In these final weeks and days before the midterm elections, a sub-genre of interesting commentary has arisen that focuses on how many young people will vote in 2018. The president of Pomona College, the great-granddaughter of slaves, offered one excellent example of this approach in a moving open letter: “Dear College Students: My Grandmother Waited 70 Years for the Right to Vote. Don’t Ignore This Chance.”
Will young people actually vote tomorrow in larger numbers than youths have typically voted in the US? New York Magazine recently published a depressing, anecdotal report on the attitudes of twelve young potential voters who presented a mixed bag of attitudes and assumptions that would make any civics teacher cry. The Washington Post’s irreplaceable satirist Alexandra Petri replied with: “Why I, a Young Person, Probably Won’t Vote.”
Petri’s imagined millennial nonvoters’ reasons not to vote include Andy M., age 25, who says that he is “[s]till heartbroken over 2016, not ready to get into another relationship with a candidate yet. Can’t believe you would mention voting to me.” Also, Andrea, age 26, says that she is “so insulted by all those links to what claimed to be Pete Davidson/Ariana Grande news that actually linked to voter registration that I am making the principled decision not to vote. That will teach them to condescend to me!”
This reminded me of a comment that one of my daughters mentioned to me in 2016 about the people who refused to vote for Hillary Clinton because they were angry that Bernie Sanders was not the nominee. She said, “It’s like they’re saying, ‘This bar doesn’t have the kind of craft beer that I like, so I’m going to drink bleach instead.”
But as “Andrea” suggests, we do need to be worried about condescending to young people. Older people like me “just don’t get it,” and appealing to younger potential voters in the usual ways simply might not work. But what will? Although it taps into a different condescending stereotype about younger voters, the key might be to explain that the consequences of not voting will be felt right away. This election offers gratification as immediate as it is ever likely to be in politics.
The Long-Term View and the 2016 Election
Much of my time as an academic over the last dozen years or so has been spent researching, thinking, and writing about the obligations that current generations have toward future generations. Initially responding to the bipartisan calls to worry about “loading debt onto the backs of our children and grandchildren,” I argued that the conventional wisdom about deficits and the national debt is at best a gross simplification. Conservatives’ use of anti-deficit hysteria as an excuse not to fight the Great Recession, or to rebuild cities, or to provide free college education in the US, and so on is a cynical game that inflicts disproportionate harm on younger (and poorer) people.
As I worked through those issues in my academic writing, however, I began to think about where our sense of obligation toward future generations comes from. Yes, it feels right to say, “I want our children to have it better than I had,” and similar intuitions. But why? And how much better should we make their lives? Is there a limit to how much one group of people should sacrifice in the name of helping others (especially those who have not yet been born)?
But perhaps the most perplexing question, even after deciding that we should be willing to sacrifice for future generations, is how to decide what issues will matter to future generations. Do they want clean air and water rather than “things”? How do we know?
What if future generations (if we could communicate with them) were to tell us that they do not care about education and would not mind if public education at both the K-12 and university levels were simply to disappear before they were ever born? Do we owe it to them to give them only what they want, or should we try to convince them to want something different?
As interesting as those questions are, the emergence of the bigoted nationalism of Donald Trump, and especially his threat to the rule of law, radically changed the stakes in political debates. Pollution, retirement funding, education, and other policy issues are all important matters (currently and for future generations), but the impending demise of constitutional democracy in the United States seems categorically different from all of those other issues.
If we owe our children and grandchildren anything, we owe them the continuing ability to hold their government to account through free elections, a free press, a responsive government, and independent law enforcement. That is what is at stake tomorrow.
The Long-Term Case for Voting by the Young
With that in mind, my final Verdict column before Election Day in 2016 was an exhortation to young people: “Young Voters, This Is Your Chance to Make History. Enjoy It!” What better way to tell young people to vote than to tell them that they could make history?
At the time, that seemed like a great closing argument (I say immodestly). I still stand by what I wrote, but the changes in the US since Trump’s election have convinced me that the long-term case for voting is no longer the best way to think about the stakes in 2018.
In my pre-election column in 2016, I relied heavily on a concept that I had developed in my research on intergenerational obligations. Although democracy is valuable in large part because it gives people the ability to create the government that they deserve, the long-term effects of many policy changes will necessarily affect many people who are too young to vote or who have not yet been born.
For example, the decision by the US to stay out of World War II until we were directly attacked created the very real risk that generations of Americans would live under fascism, because our delayed entry might have been too late if things had gone badly earlier on, especially in Europe. The generation that had bravely decided to end the Great Depression by putting aside economic orthodoxy—thus saving our version of mixed capitalism for future generations—almost blew it by listening to isolationists like Ohio’s Senator Robert Taft.
That means that, if time were not linear, we would have wanted American elections to count the votes of the people who might have been forced to live under American Nazism in a Hitlerian colony. But since time does move only in one direction (as far as we know), the closest thing that we have to multi-generational democracy is to have current citizens take future generations’ interests into account when voting.
