Younger voters agree with Democrats — but don't trust them. Here's how to fix that

After Roe decision, Democrats have a golden opportunity to win back younger voters — if they actually stand up

Published July 2, 2022 12:54PM (EDT)

Students participate in a school walk-out and march in Manhattan to show their support for abortion rights and for gun control on May 26, 2022 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Students participate in a school walk-out and march in Manhattan to show their support for abortion rights and for gun control on May 26, 2022 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

New polling suggests that the Supreme Court's recent decision overturning Roe v. Wade has the potential to drive a pro-choice majority to the polls, perhaps saving both houses of Congress for the Democrats and defying the normal loss of seats in a midterm, even in the face of Joe Biden's erosion of support, which has been especially among younger voters. This makes some sense in term of Teen Vogue's "Mid-Term Vibe Check," conducted by Change Research, which showed that younger voters trusted Democrats over Republicans on abortion rights by a 31-point margin (52% to 21%), and also found 73% support for protecting abortion rights. Higher turnout among these voters could very well make the difference in November.

But that's just part of the larger landscape illuminated by the poll. Amid the somewhat justified atmosphere of short-term panic, this survey of the under-35 electorate paints a picture of potential long-term Democratic dominance, if — and it's a big if — the party decides to wake up and fight for its base, and the broader welfare of the American people. 

That 73% support for abortion rights is typical of a wider range of attitudes found in the poll, including support for fighting climate change (80%), Medicare for All (73%) and more. Another Supreme Court decision this term, undermining the EPA's ability to fight climate change only serves to raise the stakes. Democrats have an opportunity to own the future if they respond to what younger Americans actually want, and get over the short-term conventional wisdom that has them caving to figures like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who's about as popular as the bubonic plague (6% approval). 

"To put it bluntly: Young voters think the United States's economic and political institutions aren't working for them and they don't trust the powers that be to correct the course," Fortesa Latifi reported for Teen Vogue. "Seventy-one percent of respondents say they feel mostly pessimistic about the future and 90% said the country as a whole is 'on the wrong track.'" 

But in fairness, the poll shows a lot more than that. There are two big take-aways:

  1. Young voters overwhelmingly align with Democrats on a broad range of key agenda items, sometimes by a ratio of three to one or even more. 
  2. But they are deeply pessimistic about their future — about raising a family, owning a home and being able to retire — because of what they perceive as a rigged system that neither party can be trusted to fix.

Given this, the solution should be obvious: Take vigorous action to fight the rigged system, in order to gain power and use it to create real change. By doing that, Democrats could secure the allegiance of a whole generation of voters at levels similar to those of the New Deal era. Genuine populism would take the wind out of the GOP's phony populism — not overnight, perhaps, but over time, as life-altering policies take effect.

To flesh out that first point, there's more than three-to-one support on protecting the right to join a union (81%), fighting climate change (80%), a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers (79%), and raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations (78%). There's only slightly lower support for canceling student debt (74%), protecting abortion rights (73%) and Medicare for All (73%). There's even overwhelming support for the supposedly toxic issue of "defunding the police" (65% to 30%), when framed in terms of what a handful of cities, such as Los Angeles, have actually done: "reallocating some money currently spent on police and policing to other programs, like hospitals, social workers and schools." 

In the so-far-imaginary universe where Democrats stood strong and delivered on these issues, they could establish rock-solid majority support for decades into the future — a far cry from the politics that younger voters have grown up with. 

In the so-far-imaginary universe where Democrats stood strong and delivered on key issues, they could establish solid majority support on a level not seen since FDR and the New Deal.

At the moment, Democrats have a 14-point advantage in party identification among younger voters (35% to 21%), which grows to 20 points among "leaners" (51-31). But voters are net negative on both parties, and while Democrats are trusted more on climate change, abortion rights and protecting LGBTQ rights, their advantage is very slim on immigration and nonexistent on the absolutely critical issue of fighting the corrupting influence of money, where neither party is trusted by the vast majority of  voters. 

So while abortion may be crucial to Democrats' midterm fortunes, this last point must be seen as key in the long run. Younger voters believe they face a bleak future: In addition to the general climate of pessimism, they are worried about basic life benchmarks first made possible by Democrats during the New Deal and its aftermath, but which have become increasingly problematic. For instance, 74% said the "American dream" was once true but is no longer a reality, 73% agreed that "a college degree isn't really worth it anymore," 71% don't expect to retire at a reasonable age and 67% worry that "I won't be able to purchase a home during my lifetime." Shockingly but not surprisingly, 83% agreed with the statement, "My generation is so burdened by the high cost of college, student loans, rent, and medical care that it is hard to think about being financially capable of raising a family."  

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It bears repeating that it was Democrats, between the New Deal and the 1960s, who created 30-year mortgages, minimum wage laws, Social Security, workers' right to organize, the GI Bill and Medicare, among numerous other social reforms.  All of these and more were products of massive Democratic majorities, and had some degree of Republican support, at least until the election of Ronald Reagan, who galvanized a right-wing electoral majority by declaring the federal government the enemy. Once Bill Clinton infamously declared, "The era of big government is over," neither party was reliably committed to ensuring that these benchmarks were still in reach for most Americans. Supposedly, the free market would provide — which was effectively what Herbert Hoover believed when he did nothing to fight the Great Depression. 

