A Challenge to Conventional Wisdom About Young Voters

Early on in this election season, conventional wisdom told us that voters were angry. There has been a lot of ink spilled over whether that anger is fueled by economic insecurity or nativism/racism. We’ve all seen how Donald Trump is using the former to inflame the latter among white working class men.

But the same arguments took hold during the Democratic primaries, fueled by Sanders strong support from young people who were angry about how the status quo was affecting their economic prospects. That created divisions between them and people of color, who supported Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly and, as I pointed out recently, seem to be more optimistic that the American dream is still alive.

For all the talk about how Brexit mirrors the anger we are witnessing in this election, it is interesting to note that the young people of Britain weren’t buying in. Polls show that they strongly supported the “remain” side of that question. Are British young people less angry (or economically insecure) than those in the U.S.?

Catherine Russell presents some information that challenges the conventional wisdom that has shaped our understanding of what is happening in this election.

Here’s a puzzle for you.

Despite their painfully high student debt burdens, elevated unemployment rates, greater likelihood of living with their parents and their general failure to launch, millennials turn out to be significantly more economically optimistic than their elders.

…younger Americans usually hold more positive views about the economy than their older counterparts do, but the gap has widened significantly in recent years. In newly released data for June, the spread in confidence readings between the young and the old was a whopping 58.8 points.

That’s the widest gap ever recorded.

That is, indeed, a puzzle. There is no doubt that Bernie Sanders tapped into something with young voters. And as many have pointed out, it is important to recognize that because they are the future of Democratic politics.

I won’t pretend to have all the answers to the puzzle. But it is a good reminder that when we – as Obama once said – “slice and dice the public,” we generalize and can sometimes fail to recognize the bigger picture. So when it comes to young voters, there are some important things to keep in mind. First of all, as Kevin Drum points out (with data), there are huge differences between those who are college educated and those who are not when it comes to how they are faring economically.

College-educated millennials get all the attention, but that’s not because they have it so bad. It’s largely because they loom large in the minds of the press corps—who are all college educated themselves—and because they’re verbal enough that they write a lot about themselves. High school grads, not so much. But they’re the ones who were really hit hard by the Great Recession.

Secondly, as a new report from the Brookings Institute points out: Diversity defines the millennial generation.

Racial diversity will be the most defining and impactful characteristic of the millennial generation. Newly released 2015 Census data points to millennials’ role in transitioning America to the “majority minority” nation it is becoming.

Millennials between ages 18 and 34 are now synonymous with America’s young adults, fully occupying labor force and voting ages. They comprise 23 percent of the total population, 30 percent of the voting age population, and 38 percent of the primary working age population. Among racial minorities their numbers are even more imposing. Millennials make up 27 percent of the total minority population, 38 percent of voting age minorities, and a whopping 43 percent of primary working age minorities.

It won’t be long until it is time to take a serious look at the language we use to describe what is happening. For example: “majority minority” sounds practically Orwellian.

But even beyond that, there are sub-groups within these sub-groups. We can’t simply assume that Cuban millennials have the same experiences that inform their politics as Mexican millennials. Or how about male and female millennials? Or gay/straight millennials? Or Muslim/Christian millennials? How much does a lesbian Cuban Catholic female college graduate have in common with a straight white Protestant male non-college graduate? This is what people mean when they talk about “intersectionality” and it is precisely what David Simon was referring to when he wrote about The Death of Normal.

All of this is going to present a huge challenge for those whose job it is to slice and dice the American electorate in order to tell us something useful about the voting public. In the meantime, you can count me as a skeptic when it comes to how conventional wisdom attempts to capture the minds and hearts of these young voters. That’s because it is most often framed around what “normal” used to mean.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.