When the world last heard from Samuel Weinberg in the summer of 2020, he was a suburban Chicago teenager with a progressive political cause — defeating Donald Trump, and convincing his young peers that a vote for a septuagenarian lifelong moderate, Joe Biden, was the only way to do that — and a brilliant plan.
“Settle for Biden” was the name of the popular Instagram handle that Weinberg created, and its meme-laden strategy, which included pictures of the smiling Delaware politician, under the words, “He’ll do,” or the Democratic nominee kneeling in front of a blackboard with the Photoshopped words “Because a C+ is better than an F,” seems to have helped. On November 3, 2020, voters in the 18-29-year-old demographic turned out in higher numbers than past elections, voted strongly for Biden over Trump, and clearly tipped key Electoral College states like Georgia as the Democrats just barely earned control in Washington.
But just nine months into the 46th presidency, Biden is struggling to earn even that “C+” on his first report card from America’s young voters. The last week of headlines — that free community college is completely dropped from the Democrats’ economic plan and that a Democratic senator has ripped the guts out of its climate strategy, along with the Godot-like wait for major action on student debt — has shaken many teen and 20-something voters who hoped for more. Even Weinberg, now a 20-year-old college student in western Massachusetts, is growing disillusioned.
“It’s insulting that we’re not being given a seat at the table after helping deliver Biden his victory in November,”he said about the lack of action affecting you people. “And it’s absolutely devastating, honestly, that our future is being neglected to the extent that it is ... Young people are going to bear the burden of these policy blunders.”
Weinberg is hardly alone, and — while the clock hasn’t fully run out on federal action around issues like student debt or a bolder approach on climate — the disillusionment of increasingly jaded young voters could change the course of American history for the next generation, or even beyond. Certainly in the short term, if alienated teens and 20-somethings revert to their traditional pattern of low turnout in the 2022 midterms — when historical trends and gerrymandering already point to a tough year for Democrats — it will hand control of Congress to a Trumped-up GOP, setting the stage for the second Trump term that young Americans helped us avoid in 2020. And it might take decades for Democrats to rebuild any trust with Generation Z.
Earlier this month, the drumbeat of youth-led political protest again filled the streets of Washington, as climate activists, including waves of Indigenous people opposed to pipelines across Native lands, marched to demand the kind of dramatic action against global warming that is struggling to gain a foothold with the Beltway power elite. In front of the White House, on a statue honoring “Trail of Tears” president Andrew Jackson, they painted, “Expect Us.” But what should the United States expect next from young people who’ve seen such little substantial change from either turning out at the polls or from flooding the street as happened in the summer of 2020, when millions marched against the police murder of George Floyd.?
“It’s like a knife stabbed you in the back,” said 24-year-old Ewan Johnson, a Philadelphia-area activist with the Debt Collective fighting for student-loan forgiveness and lead housing organizer with the group Reclaim Philadelphia. Johnson protested back in January outside Biden’s campaign headquarters, still hopeful that the then-incoming POTUS would cancel the Temple grad’s debt, which for him and his single mom has risen to more than $180,000. Now, he says bitterly that “not much has changed with Biden ... except for the images.”
It is indeed somewhat gob-smacking that Democrats on Capitol Hill and in the West Wing have seemingly punted on third down when it comes to the matters that young America cares about, given what happened in 2020. While college voters, in particular, strongly supported left-wing Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in early Democratic primaries, they overcame any qualms about Biden’s past record to rally behind him when the alternative was Trump. Researchers at Tufts University found 18-29-year-old turnout had increased substantially — from about 42% to 44% in 2016, when youth apathy was one key to Trump’s victory, to a 52% to 56% range last year. Those young voters went for Biden, 61% to 36%, and the Tufts team found their votes put the Democrat over the top in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia and Arizona.
Simply put, under-30 voters handed Biden the Electoral College, which makes it hard to explain why...
— The free community college proposal, was the very first thing that got dropped. Team Biden had already cut it in half to $45.5 billion over five years, and it would have helped 8 million middle class Americans, most of them young people, but they caved under pressure from Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. The two Democrats are fighting to protect low taxes on the wealthy, and from lobbyists, including 4-year colleges protecting their revenue base.
— Biden has yet to follow through on a 2020 campaign promise to cancel at least $10,000-per-person of America’s $1.7 trillion college debt. Experts say this ever-soaring debt has thwarted U.S. 20-somethings from buying homes or even getting married. Although the White House has nibbled on the edges of the loan crisis, there seems little hope for the sweeping debt forgiveness (Warren, for example, has urged $50,000) sought by progressives.
— The most ambitious programs to tamp down climate change are being taken down by West Virginia’s Manchin, who is not only closely tied to the fossil-fuel industry but who receives a hefty annual dividend check from his stake in a coal company. This, despite climate being ranked in multiple surveys as a top political issue for young voters.
“If we don’t have a livable planet, nothing else matters,” said Weinberg, the “Settle for Biden” creator, echoing a common belief among young voters that the politicians like Manchin or even Gen-Xer Sinema won’t be around like them to witness the worse impacts from drought, wildfires or floods worsened by climate change.
“College students are issue voters,” Terren Klein, the CEO and co-founder of College Pulse, a data analytics firm focused on higher-ed students, told me. By that Klein meant surveys find young voters are less wedded to party ID and more focused toward action on issues like climate or gun safety, while older voters are more drawn toward “electability,” the factor that drove Biden’s 2020 march to the Democratic nomination.
The irony is that growing signs of failure, or underwhelming results at best, on those issues that matter to young voters — Klein cited the environment and income inequality in particular — could destroy the electability of Biden-allied Democrats in the 2022 midterms. The nightmare scenario for the party, and yet one that seems to be brewing, is a repeat of the 2008 and 2010 cycles in which young voters energized by Barack Obama’s “HOPE” message helped deliver a Democratic government, only to see a mix of apathy, complacency and disillusionment in 2010 as the GOP gained 63 House seats.
“Our movement is not seeing the change that we needed being accommodated by traditional means,” said Johnson, who was also a daily participant in 2020′s Black Lives Matter marches. And that’s a very big problem, isn’t it? It seems unlikely (although not impossible) that we’d see a repeat of the early 1970s, when a sliver of the most radical youth frustrated by the lack of progress on the Vietnam War and other issues turned for a time toward violence. But the more likely outcomes of a failed youth agenda — alienation and apathy — couldn’t come at a worse moment, since a Democratic landslide defeat will set the stage for the dangerously anti-democratic movement led by Trump, which threatens the American Experiment much as carbon threatens the planet.
The existential question for the Democratic Party right now is, with the Thanksgiving holiday looming ... will grown-ups like Biden, who turns 79 in less than a month, and Manchin, at 74, make such a critical voting bloc sit at the rickety folding chairs of the kids’ table while they carve off the juiciest parts of the federal turkey for narrow special interests? Because without a quick, bold reversal — major student debt forgiveness, or a Manchin workaround on climate — there could be many Novembers not of feasts but famine for Biden’s party.
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