By Nolan Higdon
On Election Day 2020, millennials face a difficult choice: vote or stay home. Either way, their decision will need to be accompanied by wide-spread activism, something they regularly engage in more than voting. The reason is that millennials, those born between 1981-1996, and Gen Z, those born since 1996, are facing the second recession of their lifetime and the political class remains disinterested in creating economic opportunity for them. This is especially odd considering that millennials are now the largest generational chunk of eligible voters. Although an economic slump was developing prior to the pandemic, the current recession is being largely attributed to the COVID-19 outbreak, and is the second in 12 years. Not since the early 20th century, during the Great Depression, has America had two large economic collapses occur in such a short span. So far, Wall Street has lost the gains made during the Trump presidency and experts predict a 14 percent decline in GDP and a 20 percent unemployment rate will follow. Needless to say, millennials need a transformative political agenda in 2020, not another opportunity to engage in the “lesser of two evils” electoral strategy.
In fact, both parties have constructed a system that relegates millennials to a perpetual state of recession. Since the 2008 recession, the top 1 percent of earners took home 93 percent of the wealth, which enabled 26 people to have as much wealth as half the globe’s population (3.75 billion). Meanwhile, millennials have $1.5 trillion in student loan debt (even though most of the colleges in their parent’s generation was tuition free); half of them have no medical coverage; two-thirds have no retirement savings; and despite the promise of tech making things easier, they are working more hours for less pay than the previous generation. In addition to economic concerns, millennials have to worry about the perils of climate change, which was certainly made worse by decades of denial by some of the Baby Boomers.
There is no doubt that George W. Bush’s Administration worsened the 2008 collapse with its eight years of corporate cronyism: tax cuts for the wealthy; giveaways to pharmaceutical industry; privatization of public education with NCLB; and a $700 billion dollar bailout for banks known as the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008. However, the origin of the crisis was more closely tied to the bipartisan decisions to deregulate Wall Street and the banking industry under President Bill Clinton. In fact, the bipartisanship efforts on this from the 1990s worsened the fallout by removing bankruptcy protections for the working class. Furthermore, thanks to NAFTA, well-paying non-college educated jobs were shipped out of the country, forcing millennials to gamble on their future with an average price tag of $31,000 to get a college degree that they hope will give them a middle class lifestyle.
In 2008, millennials turned out in record numbers for the “hope and change” message of Barack Obama, but instead received Bill Clinton 2.0. His administration ignored millennials’ economic interests to propose a “grand bargain” with Republicans (that offered funding cuts to progressive programs such as Social Security and Medicare); passed the Affordable Car Act (which originated from the Republican Party and Big Pharma lobbyists); assembled a group of Wall Streeters as his team of economic advisers; negotiated the corporate friendly Trans-Pacific Partnership in secret without input from organized labor; and appointed members of Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, and Monsanto to his cabinet. Despite the longest streak of sustained growth in US economic history (starting with 2009), a 2018 study concluded that millennials never recovered from the Great Recession. In essence, the study found generational inequity. The findings are an indictment of Obama and his Democratic party for failing to create economic opportunity for the 71 million millennials that were largely responsible for his electoral victory. In 2016, the Democratic Party forbearer Hillary Clinton channeled her inner Marie Antionette, chiding millennials for naively supporting Bernie Sanders’ progressive agenda instead of her commitment to four more years of Obama’s policies. It was in this climate that Donald Trump found electoral success positioning himself as the electoral Molotov cocktail to Obama’s neoliberal agenda.
Given that Joe Biden is positioning himself as a return to the Obama years, the party seems to have learned nothing from the anger of voters in general and young people specifically. Biden is simply not the candidate to electrify millennial voters. After all, Biden championed the very policies that have left their generation struggling, including: the 2003 invasion of Iraq; repeal of Glass-Steagall; passing the Telecommunications Act; deregulating the credit and banking industry – which earned Joe Biden the name “The Senator From MBNA”; passing the 1994 Crime Bill); the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA); Don’t Ask Don’t Tell; the Bankruptcy Bill; and NAFTA; not to mention his sexist attacks on Anita Hill and Monica Lewinsky, or his attempts to cut or abolish Social Security four times. Finally, in the midst of the rise of the MeToo movement, which many millennials champion, Biden is facing very real sexual assault allegations.
