And older people, too
Channeling Jon Stewart, from his Daily Show days (sigh) - folks over 40, meet me over on camera three. (Folks under 40 can also meet me over on camera three).
We1 can spend all of our time whining about the “kids,” or we can try to meet them where they are.2 The “they” I’m referring to here are younger adults who sit broadly on the liberal-left. If they’re going to vote, they’re likely to vote Democratic. But many will not vote. A pretty good-sized chunk won’t because they just kind of forgot, or moved and didn’t switch their registration in time or, for some other reason having to do with their still evolving executive function, just didn’t get their acts together. Others decided not to vote for more purposeful reasons, including dissatisfaction with the whole system, including what they see as the inadequate response of mainstream politicians to the crises they’re going to be stuck dealing with for the rest of their lives, including the climate.
Convincing this broad cohort of the stakes of sitting it out is absolutely critical. And being frustrated when too many do so is totally understandable. A GOP-appointed Supreme Court is doing grievous damage to many of the things that liberal/left younger Americans hold dear. On a range of issues, including student loan forgiveness (more on that below), access to affordable health care and at least attempting to take seriously the climate crisis, most Democratic officeholders favor doing *something* to address those issues. Very few elected Republicans do.
One common thing I hear from 20-somethings (and I talk to a lot of them) is: "We *did* vote for Biden - what did it get us?" The narrative of Biden’s presidency has turned sharply negative in the past year, and they’re absorbing some of that. They also know that the affordability crisis is not abating. To repeat, climate action has gone nowhere. You and I can enumerate some important policy successes for the Biden administration as well as its judicial appointments. Those matter. And we can say our recalcitrant young friends need to be realistic about how politics work, about what change is possible, about GOP obstruction (plus, Joe Manchin!). But guess what? We need to be realistic, too. Asking someone who is 20 or 25 to see the world exactly as we do now, as opposed to when we were young, to want exactly what we want, to have the same sense of time and possibility - that's not reality-based. That's projecting our own frustrations with the world onto them.
Furthermore, on some issues, like health insurance, while it’s maddening that we don’t have universal coverage, more is still definitely better than less. Here, the adage that we don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good is absolutely appropriate. But on the issue young people I talk to care *by far* the most about, that pesky old climate crisis, more is not substantively better than less if it doesn’t meet a certain threshold. And none of the proposals currently deemed “realistic,” even if they stood a chance of making it into law in the United States, meets the threshold necessary to stem sufficiently the carbon tide. In other words, yes, it’s true that some people who want the system to do more are being unrealistic about what that system is currently capable of. But so are people who insist, in defiance of the known science, that what are plainly inadequate proposals are “realistic” responses to the climate crisis itself.
Hectoring and blaming young people - especially left-aligned young people - and then expecting them to behave the way we want them to is based on no known theory of how politics works, nor on how to successfully talk to young people more generally. And not incidentally, they have a *way* better argument that it's our fault that things are so shitty, than we do that it’s theirs. I’ve read many missives from liberal and left bloggers that younger progressives need to stop lecturing mainstream America. These writers regularly beseech young activists, especially, to be more patient when explaining why it’s important not to mis-gender people, or to think and act more mindfully about whiteness and privilege, and to otherwise stop badgering the broad “mainstream” about why they are morally inadequate. This is a sure way to turn people off, so these plaints go, not to teach and persuade them. Compassion, not condemnation, is the road to a more progressive future. And I agree. It’s worth noting that young people today actually vote more and are more loyally Democratic than has been true in two generations, since 18 year-olds got the right to vote in time for the 1972 elections. That aside, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander (whatever that means). If it’s appropriate to counsel youngsters to be less moralizing, more understanding about how the world is changing in ways that make well-intentioned people uncomfortable, it’s also appropriate for us oldsters to figure out a different mode of political communication than blaming young people for Trumpism, for instance.
