America’s political gerontocracy was on full display last week, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, 81, appeared to experience a medical episode during a press conference and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 90, had to be repeatedly told how to vote on a key bill.
On the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, White House aides have been making changes to President Biden’s schedule and routine to adapt for his age. At 80, he is the oldest president in American history and one of the oldest heads of government in the world; meanwhile, the current U.S. Congress is the third-oldest in history.
But, at the same time as older politicians are making up a growing proportion of the government, younger voters are making up a growing proportion of the electorate. According to Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, in the four election cycles in which Generation Z has been eligible to vote, youth voter turnout has been up 25% compared to the previous nine cycles.
Largely due to that soaring turnout, in the 2018, 2020, and 2022 elections, the Gen Z vote was critical to the results, giving young voters a power over politics they have rarely wielded throughout history.
This fundamental mismatch — leaders grayer than ever and voters greener than ever — is at the heart of American politics right now. It will also be central to the next election: if Biden’s advanced age leads even a small percentage of young voters who supported him in 2020 to stay home or vote against him in 2024, it could be decisive.
As Harvard’s John Della Volpe recently noted, in this century, whenever Democratic presidential candidates have received at least 60% of the youth vote (Obama in 2008 and 2012; Biden in 2020), they have won the election. Whenever they have received less than 60% (Gore in 2000; Kerry in 2004; Clinton in 2016), they have lost.
Over the weekend, about 275 members of this sought-after voting bloc gathered at the famed Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., for a summit hosted by Voters of Tomorrow, a prominent left-leaning Gen Z group.
The speakers were a mix of young and old, and their tones varied dramatically by generation. Democratic Party eminence Nancy Pelosi, 83, a self-described “voter of yesterday,” was the first to address the group. “We cannot be fearmongers. We don’t want to go out there and say, ‘Blah blah blah blah,’” she said during her remarks, mimicking a nagging voice.
Pelosi was followed by New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman, 47, who was greeted with a hero’s welcome. “Wassup wassup!” he said as he took the stage. While Pelosi’s speech closed with a paean to the national anthem, Bowman took a different tack. “As you know, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers, they did great things, but they were fundamentally flawed,” he said. (Later, at a different session of the conference, when a speaker asked how many of the attendees described themselves as “patriotic,” only a scattering of hands went up.)
Ignoring Pelosi’s warning against fearmongering, Bowman focused his speech not on legislation, but on the ills facing the country right now. “A new American Revolution” is underway, he declared, led by Gen Z. Florida Rep. Maxwell Frost, 26, similarly invoked Gen Z as a bulwark against the “far-right-wing fascist movement growing in this country.”
Notably, unlike old-guard institutionalists like Pelosi, many of the younger speakers offered almost as many criticisms of the Democratic Party as they did Republicans. “People have been beaten down by our system,” Bowman said. “By design, by the way. And not just Republicans. Democrats have been guilty of this too.” The statement was met by loud cheers and applause from the largely Democratic audience.
“I used to joke with people, if I didn’t run for something else, I was going to leave the Democratic Party,” North Carolina Democratic Party chair Anderson Clayton, 25, said, adding that her goal is to “make people feel like this party gives a damn about them again.”
That skeptical attitude is shared among many young voters. Several of the conference attendees told me they felt much less attached to a political party than their parents. Polling bears this out as well: John Della Volpe, the Harvard pollster, recently wrote that his surveys show declining numbers of young Americans are identifying as Democrats, paying close attention to the news, or describing politics as a “meaningful way to create change in the system.”
Those metrics, he said, were some of the ones that indicated strong Democratic performance ahead of the 2018, 2020, and 2022 elections; now, he views them as “flashing red” warning signs for Democrats ahead of 2024.
“I think that Trump’s election in ’16 and the aftermath in ’17 showed the concrete ways in which politics can impact people’s lives,” Della Volpe told me in an interview. “And I think that for young people who aren’t paying as close attention to the news as others, I think they’re struggling to find similar concrete examples of government making a meaningful difference in their lives, and that’s driving the cynicism.”
