A Broken Link Between Democrats and Young People
Young people see many promises and distractions coming from Democrats, but few concrete accomplishments to improve their lives.
Just 31 percent of adult Gen Zers and 27 percent of Millenials identify as Democrats, and a clear majority of Americans under the age of 30 disapprove of the job that President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats are doing in Washington.
That might be surprising, considering that young people are reputedly more progressive than ever and regularly vote for Democrats by landslide margins. But these inclinations don’t translate into Democratic Party affiliation when you look at how many young people actually call themselves members of the Democratic Party.
To be clear, young people aren’t running into the arms of the GOP, either. Only a sliver of Millenials (21 percent) and Gen Z adults (17 percent) call themselves Republicans. Instead, a growing segment of these generations (52 percent of both) are rejecting party affiliation altogether and declaring themselves independents.
Most independents do concede that they lean towards one party or another when pressed. It’s reasonable to think that this tendency would apply to young independents, too, and that they would lean heavily toward the Democratic Party. But there remains a fundamental distinction between acknowledging that you lean towards one party and fully claiming you affiliate with that party. Those in the former camp are typically less politically engaged, less ideological, and more likely to change their party preference over time.
The fact that one of their key constituencies is willing to vote for Democrats but doesn’t want to be or call themselves Democrats should concern the Democratic Party. Above all, it’s a potential long-term political liability: political identity often forms and solidifies when people are young, impacting their voting behavior for decades to come. If young people don’t develop a Democratic identity now, there will be little to stop them from abandoning the party in future elections as their own personal incentives change and the country’s political dynamics shift.
To ensure their long-term health as a political party, Democrats need to first understand why it is that so many young people—even young progressives—are reluctant to identify with their party.
When people try to answer this question, they often point to more surface-level concerns—that the party is too old or too out of touch or too (allegedly) corrupt. These things may well be true and worth addressing, but they’re also marginal—Democrats aren’t going to solve their youth problem by tinkering around the edges. Does anybody really think that substituting Hakeem Jeffries (age 52) for Nancy Pelosi (age 83) as Speaker of the House will make any difference in how young people look at the Democratic Party? No, probably not.
By focusing on these relatively superficial issues, Democrats end up missing the forest for the trees. Ultimately, the reason that so many young people have become disenchanted with the Democratic Party is simple: the party has grown distracted by an unpopular progressive agenda and failed to deliver on its promise of economic and social progress.
That might sound vague, and I’m sure some people’s initial response will be to say, of course that’s the problem, but diagnosing it tells us nothing about a path forward. Except if Democrats actually took this insight seriously, they would need to undertake a wholesale change of political strategy—and not the one they might think.
In recent years, Democrats have tried to appeal to young voters by tacking to the left ideologically. On everything from identity politics to crime and policing to government spending, Democrats have lurched leftwards. At first glance, this appears to make a good amount of sense: young voters typically do have progressive ideas about both economic and social issues.
Why, then, has the Democratic pivot towards a more left-wing agenda failed to bring young voters into the Democratic fold? There are, at the very least, two reasons.
First, Democrats routinely confuse what radical activist groups say young voters want with what most young voters actually want. Consider the proposals to abolish ICE and defund the police. Progressives often framed these movements as key to energizing young voters, but polling shows that young people are ambivalent at best about these extreme ideas. Only 27 percent of adults under 30 say they support “defunding police departments in [their] community” and only 39 percent support getting rid of ICE. Democrats need to recognize that while most young people are progressive, they are generally not extremists.
To be clear, neither Biden nor the Democratic Party officially endorsed either of these proposals. But many of the most prominent and influential progressives in Congress did support them—and they did so with relatively little resistance from the rest of the party. Because other Democrats were unwilling to forcefully and consistently distance themselves from these politically toxic movements, voters started to associate them with the Democratic Party.
The second problem with promising a sweeping progressive agenda is that when the parts of it that are popular don’t come to pass, people feel cheated. Over the past few years, a number of prominent Democrats—though again, not Biden—have said that they would pass Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, free college, a wealth tax, and everything else besides. But they made these commitments even as they knew they could never deliver on them either because the plans were unworkable, could never get through Congress, or were almost certainly outright unconstitutional.
In other words, Democrats as a party have a tendency to overpromise and underdeliver. Even significant policy achievements like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act wind up looking like half a loaf as a result—and these policies are only now beginning to be implemented. No wonder young people tell pollsters that politics is “no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing” and that political involvement “rarely has any tangible results.”
If they want to win over young voters, the first thing Democrats need to do is break these habits as soon as possible. Ideological purity, extreme policies, and soaring campaign rhetoric are unpopular and do not put money in people's pockets, make homes affordable, give people health care, or solve racial bias. So long as Democrats continue trying to charm young people with empty progressive slogans and policy plans destined for the filing cabinet, the party will remain an object of youthful cynicism and frustration.
Instead, Democrats should champion a pragmatic and politically viable agenda—one that is aimed more at actually addressing the concerns and frustrations of young people than at appealing to their progressive sensibilities. This will mean treating faddish activist slogans like “Abolish the Police” and “Medicare for All” as radioactive and instead pursuing a more modest but nonetheless ambitious policy agenda that will provide the strong foundation that young people need to build lives with security and meaning.
Not everyone will agree on exactly what that will look like in practice, of course. Broadly, though, Democrats should focus on creating the conditions that allow for steady work, a strong social safety net, abundant housing, affordable health care, and personal liberty. Nailing down the specifics would be a challenge, but the simple act of setting a political north star that is practical and geared towards achieving real progress rather than winning activist accolades on social media would be a big step forward for Democrats.
And while a small segment of the most ideological young people would likely be put off by a less revolutionary agenda, the negative consequences of moderation—like mean posts to social media platforms—are frequently overstated while the positive ones are routinely ignored.
Despite their progressive stances on specific issues, for example, the plurality of young people (44 percent) consider themselves to be moderate, while only 30 percent say they are liberal. Meanwhile, 57 percent agree (and only six percent disagree) that politics in America has become too partisan, and 43 percent say they would prefer elected officials to pursue compromise over political rigidity (Only 21 percent say they would prefer them to pursue their preferred policy priorities at the expense of compromise).
More to the point, once their pragmatic policy agenda starts to actually improve the lives of young people, Democrats will reap the electoral and political dividends.
In coming years, Millennial and Gen Z voters will be increasingly powerful forces in American politics. These cohorts made up 37 percent of eligible voters in 2020, and by 2028 that number will be around 50 percent. In recent elections, Democrats have relied on the fact that these voters hate Trump’s GOP and are energized to vote against Republicans. But the Democratic Party can and should aspire to be more than merely not the Republican Party.
To become an institution that young people want to join, Democrats should focus on delivering pragmatic progress. Any political sugar high they might get from indulging left-wing fantasies of sweeping social change will always be followed by a crash of disenchantment and frustration like the one we’re seeing today. While they might not want to hear it, for the long-term health of their party Democrats will need to stop binging on political junk food and eat their vegetables instead.
Seth Moskowitz is an editor at Persuasion and writes his own non-partisan political newsletter, Brain Candy.