And the Young Shall Save Us
So many economic protections are at stake with this new Congress. The most consequential midterm elections of our lifetime awaited our robust participation last November as we decided what type of America is sustainable. All 435 members of the House of Representatives, 35 seats in the 100-member Senate, and 36 out of 50 state governors, along with many state and local offices, were on the ballot last year. The representatives the American public hired at the polls—particularly the persons we green-lighted to Capitol Hill—instantly garnered a rare moral authority to decide who can eat, secure housing, and outlive illness in this nation. The 2018 midterms signals that turning out a high volume of young voters—millennials and Gen Zs—may be constitutive to the antidote to the moral sickness weakening our democracy in future election cycles.
One-in-three likely voters under 30 years of age expressed fear about the future of our nation; three-in-five indicated they anticipate being more fearful if the GOP maintain control of the House. Out of trepidation for the future of democratic society, Shawn Bobien, a 21-year old Black student at University of the Arts in Philadelphia first voted during the 2016 Presidential election. Shawn exclaimed, “Voting is important to me because my ancestors fought for this right. The terms haven’t fully been met, but we’re on our way. For change to occur, I have to vote.” For young voters, like Shawn, the midterm elections were another opportunity to demand the fulfillment of those unmet terms.
Historically, midterm elections attract an older and whiter electorate. Early voting already signposted the expectation that more younger voters would vote last year, surpassing turnout levels from the 2014 midterms. On National Voter Registration Day last year, organizers registered 800,000 new voters in a single day, outpacing the previous record of 771,321 new registrations. And it paid off, young voters (18-29) saw a 56 percent surge over its 2014 turnout, which is the highest increase in turnout among any age group. Democrats routed the GOP in garnering the young vote by 35 points, which was approximately 24 points higher than in the 2014 midterms.
Voting is a civic sacrament—a sacred responsibility for the everyday guarantors and beneficiaries of democracy. Millions of young voters embrace voting as a non-negotiable in a democratic society, a sacred right of passage toward global citizenship. Jhetta Anderson, a 21-year old black woman who joined the voting public in the 2016 election cycle, glowingly expressed, “I am excited about the possibility that we have to change our congress and vote for a [congressperson] that will represent my community’s interests, not his own.”
The election telegraphed the future of federal anti-poverty initiatives and budget priorities in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, a government wedded to the selective, convenient myth of economic scarcity. The decisions made in those private booths dictated if there will be budget cuts to Medicaid and Medicare. Each ballot cast essentially the proposed restructuring of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the failed version of the farm bill, which threatened to restrict access to upwards of five million people in America. Although reluctantly Trump signed a clean farm bill last month and the Blue wave delivered younger, more progressive voices in Democratic-led House, the administration plans to impose work requirement through executive order, potentially disqualifying 755,000 recipients.
A first-time voter, Jose “Frankie” Benjamin-Nay, an 18-year old Puerto Rican-American, depends on SNAP as the primary resource to keep food on the table. “Voting makes me feel like an adult,” he said. Referring to the potential effects of the House farm bill, Frankie said, “I registered to vote because it is how I help to protect my mom’s access to food stamps. I keep wrestling why politicians want to make us ineligible; take food out of my house.”
While young voters regularly absorb headlines about and carry angst engendered by the terrors of mass shootings in presumably safe spaces—religious gatherings and schools—and families separated at this nation’s southern border, Gen Z experience significant stress related to housing instability, personal debt, and hunger. Gen Z voters wade through the profound stressors of food insecurity and housing instability as conservative legislators, many of whom were on the ballot November 6th, voted to deflate economic life rafts like SNAP, Section 8 and Medicare.
In spite of the unexpected electoral enthusiasm of young voters, countless college students face laws that essentially disenfranchises them since many states have ratified statutes that problematize out-of-state forms of identification. Free and fair elections, a hallmark of the myth of America, give oxygen to democracy. However, from Georgia to North Dakota, the nefarious practice of voter suppression, masqueraded as election protection and integrity measures, shrinks the electorate, compromises the strength of the 15th amendment, and quietly impairs the fight against poverty. States legally close polling places in predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods, disenfranchise the formerly incarcerated, purge voters from rolls, and implement wildly unnecessary ID laws.
After generations of failed campaign promises, corporate-bought politicians, and voter suppression tactics, no wonder young minority voters view American politics with a disenchanted eye. Jhetta reflected, “We are convinced that we’re free but continuously have our rights toyed with when it’s convenient for a certain party. I know that the Republican party and president [gain] an advantage by suppressing minority voters. The system is unfair and senseless.” Frankie added, “These tactics to limit voter participation make me just question whether or not the system works for people like me. I wonder whether or not my vote will count.”
This morally bereft political tactic works to reforge a white republic and uphold the heresy of white supremacy as the eligible electorate increasingly browns, a trend suspected to favor progressive candidates. Dr. Carol Anderson, the author of One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy, unveils the haunting truth that the 2016 presidential election cycle lacked the full protection of the Voting Rights Act of 1964, the first presidential election since the Supreme Court gutted the cardinal piece of civil rights legislation in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013. The Voting Rights Act exists as a relic of the celebrated Civil Rights movement, fossilizing in the moral dirt of Trumpian Americanism.
Food, housing, and health insecurities threaten the fabric of democratic society and undermine the sustainability of our republic. Authentic democracies empower, mobilize, and resource their citizens as investments in global sustainability; they don’t starve, cage, and exclude their subjects as a matter of self-perpetuation. The white capitalist patriarchal imagination guiding the American empire devours our potential to realize an equitable democracy. Yet, electoral results like November 6th, as countless Americans disrupting the white capitalist patriarchal imagination secured seats at a table that inherently rejects their dignity, are an indication that an equitable democracy is realizable. America is only possible when we structurally invest in the most vulnerable, enacting what W.E.B. Dubois calls abolition democracy— a democracy that guarantees resource equity for the disinherited and creates new institutions that incorporate the dispossessed into the social order. Each election gives us an opportunity to move this nation toward equitable democracy, abolition democracy.
We need to remake America. This watershed election paved the path for thoroughly progressive policies that make America again. Beyond protecting safety net programs, we need to add audacious policies to fight poverty. A study released by the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School added teeth to the claim that young voters lean left-of-center, many of whom support progressive policies that guarantee jobs, healthcare, and college as staples in a public economic trust. Of the more than 2000 likely voters Harvard polled, ages 18-29, 63% support a federal jobs guarantee, 62% favor free public post-secondary education, and 67% believe in Single Payer healthcare. The Harvard study found 39 percent of the millennials and Gen Z polled supported democratic socialism. However, the support for democratic socialist rose to 53 percent among likely young voters.
The moral maelstrom we are weathering as a nation disallows us to calcify in the narrow political enclaves draped in red or blue. The future of blood-soaked democratic values and hard-fought human rights beneath familiar parties and candidates’ names awaited our votes last year. The right to eat was on the ballot. The right to affordable housing and healthcare were on the ballot. The future for progressive legislation like a universal basic income, a universal jobs guarantee, and free post-secondary education were on the ballot in 2018 and will be in 2020. We must continue to use our vote to throw stones in the path of structural hate like cutting funding for public benefits that guardrails Americans from abject poverty. Young voters have the power to save us all. Let’s hope this enthusiasm continues.