Young Americans have given up on politics. Not to sound too much like my fellow young folk, but this isn’t exactly tea (or, ‘new news’, for the boomers at the back).
At first glance, it’s obvious that young Americans don’t see themselves in their white-haired representatives. The 117th Congress is the oldest in US history, with more than a dozen octogenarians and an average age of 59. There’s only one representative across the whole Congress born in the 1990s.
The age gap is not a new phenomenon. What’s novel is just how out of touch both parties appear to young Americans. This week the Harvard Institute of Politics (HIOP) revealed in its 43rd biannual polling that a plurality of the 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed think President Biden (37 per cent), the Democrats (39 per cent) and the Republicans (51 per cent) are more inclined to care about the interests of the elite than people like them.
In one poll after another, young Americans say that addressing climate change should be a top priority and think the US government isn’t doing enough. They are also seriously concerned about their country’s mental health ‘crisis’ and the economy. They think education is more important to America’s future global strength than the military.
Yet Congress has largely failed to deliver on any of these fronts, with much of the Biden administration’s lofty ambitions on everything from climate change to health care locked in the jaws of Democrats’ in-fighting; plans to cancel student loan debt (now averaging nearly US$40,000 per graduate) also hangs in the balance.
No wonder well over half of young Americans (56% in 2022) believe US politics is unable to meet modern-day challenges, up from the 45% before the 2018 midterms. And for those young Americans driving down the President’s approval rating from 59 this time last year to 41 per cent now, the foremost cited reason is Biden’s “ineffectiveness”.
For Biden, losing favour among this demographic of voters hurts given that he won 60 per cent of the votes from under 30s in the 2020 election. Such support is indispensable if the Democrats are to have any chance of maintaining the triple hold of the executive, House and Senate after the November midterms.
But rather than switching votes, the HIOP polling suggests that young Democrats may simply not show up to the polls. Young Democrats indicate they are less likely to show up to vote now than they were in the 2018 midterms. But it’s not limited to young people. Others suggest the failure to move on voting rights legislation will decrease turnout from Black American voters (92 per cent of whom voted for Biden in 2020) in the November 2022 midterms.
It is one thing to win the hearts and votes of young people with promises, and yet another to maintain their trust and support with deliverables. In America’s case, the failure to win that trust threatens the survival of US democracy.
The HIOP polling may expect the youth turnout in the November 2020 midterm election to surpass the record-breaking 2018 mid-term figures, but it seems America’s young hearts are no longer in it. A sharply increased percentage of young people, now nearly half (42% up from 31% in 2018), don’t actually think their vote makes a real difference and 36% (up from 22% in 2018) agree “political involvement rarely has any tangible results”.
This might be startling, but again it’s certainly not ‘tea’ (a new idea). The alarm for this sort of disenfranchisement rung out in December 2021, when an earlier HIOP poll revealed only seven per cent of young people thought democracy in the United States was “healthy” and a stunning 52% said the United States was a “failed democracy”. While young Americans have not been polled on this issue since then, the level of disengagement does not portend any reversal.
More worryingly, this level of pessimism is not merely one shared by America’s disgruntled youth. In March 2022, United States Studies Centre polling found that while levels of satisfaction with democracy in Australia push nearly 80 per cent majority support, barely 50 per cent of Americans are satisfied with their democracy.
These findings eerily echo the caution from the United States’ second President John Adams who famously said, “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.”
For some, the January 6 insurrection gave the false sense that America’s democracy had faced and survived its own suicide. The reality is more complex and covert. Americans’ declining faith and reverence for their system of governance was not the result of questionable electoral practices. Instead, the greatest threat is posed by the steady and insidious erosion caused by the failure by successive politicians to deliver meaningful results through the democratic process.
So, for President Biden, maintaining young Americans’ faith in democracy by delivering on his promises is about so much more than just winning their votes in November. It is a matter of survival for the world’s oldest democracy (with its oldest ever leaders) trying to age without waste, exhaustion or murdering itself.