Of Course Young Voters Are Dismayed by *Gestures at Everything*

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Of Course Young Voters Are Dismayed by *Gestures at Everything*

A new big scary youth poll is out today from Democratic firm Blueprint, and it reveals that young voters largely view the United States as “a dying empire led by bad people.” That quote is from Evan Roth Smith, Blueprint’s lead pollster, who told Semafor that “I think these statements blow me away, the scale of these numbers with young voters.”

He’s right, and as a cynic I still find myself a bit shocked by the widespread dissatisfaction reflected in this poll of registered voters between the ages of 18 and 30, even if I completely understand where it comes from. The question in the story’s lead photo is whether they agree or disagree with this statement: “it doesn’t matter who wins elections, nothing changes.”

A whopping 48% either strongly agreed or somewhat agreed, while 26% neither agreed nor disagreed. Shockingly just 26% disagree, split evenly across somewhat and strongly. If there aren’t alarm bells ringing inside the White House right now, the Biden campaign is officially detached from reality.

Nearly two-thirds, 64%, believe that “America is in decline,” while 65% say that “nearly all politicians are corrupt, and make money from political power.” I guess the other 35% aren’t following all the tracking around America’s greatest stock trader, Nancy Pelosi.

This has brought the usual defenders of empire out of the woodwork to participate in elite America’s favorite pastime of scolding young people, with the self-branded Boring Guy read by all of D.C.’s power merchants blaming Tik Tok for these results.

While it may be comforting to those who have aided or cheered on America’s decline to blame foreign powers supposedly meddling in our affairs (never AIPAC though…), a simple examination of linear time exposes the inherent stupidity of this belief.

Point to the expanding economy all you want nerds, there’s gaping holes in your own argument anyway, and this isn’t the supposed normal 1990s anymore where the longest-serving Republican Speaker of the House was a pedophile and you could just go about your business without anyone really noticing structural decay like that.

Speaking of noticing structural decay, Scientific American noted that “memories made in later childhood and beyond are more likely to stick.” Middle and late childhood span from ages 6 to 11, so to keep the math simple, let’s assume that all these young voters started developing long-term political memories at age 10.

The oldest voters in this survey are 30, while the youngest are 18. We’ll start at the far end of the spectrum and work our way to the present to see if maybe something else happened during this period other than the invention of Tik Tok in 2016.

2004 Was Pretty Fucked Up Too

Twenty years ago, George W. Bush ran for reelection by wrongly slandering his Vietnam veteran opponent as a fake, while states around the country voted en masse on whether to outlaw gay marriage. This was Karl Rove’s big idea to drive Republican evangelical turnout in the 2004 election, and eleven states approved constitutional amendments codifying marriage as solely between a man and a woman.

The year after Bush won his second-term, Hurricane Katrina killed over 1,800 people after the president of the United States sat on his hands as a major city with a majority black population was abandoned by the federal government. Three years later, the largest economic cataclysm since the Great Depression began, and trillions in wealth were wiped off the face of the Earth in service of a top-down scheme that no one responsible for ever saw the inside of a courtroom over, let alone a jail cell.

A man promising hope and change came along in 2008, and people like me graduated college in 2009 into a job market which began the year losing 800,000 jobs a month. The Great Financial Crisis permanently altered America’s housing market and put us on a path to being a nation of renters where the rent is too damn high. This pushed millions out of their homes while the banks who were often foreclosing on mortgages they did not own enjoyed weak oversight and got slaps on the wrist when they were caught in their “Kafkaesque” schemes.

Barack Obama used this calamity to campaign for a new economic paradigm while pushing for a new vision of health care that included some form of a public option. So what did the most popular president in young people’s lives actually do with this immense amount of political capital he amassed in 2008?

He definitely did not push for a public option. Obama spent nearly all of his political capital trying to pass Mitt Romney’s health care plan and moderately impactful good finance laws some Democrats would help Donald Trump roll back nearly a decade later. In 2010, the Democrats were swept out of Congress by the Tea Party wave, as this revanchist movement in the GOP got its first real taste of power. Over the next five years, they would make Speaker John Boehner’s life hell, providing a glimpse into the future to come.

Barack Obama’s second term was undercut by escalating Republican intransigency and equally ineffective Democratic governance. He left office with a track-record far different from the ideals he staked out in his 2008 presidential bid, which benefited from his anti-war stance more than any other subject, and a big part of Obama’s legacy is extending America’s forever wars and expanding George W. Bush’s murderous drone warfare campaign.

Under America’s first black president in 2014, in the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown, protesting Ferguson residents were met with overwhelming force which produced astonishing images that captured America’s attention on this issue unlike any in this young century. The weapons of our failed wars in the Middle East are being returned home to the United States’s police departments every day, and Ferguson provided people the starkest window yet into the reality of our relationship with the state. A Colony in a Nation, if you will.

Police train a sniper rifle on protesters while sitting atop a SWAT vehicle in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014

Photo by Jamelle Bouie, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

America Is in Decline

Which brings us to 2016, which is about the year when the youngest respondents in that poll began making their first long-term memories. They were introduced to politics through President Donald Trump destroying the façade created by empire’s elite. The next four years were some of the most chaotic in America’s modern history, and they culminated in a global pandemic where leaders of every ideological stripe failed to meet the moment. Trump abandoned us while celebrated blue state governors like Andrew Cuomo fueled mass death through cynical self-serving policies.

While we were all trapped indoors, we watched a police officer murder George Floyd in cold blood in a blue city, which sparked nationwide protests unlike anything we have seen since the 1960s. The Democrats knelt in supposed solidarity while donning Kente cloth, then two years later, voted to give police departments more money.

We were all told in 2020 that it was the most important election of our lifetimes (which for those of us who began voting in 2004, made it the third “most important election of our lifetimes”), and young people voted at higher rates than they ever had before. After what was widely seen on the left as the best two-year stretch any president has produced since at least Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Joe Biden destroyed all that goodwill and then some by wholeheartedly supporting Benjamin Netanyahu’s genocide of Gaza.

This has now led us to a moment where every day we open our social media and see horrific images of children mutilated by American weapons, and people like Matt Yglesias and Mitt Romney believe that Chinese propaganda is at the root of this rage, and not the dystopian images broadcast straight from Gaza that anyone can find anywhere on the internet for themselves.

The reason young people are so dissatisfied with the current state of things is that they have only known American decline, and that has set the expectation for the future. Even if you expand the range to include older millennials like me at age 37, we only got a taste of the booming 1990s before we watched it all get ripped away from us by the Supreme Court, the largest terrorist attack ever on American soil and two barbarous wars which killed over 4.5 million people, all leading us down an apocalyptic path we find ourselves on today.

Two of our last four presidents won their first election without winning the popular vote. A majority of our Supreme Court, which has made itself an unelected super-legislature, was appointed by those presidents who did not win the popular vote. Competitive congressional districts have been declining this entire century, and a whopping 84% of House seats in the 2022 primaries were decided by ten points or more.

How is this not a collapsing empire? This is provably true just using statements from our own senior diplomats.

Despite this bleak outlook shared by two generations molded by the mounting failures of the world they were raised in, Millennials and Zoomers still vote at higher rates than previous generations did at the same age. For all of our disbelief in American democracy, we still participate in it and are a central electoral force helping to restrain this Trumpian moment. It would be nice if the Beltway scolds could take just a second to understand that the Vietnam era youth weren’t the only generation fighting for their lives against their own government.

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