How the White Lens Distorts Our View of Young Voters

Democrats need to demonstrate that they are committed to the issues that affect the lives of this diverse group.

At this point in the Democratic primary, there is growing concern that young people are not showing up to vote. Whether or not that will remain true in November isn’t completely clear, but the signs don’t look good right now.

Because the Sanders campaign has attracted more young people, it is often assumed that for Democrats to do better with this age group, they need to adopt his policies. But that seems counter-intuitive. If his policies were attractive to young people, why aren’t more of them showing up to vote for him in the primaries?

One way to answer that question is to look at polling that has been done among young people. Late last year, the organization Cause and Social Influence released a report titled, “Influencing Young Americans to Act 2019.” When it comes to the top issues of concern to 18-30 year-olds, here’s what they found:

  1. Climate change (30 percent)
  2. Civil rights/racial discrimination (25 percent)
  3. Immigration (21 percent)
  4. Health care reform (20 percent)
  5. Mental health/social services (16 percent)

The researchers note that in a similar study conducted in 2018, climate change didn’t make the top five, while gun safety came in at number two on the list. They posed this explanation.

Is interest in a topic influenced by media coverage and online activity surrounding moments? This year’s research began in the wake of Greta Thunberg’s sail to the Climate Change Summit and heavy media coverage of her trip and the issue; climate change subsequently was the top social issue for 2019. Similarly, 2018 was the worst year on record for gun violence in schools, and gun violence was among the top issues of concern in that year.

We have all witnessed young people be the drivers on both gun safety and climate change, so it is safe to say that both of them are significant issues. But from there, it is worth noting that civil rights and immigration are even more important than health care reform. College affordability didn’t even make the cut.

In trying to determine what issues are important to young people, it might be that too many of us are looking through a traditional white lens. In reality, nearly 40 percent of millennials are people of color, and for Gen Zers, that number jumps close to 50 percent. That helps explain why the research from Cause and Social Influence is similar to what was found by Pew.

When it comes to views on race, the two younger generations are more likely than older generations to say that blacks are treated less fairly than whites in the United States today…The younger generations are also more accepting of some of the ways in which American society is changing. Majorities among Gen Z and the Millennial generation say increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the U.S. is a good thing for society, while older generations are less convinced of this.

In addition to climate change and health care, it is clear that issues like civil rights, police shootings, immigration reform, and gun safety all significantly affect the lives of young people.

On immigration, the fate of Dreamers is likely to come front and center in the next few months. As I’ve mentioned previously, the Supreme Court will soon decide on the constitutionality of President Obama’s DACA program. Trump’s ICE director has already announced that they are preparing to deport Dreamers if the court rules in the president’s favor. Senator Kamala Harris wisely made that the focus of her questioning during a hearing recently.

It is also clear that Trump and Republican hardliners are gearing up to once again use Dreamers as hostages if the Supreme Court rules in their favor. They are preparing to offer protections from deportation in exchange for agreement to their racist immigration proposals.

To the extent that young people can be motivated to go to the polls in November, Democrats will need to make it clear that they are committed to the issues that affect the lives of this diverse group of voters. That includes not only addressing climate change, gun safety, and health care, but the xenophobia that has infected the actions of the current administration.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.