Thus, I argued in my pre-election 2016 column that young people were the closest thing that we have to proxy voters, that is, those who would vote for their own best interests and for the best interests of those under 18 and not yet born. Even selfish motivations among young voters would be more likely to align with the interests of unborn generations, whereas Baby Boomers like me must constantly resist the temptation to think or say, “Wait, global warming won’t destroy things until 2050? Not my problem.” For millennials, 2050 might seem a long way away, but for them, what happens several decades from now is still personal.
The Short-Term Case for Young People to Vote
Perhaps that kind of reasoning would resonate with many young people, no matter whether they were among the few thousand people who read my column or the many million for which there is at least some intuition regarding intergenerational responsibility.
Still, the last two years have shown us that there is a much better, immediate case that calls for young people to turn out in droves tomorrow. The first of the two steps in making that case is based on the observation that we now know with certainty that Trump is every bit as bad as many of us said he would be (and even worse) and that there are precious few things remaining to prevent him from indulging his worst xenophobic impulses and dictatorial fantasies.
Back in 2016, and even during the presidential transition into January 2017, there were still plenty of people who confidently asserted that the presidency would change Trump. In the moment that he put his hand on the Bible and uttered the oath of office, these people claimed, he would suddenly see that he could not be the divisive, ignorant blowhard that he had always been. We know how that worked out.
In addition, nearly everyone believed in 2016 and into 2017 that the Republicans in Congress would maintain some semblance of independence, either because of institutional pride or simply out of fear of losing future elections. Yet as the months passed, even respected figures like the late Senator John McCain talked about “regular order” in the Senate but still voted to rubberstamp nearly everything that Trump wanted (from tax cuts to extremist judicial appointees) without giving more than lip service to proper process.
More than merely doing Trump’s bidding, however, the even more worrisome surprise was that Republicans uniformly refused to engage in anything to rein in Trump’s worst decisions. He refused to put his assets in a blind trust, and he has continually received emoluments from foreign sources at his properties. Congress has the constitutional responsibility to approve or prevent such presidential self-dealing, but Republicans have said and done nothing. And the Republicans running the House committee that is supposed to be investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election have instead taken on the role of Trump’s defenders.
In 2016 and early 2017, many people predicted that if Trump did not change his ways, he would be summarily impeached, convicted, and removed from office. Conservative New York Times anti-Trumper David Brooks, for example, made occasional blithe comments about Trump being impeached within months of taking office. The idea was that if Trump turned out to be as bad as some of us feared, he would quickly be sent away in disgrace.
As I noted above, this is the first step in the short-term case for younger potential voters to become voters: What might have seemed like worst-case fearmongering about Trump in 2016—that he is a would-be dictator and that Republicans will not stop him—has turned out even worse than anyone predicted. Even his signature campaign slogan—“Drain the swamp!”—has turned out to be a bad joke, with entrenched DC insiders and corporate executives littered throughout his administration.
Thus, anyone who in 2016 said, “Oh, it won’t be so bad, and he’ll give everything a good shaking up,” can no longer believe that. The dangers of a white nationalist-fueled presidency are all too real, and Republicans are too scared or complicit to stop it.
The second step in the case for younger people to vote is that this is no longer a long-term story. We no longer have to say, “If you don’t vote (or if you vote for a protest candidate or for Trump), you’ll eventually reap the negative consequences—and the future generations to whom you owe an obligation will be harmed even more than your generation.”
Younger voters—who might not even be able to imagine one day having children, seeing nothing but decades of debt ahead of them—might not be moved by concerns for children and grandchildren that might never exist. Even so, young voters need only to think about what will happen the day after tomorrow, not in the decades after the 2020s. The future is now.
That is why I noted above that this argument ultimately plays on the stereotype of younger people needing immediate gratification. That stereotype is certainly an exaggeration (if not generational libel), but to the extent that it is true, young voters can say: “Hey, I might prefer to put immediate concerns ahead of long-term issues, but this is an immediate concern!”
If Republicans are not soundly defeated tomorrow, all of the bad things that we once worried could happen will happen—nearly immediately.
With continued control of Congress, Republicans will indulge Trump’s evident desires to shut down the special counsel’s investigation of Trump’s 2016 campaign. The FBI and intelligence services will continue to be politicized and vilified. Public employees will be turned into agents doing the bidding of the president, rather than the people. The environment will become ever dirtier, and the rich will grow even richer.
This is no longer merely a possibility. It is a certainty, if we allow it to happen. Even worse, Republicans everywhere—in state legislatures, in Congress, in the White House, and in the courts—will continue to disenfranchise those who disagree with them. This might be young people’s last chance to vote in a meaningful election. It might be the last chance for many non-young people as well.
Nothing that I have written here is actually limited to younger potential voters, of course. Everyone has an immediate stake in the kind of world that we will wake up to on November 7, 2018. But young people have the numbers and even more incentive to make their remaining decades on earth—starting on Wednesday—better than they will be if this election vindicates Trump’s campaign of hatred and division.