It is true, of course, that plenty of young people who complain about the world around them nevertheless experience various kinds of privilege that aren't fully consistent with their professed beliefs. That's not the sick burn some folks think it is. I know approximately zero people of any age who aren't guilty of that at least some of the time (present company included). One fun example is good ol’ plain talkin' James Carville. Carville remains a hero to many older liberals because he helped mastermind the ‘92 Clinton campaign, which brought a blessed end to 12 years of Reagan-era presidential rule. Carville’s mission in life these days appears to be to bash progressives, especially young ones who, he argues, are turning off the broad middle of the country with all their “Latinx” this is and student load forgiveness that. Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that Carville is correct that more people would vote Democratic if the party were more clearly associated with bread and butter issues than with “cultural” issues. He’s far from alone in thinking that.3
Carville seems especially exercised by the prospect of student loan forgiveness and has complained repeatedly that he himself paid his own way, back in the day. Here’s the thing, though. Carville is now worth an estimated $10 million. So, maybe he’s not the best spokesman for why people who are saddled with debt have genuine reason to be frustrated with their circumstances in the context of the above-mentioned affordability crisis. That’s especially true since, as far as I can tell, Carville paid about $200 a year to attend LSU in the 1960s, at a time when a college degree was a much more surefire ticket to solid, lifelong employment and material security than is now the case.
I’m yakking about student loan forgiveness because it’s a good example of what should be a pretty straightforward economic issue, one of supreme importance to many younger voters4, but that lots of older, mainstream Democrats have oddly turned into a kind of culture and character issue. It’s a puzzling framing in part because it’s not as if people who advocate for debt forgiveness don’t also support cheaper access to health care and child care. And the ethos the Carvilles of the world are effectively promoting in this instance - why should *I* have to pay for something that I’m not personally benefitting from? - is pretty much antithetical to everything the broad left-of-center is supposed to stand for. Why, for instance, should anyone who doesn’t have kids have to shoulder the burden of child care?
There is a vital debate taking place in liberal/left/Democratic about what mix of policy and cultural appeals will maximize the Democratic vote. And while some folks await a more transformative time in American politics (including me), the road to a more progressive future can only pass through a more Democratic present.5 The sense of political urgency about looming authoritarianism, the disastrous rights setbacks, the flagging fortunes of the Biden administration, the fact that midterm elections essentially never go well for the incumbent party - all of those things are feeding the circular firing squad that struggling political parties experience. But I’d propose that, as we try to fight our way out of this, we lay off the young folks and focus our ire and energy where it belongs.
As always, comments welcome.
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I’m basically talking about anyone over 40, that is pre-Millennial and Gen Zer.
I’m mostly responding to a general culture of complaining I see on social media, but I’ll highlight one concrete example below. :)
That, of course, was the basis of the two Bernie presidential campaigns. A fair number of mainstream liberals bashed Bernie for being racist and sexist for not talking enough about “cultural” matters, especially in 2016 (and as if he doesn’t have a rock solid progressive voting record on such issues). And a fair number of mainstream liberals and Democrats are now also bashing progressives, including Bernie-aligned progressives, for focusing too much on cultural issues (when, like AOC, they do, in fact, spend most of their time talking bread and butter issues).
There’s a lot of debate about who the primary beneficiaries of various proposals would be. According to a recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, loan forgiveness of $10,000 and with an income cap on who is eligible (what the Biden administration is most likely to act on), would benefit people living in low income neighborhoods far more than those living in high income neighborhoods. Neighborhood is the Fed study’s proxy for individual income status and it’s an imperfect one. But one of the prevailing myths surrounding debt forgiveness is that it would somehow benefit a lot of Ivy educated kids of well off families. Since most of those students wouldn’t be eligible for federally guaranteed student loans to begin with, this is largely untrue. And higher student loan allocations are only available to less well-off families, not better off ones. The Fed estimates that, depending on the size and scope of the program, there would be somewhere between five and ten million beneficiaries.
I wasn’t always convinced of this. But in my dotage, I’ve come to believe it is so.