“[Young] people are really apathetic right now to voting,” Clayton, the youngest state party chair in the country, told me. “They don’t believe their vote actually matters. And I think that part of what we have a job to do as a party is to ensure people know that we care about them again, because I feel like part of why people don’t vote right now is they’re like, ‘I don’t see myself represented in the Democratic Party.’”
Among young voters, views on the effectiveness of working through the political system to create change almost perfectly mirror views on the Biden presidency. In Della Volpe’s latest Harvard polling, 58% of 18-to-29-year-olds agreed with the statement “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing,” a 27-point increase since 2018. 61% of young voters in the same poll said they disapproved of Biden’s job performance.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the two metrics are moving in tandem. Biden, after all, is a 50-year veteran of elected office; he is as much an avatar for the political system, and the belief that change can be made through compromise, as anyone alive today. Supporting Biden also represents a compromise in itself for young Democrats, who overwhelmingly voted against him in the 2020 primaries.
As with any youth movement, pragmatists and idealists could be found in equal measure at the Voters of Tomorrow summit. One attendee joked to me that the more dressed-up someone at the summit was, the more you could tell they were planning to run for office one day (or that they were already officeholders). Mirroring the Democratic divide in which the party’s leaders are gung-ho for Biden 2024 while its voters are hesitant about him seeking re-election, I found these aspiring pols in suit jackets much more amenable to the president than their aspiring activist counterparts.
“They’re doing outreach, their messaging is doing very well... It’s not on all issues. We don’t agree with them on everything, obviously,” Quentin Colón Roosevelt, a 19-year-old local commissioner in D.C. and Theodore Roosevelt’s great-great-great grandson, told me of the Biden campaign. “But I think they’ve done a really good job so far, making sure we feel included in their campaign.”
“To paraphrase Milton Friedman, we’re all Bidenists now,” another office-seeking young attendee told me.
But over in the non-Milton-Friedman-quoting sector of the summit, Biden wasn’t quite so popular. “Definitely, in Gen Z, there is a lack of confidence in Biden’s capabilities to solve certain issues, particularly things like climate change,” Odessa Hotte, a 21-year-old student at Virginia Commonwealth University, told me. “There’s so many people saying, ‘Oh, he’s doing great, he’s doing great,’ and we’re sort of looking at it as, well, actually, there’s been some good things, but there’s also a lot that’s left to be desired.”
“I personally am not a huge fan of Biden, and I wasn’t when he was elected, either,” Hotte added, although she said she will “probably” support him in the 2024 election.
Asked if she believed young voters were enthusiastic about Biden, Anderson Clayton, the 25-year-old state party chair, said: “You know what’s so funny, someone earlier asked me that. They said, ‘I’ve asked every person at this conference and they’ve said no.’”
But Clayton, who is tasked with delivering the Democrats’ long-held hopes of flipping North Carolina, insisted that she is excited. “I think that Joe Biden is doing everything that he can right now and anything that a Democrat could do right now, honestly, to advance and move our country forward,” she told me.
Santiago Mayer, the 21-year-old founder of Voters of Tomorrow, acknowledged in an interview that differing “theories of change” and opinions on Biden existed among attendees at the summit. “I think that’s what’s so beautiful about this space,” he said, “that we can have all those differing philosophies, all those differing views, and still come together because we share the same goals.”
But at times, the differences commingled uncomfortably. With 12 million social media views and counting, perhaps the most viral moment from the summit — and the moment that best represented the generational divide in the Democratic Party right now — took place during White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre’s remarks.
Jean-Pierre, 48, was extolling Biden’s climate record when an attendee, 21-year-old Elise Joshi, stood up to interrupt her. “Excuse me for interrupting, but asking nicely hasn’t worked out,” Joshi said, before calling on the Biden administration to stop approving new oil and gas pipelines, an issue that has led to some of the biggest clashes between Biden and young voters.
