of the U.S. voting-age population as the Baby Boomers.
And if there’s one thing people are learning about this young generation, it’s that they are liberal. Even leftist. Flirting with socialist. In Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, more than 80 percent of voters under 30 years old voted for Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist so outside the mainstream of his party that he’s not even a member.
Whether or not Sanders scores an upset victory in the Democratic race—and to be fair, his odds look long—his support raises a serious question for future elections about the generation wave of voters. Why are young people so liberal; what’s behind their revolutionary spirit; and how close are they to ushering in a true liberal political revolution?
There are three compositional reasons why young people lean left. First, they’re just plain young, and young people are typically to the left of the rest of the country on social and economic issues. Second, the under-30 cohort is the most diverse adult demographic in American history, and minorities have historically been to the left of the country as well. Third, even young white men and women are more liberal than their parents, particularly on three social issues—gay rights, immigration, and marijuana—and generally on their willingness to accept more government involvement in income redistribution and universal health care. (On gun rights and abortion, interestingly, Generation Y is right in line with the rest of the country.) Although several polls find that young people are less likely to identify as Democrats, that has much more to do with an aversion to establishments and labels. Their overwhelming support for Obama was the most any young cohort has leaned toward a Democrat since 1972.
The Great Recession and several key events during the Obama administration have arguably pushed young Americans even further to the left. Young people were uniquely punished by the recession and are rightfully angry. They suffered higher unemployment than any other group during the downturn, and their wages fell more more than any other group after it concluded.
This is the most educated generation in American history by both total degrees and share of college graduates. But whereas education once seemed to promise an inviolable social contract—a degree produced a job, and the job procured a good middle-class life or better—the rising cost of school has combined with a chilly labor market to create a perfect storm: Low youth wages that make it hard to pay off record-high student debt. One study from the San Francisco Federal Reserve found that since 2009, wages for recent college graduates have grown 60 percent more slowly than those of the general population. Given the alarmingly slow growth of overall wages, this is not unlike identifying an animal that moves 60 percent slower than a garden snail. The youth job market appears to require ever more preparation to secure increasingly meager wages.
The financial punishment of the last eight years has inspired several protest movements that have captured young liberals’ imagination. Occupy Wall Street might not have produced a clear policy prescription, but it told a simple, true, and easy to understand story: The recovery had been extraordinary for the stock market and disappointing for the labor market. Search the words “profit high wages low” and Google will retrieve 73,500,000 results, with the first page telling and re-telling the same story: Corporate profits reached a modern high at the same time that labor’s share of national American income reached a modern low. How many Occupy protesters, minimum-wage advocates, and Bernie Sanders supporters know that fact? It’s tough to say. How many feel it? Probably 100 percent.
Young people’s sense that America needs a moral rebirth is not just economic. The Black Lives Matter movement has done for racism and police brutality what Occupy did for financial realities—not discover a fresh injustice, but rather expose a long-festering moral blight. The words “Black Lives Matter” are a clear expression of the movement: a statement of sheer obviousness, identifying a historical ugliness that has lived in the shadows and is finally being dragged into the national light.
In the biggest picture, young people don’t just feel that they have been uniquely disadvantaged by the economy, but also that they are revolutionaries for urgent social rights, particularly for black Americans and gay couples. They sense that they are both America’s impoverished generation and its moral guardians—absent on the payroll, but present at the the revolution.
The Bernie Sanders coalition is not just young. It is also rather white. This raises another question: Why would young, college-attending or college-educated white people—historically among the winners of the American system—be so eager to replace it?
Indeed, several older commentators have expressed horror that young people would embrace a revolution to make the U.S. more like a northern European economy. David Brooks’ exasperation is representative. “It’s amazing that a large part of the millennial generation has rejected” the American consensus that free markets are the way “toward individualism, achievement and flexibility,” he wrote.
