“Dance with the one that brung you,” goes the old saying.
Democrats would be wise to absorb its wisdom. In the last election, pundits expected a “red wave,” with inflation high, Biden unpopular, and the history of midterm elections. Instead, Democrats were handed the best midterm results of any party since the 2002 midterm when Republicans were boosted by the post-9/11 sentiments.
The source of the Democratic surprise isn’t a secret. Voters under 40 – millennials and Gen Z – voted Democratic 59 to 41, while voters over 40 favored Republicans by 10 points. These two generations will constitute 40 percent of the electorate in 2024. Add the big margins provided to Democrats by African Americans, Hispanics, and single women and you have the core of the Democratic coalition. The ones who brought Dems to the dance.
Like all Americans, these voters are concerned about the economy. Young people, African Americans and Latinos will be hit the hardest if the Federal Reserve fulfills its effort to drive the economy into a recession costing the jobs of millions of workers.
The passions of these voters are expressed in their movements: Occupy which challenged the staggering inequality of this society, the climate movement that demands action on this existential threat, the Black Lives Matter movement that sparked the largest interracial, nonviolent demonstrations in our nation’s history, the women’s movements particularly in the wake of the Dobbs decision that stripped women of their right to control their own bodies, the movements against gun violence that grew out of Parkland and the school shootings that seared a generation, the insurgent union organizing that has been propelled by young workers objecting to dangerous conditions and bad wages.
For years, conservative Democratic pundits and politicians have argued that Democrats were too liberal for America. In 2022, however, exit polls showed abortion ranked second as the prime reason to vote, and those voters went overwhelmingly Democratic. Republicans spent millions charging Democrats with being weak on crime, but only 11 percent of the population named that issue as a prime factor in their decision, and gun policy – gun control – ranked just as high, even though very little money was spent on that. Democrats should learn that protecting the rights of people is not only right morally; it is effective politically.
White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain hailed the young vote on Twitter, and claimed it was the result of the president who “kept his promises to younger Americans (with action on climate change, student loans, marijuana reform, etc.).
Democrats surely benefited from how reactionary and mean-spirited Republicans have become, but it is time to deliver. For example, student debt plagues young people – and no doubt the promise of student debt relief contributed to their support for Democrats. In the upcoming Dec. 6 Georgia Senate runoff, Sen. Raphael Warnock has led the fight to cancel student debts while his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker has embraced conservative talking points, saying students just spend their loan money on alcohol, vacations, and video games. Young people, I believe, will play a major role in Warnock’s coming victory.
Yet, three months after Joe Biden’s limited relief on student loan debt was announced, not a single person has received a drop of relief. Republican lawsuits and Trump judges have blocked the program.
Not much can get done through the next Congress with the right-wing of the Republican party holding the reins in the House of Representatives. They are even making the election of a Republican speaker difficult.
But Joe Biden can use executive authority to act boldly in a range of areas. One of these is student loans. In the face of Republican obstruction, he should direct the Education Secretary to cancel student loan debts immediately and permanently. Instead of making borrowers apply for the program and wend their way through complicated eligibility requirements, he could make the cancellations universal, immediate, and automatic.
Similarly, Biden can and should insist that any funding for the government include full funding for lawyers in the National Labor Relations Board, giving them the resources needed to crack down on the lawless behavior of companies like Starbucks and Amazon trying to suppress young workers’ efforts to organize. He can raise up reform attorneys general, like Minnesota’s Keith Ellison, who are championing sensible criminal justice reforms even while cracking down on gun violence. He can animate the Justice Department to go after voter suppression and racially discriminatory reapportionment that the Supreme Court refused to review prior to the 2022 elections, and much more.
The point is that the White House and Democrats should be clear about championing the concerns of those who voted them into office and delivering to the extent possible. This can go on even as Democrats build their economic contrast with Republicans who have no plan to deal with inflation or with recession other than to cut taxes on the already rich.
Young voters are not apathetic. They are already more active politically than their predecessors were at the same age. They face a fearful future and are looking for fundamental reform. They are looking for who will provide that. Democrats would be wise to respond.