“Let her talk, let her talk,” Jean-Pierre said when a conference organizer quickly approached Joshi. Eventually, when other attendees began to speak (“Declare a climate emergency!”) and snaps and applause broke out for the hecklers, Jean-Pierre ended the exchange.
“This is not a call and response. This is me actually delivering a speech to all of you,” Jean-Pierre said, adding: “This is a president who has had a climate change agenda like no other.”
“Promises kept, that’s all I’m asking,” Joshi said before sitting down.
Mayer told me that Voters of Tomorrow shares some of Joshi’s concerns, but that “we are very proud of President Biden’s climate record.” Jean-Pierre handled the back-and-forth “perfectly,” he added, expressing gratitude for the “administration’s partnership.” (Joshi is the executive director of her own youth voter group, Gen Z for Change. The group, notably, was founded with the name TikTok for Biden and has also worked with the White House in the past.)
In a sign of some of the same divergences in tone I noticed during their speeches, several young elected officials later tweeted in support of Joshi after the exchange. “We are running out of time,” Frost, the first Gen Z congressman, wrote. “We can’t afford to approve projects that will increase emissions. Every move should bring us to net zero. Our humanity depends on it. @EliseJoshi is a patriot.”
If there is any issue in which negative opinions about Biden and existential apathy about the political system intersect among young people, it’s climate change.
“I think it can feel overwhelming to feel like the burden is on our shoulders to solve all of these problems [connected to climate change],” Hotte said. “I think that’s maybe where some of that pessimism is stemming from, just from feeling like there’s so much to do and so little time.”
At one point in the summit, Generational Lab founder Cyrus Beschloss, 26, conducted an informal straw poll of which issue mattered most to the audience. More than half of the hands went up for climate change. No other issue garnered anywhere close to as much support.
According to the Harvard Youth Poll, in 2013, 29% of 18-to-29-year-olds agreed with the statement “Government should do more to curb climate change, even at the expense of economic growth.” 50% of 18-to-29s believe that today.
In political science, scholars refer to two types of political representation: “descriptive” and “substantive.” Descriptive representation is when an officeholder shares the identity of a certain group; substantive representation is when an officeholder shares the group’s views on policy.
I opened the newsletter by referring to an absence of descriptive representation, which young voters obviously lack from Biden and other elderly politicians. But without using the exact term, many young voters across the Democratic ideological spectrum told me substantive representation was more important to them anyway. The age of a candidate matters, but their policies matter a lot more.
It is these voters Biden will have to persuade in 2024 that he has done enough to satisfy their demands on climate and other issues — and that electoral politics are worth engaging with in the first place. “I think it’s been a challenge for an analog president to communicate with a digital generation,” Della Volpe, who advised the Biden 2020 campaign, said.
The challenge is made harder by Gen Z’s nuanced political identity: more likely than adults to hold left-leaning political views, but less likely than adults to identify with the left-leaning political party. Unlike their more politically tribal parents, many young voters view themselves as proudly unmoored from any candidate or party. At one point, Clayton, a Democratic Party official, described the Democratic Party merely as “the party we find ourselves in,” suggesting more of a temporary alliance than permanent membership.
“I really care that the Republicans don’t win the White House,” Grace Wankelman, a 23-year-old recent graduate of the University of Denver, told me, “but I also don’t want to just blindly support the other party... We’re gonna vote on issues that matter to us and make sure that the politicians that say they support these issues, that they follow through and actually show up and do what needs to be done.”
More news to know.
The day ahead.
At the White House: President Biden is at his vacation home in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, all week.
At the Capitol: A former business associate of Hunter Biden’s will offer closed-door testimony to the House Oversight Committee. The House and Senate are on recess until September.
In the courts: Carlos De Oliveira, a Mar-a-Lago employee who is former President Donald Trump’s newest co-defendant in the classified documents case, will be arraigned in Miami.
On the campaign trail: Ron DeSantis will unveil his economic agenda during a speech in New Hampshire.
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