The idea that young white Americans should be less revolutionary because their demographic has historically thrived misses two factors. First, it fails to reckon with the last decade—the rise in student loans, the rise in youth unemployment, the fall in wage growth, and social unrest. Second, it doesn’t acknowledge that a long period of economic progress followed by a concentrated period of financial strain is precisely what creates the perfect conditions for upheaval.
James Chowning Davies, a 20th-century American sociologist, observed that if you look at the history of political revolutions, it’s not the poorest who start them, nor is it the richest. Instead, the conditions for revolution are ripest “when a prolonged period of economic and social development is followed by a short period of sharp reversal.” Indeed, if you look at the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution, those whose felt the promise of hope felt the deepest indignation. Davies called it “the revolution of rising expectations."
Perhaps the members of this young generation, too, are in the midst of such a revolution. They are revolting, not just because they are disappointed and feel poor, but also because they feel gutted by great expectations. They remember the 1990s economy. They remember the “Hope and Change” stickers. They voted for Barack Obama. But they also recall stalled growth in the 2000s. They feel the embarrassment of bloated American exceptionalism after 9/11. They remember the Great Recession and, equally, the not-great recovery. They rue Obama’s failed promise to usher in a new age of consensus government, and bemoan the broken social contract around college, which no longer functions as an automatic elevator to middle-class comforts.
During the Occupy protests, researchers from the City University of New York visited Zuccotti Park in New York. They found that many activists had worked on Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, and their great hope had wrought great disappointment. “Disenchantment with Obama was a driver of the Occupy movement for many of the young people who participated,” they wrote.
More than ramming a political platform through Washington, the Occupy movement was about venting at an unfair system led by liars. Sanders is an antidote to system starved of integrity. When John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Harvard Institute of Politics, asked young voters last year what they value most in a presidential candidate, half said “integrity." A quarter said "authenticity.” “Political experience” finished near the bottom of the list.
Some young Democrats clearly like Bernie Sanders because they love his agenda. But others probably accept (or don’t even care about) his agenda because they love Bernie Sanders—a model of political integrity, an outsider who has jabbed his finger at a corrupt system for decades. They’re casting a protest vote for a career protest voter.
And so, the liberal Millennial revolution is about policy, about feelings, and about personality. It is a legitimately liberal generation, caught up in a revolution of rising expectations, uniting around a candidate who reflects both their soft values, for traits like integrity, and their quantitative preferences, for things like larger and more active government.
Because Generation Y is the largest generation in American history, it’s a big deal if it remains one of the most liberal generations ever. But there’s a huge, inescapable problem with the viability of Millennial politics today: Young people just don’t vote. Between 1964 and 2012, youth voter turnout in presidential elections has fallen below 50 percent, and Baby Boomers now outvote their children's generation by a stunning 30 percentage points. Millennials might make a lot of noise between presidential elections, but in November, politicians remember what young people are: All throat and no vote.
The liberal revolution would require more than quadrennial thrills. It would require a sustained focus on filling congressional and Senate seats with liberals so that a left-leaning president can sign bills approved by left-leaning majorities. Instead, this generation hasn’t shown that it can sustain interest in politics through non-presidential elections. Voting among people under 30 in non-presidential elections is hovering around its lowest rate in the last half-century.
A lasting revolution would require even more than that. At a time when the federal government is dragging its feet on every issue, the most significant policy decisions often come at the local and state level. But Republicans control more than half of state legislatures and governor’s mansions, in part because Millennials simply don’t show up to vote. One study found that the median age of voters in mayoral elections is 60.You cannot create a national movement around critical local policies, like higher minimum wages, if city hall is elected exclusively by voters born before Dwight Eisenhower’s reelection.
Young people treat electoral politics the way they treat Hollywood movies: They only show up for the blockbusters. But the math of democracy is unyielding. If you want a revolution, you have to vote for it. Not just every four years. Not just for cool candidates. Not just for political outsiders unsullied by the soot of experience. If young people want a liberal revolution, they have to vote again and again and again, in local elections, midterm elections, and presidential contests. To change the country, America’s young revolutionaries have to do something truly revolutionary: They have to convince their friends to vote like old people.