If Democrats Want To Keep Winning, They Need To Engage Millennials

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks to supporters on Election Day in New York.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks to supporters on Election Day in New York.

Two years ago, I was in charge of organizing the front of house at New York’s Javits Center for Hillary Clinton’s election night. By 10 p.m., the 52 young people working for me all gathered in the basement to shed tears and exchange fearful predictions of what the future would hold.  

That night set into motion a chain of events that awakened an entire generation of activists to our obligations as stewards of this world. Women and young people started the Women’s March and led organizations like Swing Left, Indivisible and Flippable to fill in where the Democratic National Committee was conspicuously absent.

The most remarkable changes in human history have come when a generation of young people decides that the circumstances they inherited are no longer acceptable to them and therefore it’s upon them to change those circumstances. Many of our Founding Fathers were under 30 in 1776, and the civil rights movement that rose in the 1950s was fueled by students and led by a reverend in his mid-20s.

This moment seems to be the beginning of one of those periods.

This generation is not entitled, selfish or lazy. We are disappointed.

Millennials became the largest voting bloc in America last March, and Tuesday night, they showed up resoundingly for Democrats. Voters under age 30 broke for Democrats by a historic 35-percentage-point margin and propelled young candidates like Lauren Underwood, Haley Stevens and Max Rose to win back the U.S. House for the first time in a decade.  

And we still have room to grow: 18- to 29-year-olds made up 13 percent of the electorate Tuesday, though they formed a huge part of Democratic victories.  One thing we learned is that young voter turnout surges when generational candidates like Stacey Abrams or Beto O’Rourke are on the ballot. That’s why it’s important to support efforts like Run for Something, the Arena and Square One Politics in recruiting young candidates and innovating in our outreach.  

Throughout the year we’ve seen the foreshadowing of Tuesday’s result. Run for Something reported a record 600 to 700 millennials were running in state legislative races and more than 200 ran for Congress this cycle.

Even before the midterm elections, Democratic primaries saw a surge in young voters and young candidates. Huge wins by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley were propelled by young people, and my primary loss in New York’s 12th Congressional District saw a remarkable 797 percent increase in 18-to-35-year-old turnout compared with 2016.  

Young people are coming out in such strong support of other young people running for office because young candidates tend to talk about the future. And there’s a trust that they will be seen by their representatives in a way they haven’t before. We live a shared experience, and there’s a deep connection felt between people with such diverse backgrounds. It’s why this group of Democratic candidates was far and away one of the most diverse in the history of the country. 

We are disappointed in the future we’ve been given, but we’re activated with the knowledge that we have the power to change it.

The last two years of activism and wins have proved that this generation is not entitled, nor is it selfish or lazy. Instead, we are disappointed. We are disappointed with inheriting $20 trillion in debt and an additional $1.5 trillion in student debt, stagnant wages, a warming planet and a heartless waste of so much human potential when our prisons are overfilled (primarily with people of color) and immigrants live in the shadows.  

These problems were not created overnight, and most of their root causes have been ignored through both Republican and Democratic periods of governance. Elections and politics should be about the future ― the laws we make today affect the next generation, but our politics have been more concerned with recriminations about the past or divisions in the present.

On climate change and gun control, mass incarceration and immigration, we have been let down by both Republican and Democratic congresses over the past two decades. It’s not about ideology, it’s about problem-solving, and we know our politics has failed to deliver.  

This is a generational problem, but Tuesday night’s results empower us with hope because we have agency to change our future.

And the changes we seek are not so different from any other generation of reformers. This generation owes it to our parents, our children and ourselves to continue advancing—not just to protect our democracy and institutions from current threats but also to ensure that we are equipped as a society for the future.

To make sure that everyone has access to a quality education. To end systemic oppression against entire communities. To stand with science and fact, regardless of where that might lead or how uncomfortable the truth may make us. This obligation is as old as history, but today’s circumstances are unique.

Last Tuesday, we helped power Democrats into the majority for the 116th Congress. The die is now cast. If the Democratic Party wants to hold its gains, it needs to believe in young people, give them the opportunity to lead, engage them where they are and focus on the significant intergenerational justice issues that matter most: climate change, mass incarceration, immigration, gun control, economic growth and inequality.  

We are disappointed in the future we’ve been given, but we’re activated with the knowledge that we have the power to change it.

Suraj Patel is an activist, organizer, lawyer and lecturer on ethics at New York University Stern. He recently ran as a progressive Democrat in New York’s 12th Congressional District primary.