However, it’s not as if millennials should invest their hope in Trump. After all, his administration worsened the economic prospects for millennials with tax cuts for the wealthy, complications to college costs, and mass managerial ineptitude during the crisis of COVID-19. In fact, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated the bipartisan discontent for millennials. The very same two major corporate parties that spent years convincing millennial voters that the federal government lacked the funds and political expediency to pass a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, or tuition free college quickly responded to the crisis with the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020 and Families First Coronavirus Response Act. It demonstrated that Congress is willing to act to the tune of $4 trillion when industries are threatened, but not when an entire generation of young Americans are suffering. Even prior to the crisis, when the majority of millennials could not afford a home, find a well-paying job, pay their student loan debt, or acquire medical care, there was no generational bailout.
In 2016, millennials recognized the futility of the “lesser of two-evils” voting strategy. Many of those who had voted for Obama refused to participate in the subsequent election. Furthermore, Bernie Sanders’s policy proposals resulted in nearly three times as many votes from the youth as Hilary Clinton. In fact, in Pennsylvania, Sanders captured 83 percent of the youth vote. In 2016, more young people voted for Sanders than Trump or Clinton in the primaries. In 2020, Sanders captured 77 percent of the voters under the age of 30 in Michigan and Biden won 72 percent of voters over 65. It’s part of a consistent trend where Sanders does well with voters under 45 and Biden with those over 45.
There is no doubt that millennials who refuse to engage in the electoral “lesser of two evils” charade by choosing between the two major parties will be blamed once again for the outcome. Indeed, after 2016, the Democratic Party and their lapdogs in corporate media alleged that Sanders’ youthful supporters operated under a divisive and sexist brand of naive politics, orchestrated by the Russians, that cost Clinton the election. This is a tired old strategy that was used in 2008 when Hillary Clinton’s campaign blamed Obama supporters for being sexist, calling them ‘Obama boys,’ which was an antecedent to the “Bernie Bros” epithet. Furthermore, they blamed Sanders’ supporters for dividing the party, even though it was Clinton supporters in 2008 who called themselves PUMAS (officially, People United Means Action; unofficially, Party Unity My Ass), to denote their rejection of Obama and more of them voted for McCain in 2008 than Sanders’ supporters voted for Trump in 2016.
Using electoral politics as an opportunity to lecture millennials on which party or candidate they are obligated to support smacks of elitism. In practice, it is the party’s job to give voters a reason to turn out and vote. The two parties’ generational warfare has not produced a candidate or vision that serves millennials. That is not to say that millennials have been a passive part of the electorate. They have a sober sense of what is needed to transform their situation in 2020. For over a decade they have been active in a series of movements such as Occupy, Me Too, Black Lives Matter, March for Our Lives, and resistance to Climate Change. They coalesced around candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Green New Deal. Since Sanders ended his campaign, millennial candidates and organizations drafted an open letter explaining to Biden in the simplest of terms how he can earn their vote. Millennials push their agenda forward by standing their ground and resisting the parasitic voting strategy of choosing between the “lesser of two evils.” Through not voting or voting for a third-party candidate, millennials can send a message and reassert the efficacy of the democratic process as it was designed: forcing elected officials to court their vote, as candidates and office holders are expected to represent, not pontificate to, the electorate. No malarkey: an entire generation is waiting for a leader to answer their own 3 A.M. call.
Acknowledgements to Michael Belloti, Reem Arsema, Alexis Figueroa, and Mickey Huff
Dr. Nolan Higdon is an author and lecturer of history and media studies at California State University, East Bay. Higdon sits on the boards of the Action Coalition for Media Education and Northwest Alliance For Alternative Media And Education. His most recent publication is United States of Distraction with Mickey Huff. He is co-host of the Along the Line podcast, and a longtime contributor to Project Censored’s annual book, Censored. Higdon has written and published on millennial political issues in the past, including an online series for Project Censored. He has been a guest commentator for The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and numerous television news outlets.