The pessimism expressed in the Teen Vogue poll is the natural result of Democrats' abandonment of those New Deal commitments. It's no wonder young voters aren't confident Democrats can deliver a better future, as noted in a Twitter commentary by the Revolving Door Project, which began: "They're sending a clear message: If you want our votes, unrig our politics." After that, specifics followed: 

While young voters trust Dems more overall on most policy issues, they rank both parties equally dismally on "Money In Politics" and nearly equally on "Corporate Greed." There is near-zero faith that mainstream parties will ever represent the people instead of the wealthy elite…

That's also reflected in who young voters trust. Of the seven prominent Democrats identified in the survey — Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Vice President Kamala Harris, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Joe Manchin — only the two progressives, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, were viewed more favorably than not (54% to 34% and 44-33, respectively) while, as mentioned above, Manchin was in single digits.

Conventional wisdom still holds that bipartisan cooperation is the holy grail. But neither party is what it used to be — and neither can be trusted to resist the power of wealthy elites.

Conventional wisdom in Beltway media holds that polarization is the great evil in our politics today, and that bipartisan cooperation is the lost virtue. That may have been true 50, 60 or 70 years ago, when bipartisan cooperation was near an all-time high, with the interstate highway system established under Dwight Eisenhower, a coalition of Northern Democrats and Republicans voting to pass the Civil Rights Act and Richard Nixon signing legislation to created the EPA — all examples of big government action that significantly improved American life. In those days, there was competition to meet broadly-shared middle-class and working-class needs. But it didn't last. Neither party is what it was then, and neither can be trusted to restrain wealthy elites. If both parties are so deeply distrusted, why trust their cooperation? If and when they cooperate, who is most likely to benefit? The Revolving Door commentary continues

young voters think THE BIGGEST ECONOMIC CHALLENGE THEY FACE is "The system is rigged for the rich and corporations."

Not inflation.

Not healthcare costs.


Their conclusion was obvious:

So if the economy is the most important issue, and the biggest economic challenge young people face is a rigged system, then unrigging the system is paramount.

Of course, the system is also rigged institutionally — the unrepresentative Senate, exacerbated by the Jim Crow filibuster, the Electoral College, the Supreme Court, self-perpetuating state-level autocracies producing a heavily gerrymandered House of Representatives — which urgently needs addressing as well. But the Teen Vogue poll tells us that younger voters already understand that the economic system is rigged, so it makes sense to focus on that first, and use that fight to raise awareness of the larger institutional rigging of the political system.

Even with congressional action stymied, Biden could do a lot with executive actions, "as we've been urging him to for years now," the Revolving Door Project wrote, linking to a January 2022 article, "What Biden's Message Should Be." Messaging is difficult in today's fragmented media market, the article argued: "But one thing that all media creators do want is conflict. Conflict is at the root of all storytelling." Based on poll-testing research with Data for Progress the project found a broadly popular fight for him to pick:

Put simply, our analysis shows that Biden is in desperate need of a villain, and what that should translate into is a corporate crackdown. Biden needs to take the fight to the elite villains who are screwing the American people. He needs to tell the public who the villains are, and he needs to fight them on the people's behalf.As President, Biden has unique powers that could let him generate conflict on his terms—federal investigation, prosecution, regulation, and more. These policy tools are also powerful messaging opportunities.

Here, then, is the challenge for Biden: He needs villains whom he can credibly identify to the public as his adversaries and then pursue under longstanding law. He, and frontline Democrats down-ballot, need to know and believe they will be well-liked for pursuing these villains.

There's strong support for a populist agenda, grounded in perceived injustice: 

Our polling finds voters agree with the following statements: "Wealthy people and corporations are regularly not punished for breaking the law" and "The criminal justice system unfairly targets poor people over rich people," by margins of +67 and +48 percentage points respectively. 

Even majorities of Republicans agree, supporting "providing more funding to federal agencies which investigate corporate lawbreaking." More specifically, the project noted that without passing any new laws, Biden could:

[C]rack down on the cottage industry of union-busting legal consultants employed by many of the most abusive firms; prosecute Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook for rampant fraud; indict ex-Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg for the hundreds of deaths in the 737 MAX tragedy that occurred on his watch; prosecute big banks for decades-worth of flagrant lawbreaking (an extremely popular prospect).

These suggestions represent just a fraction of the possibilities within Biden's power to  act, as set out before the 2020 election in "The Day One Agenda" developed by the American Prospect under executive editor David Dayen. Writing about it here in December 2020, I quoted from Dayen's introduction:

Without signing a single new law, the next president can lower prescription drug prices, cancel student debt, break up the big banks, give everybody who wants one a bank account, counteract the dominance of monopoly power, protect farmers from price discrimination and unfair dealing, force divestment from fossil fuel projects, close a slew of tax loopholes, hold crooked CEOs accountable, mandate reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, allow the effective legalization of marijuana, make it easier for 800,000 workers to join a union, and much, much more. 

Biden has failed to take those kinds of decisive big-ticket actions, and has failed to make such actions central to his presidency. As a result, he has allowed his first term to be defined by battles shaped by others, and by the accumulated problems left unaddressed by his predecessors — the problems so keenly felt by younger voters. 

This spring, the Congressional Progressive Caucus issued an "Executive Action Agenda" for the administration, developed "with input from the progressive grassroots movements who were key to delivering Democrats the majorities in both chambers and the White House." (Full list here.) It's precisely this combination — decisive executive action informed by grassroots movements in touch with younger voters' lived experience — that holds the key to realizing the potential for long-term Democratic dominance. 

Very little can be done immediately to counter the overturn of Roe, and Democrats and progressives must be honest about that. But taking action on this broader range of issues can help secure a broader majority that can codify abortion rights and do much more, including expanding or reforming the Supreme Court so it no longer represents out-of-touch minority opinion, as it so often has throughout its history. There is an overwhelming untapped majority in favor of such a future. Is anyone in the White House listening?

Read more on the Democratic Party and its troubles:

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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