[Editor’s Note: I fundamentally disagree with the premise of this story. There is literally no way to save the Democratic Party. It is a rancid institution that is beyond salvation. Also, my politics are not on the center-left. They are on the Independent Libertarian Left, where most millennials lie, IMHO. I don’t want to save capitalism, I want to destroy it. Additionally climate change just fails to move me. See my companion piece to hear me expand on all these important topics.]
Millennials are the future and the future is now. This bland truism, which sounds like something Hillary Clinton surrogate Ezra Klein of Vox would say, is repeated almost as much as it is ignored in practice. Brands, marketers, politicos and strategists obsess over appealing to millennials and how to reach them all, but often ignoring the most pressing challenges that most millennials face.
The Democratic Party — with the exception of Bernie Sanders’s presidential run — is no exception. Millennials are appealed to on narrow grounds, with awkward cultural outreach and pale lip service to their concerns.
Any future-oriented, center-left politics needs to pursue bold policies on student debt relief, 21st century job security and climate change in order to click with millennials. Once these policies are established, campaigns will need the cultural intelligence to communicate effectively with a millennial audience-but the policies come first.
Millennials have much more radical conceptions of politics and economics than is generally believed, which shaped by their experiences. A majority of millennials fear — with good reason — that they will never achieve the mythical “American Dream.”
A 2016 Harvard IOP poll found 51 percent of younger millennials oppose capitalism, 64 percent believe that women are disadvantaged in the workplace, and a plurality believe that they have no voice in government. The most recent poll found that millennials supported more protectionist trade policies.
Millennial conceptions of capitalism if left unaddressed will result in more and more radical politics on both right and left, away from the center. Reclaiming this generation for Democrats and ensuring political stability of our system as a whole will take more than a regurgitation of the existing Democratic platform. Policies that directly address the problems of modern capitalism are the only way to reclaim this generation.
The nonpartisan Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) compiled a comprehensive report on the role of millennials in the 2016 election. The CIRCLE report showed that Democrats had a huge demographic advantage amongst millennials in general, but lost that advantage amongst key millennial voting blocks. Nonetheless, had millennials been the sole demographic group voting in election, Hillary Clinton would have won in a landslide.
But that doesn’t not tell the whole story. Democrats had less millennial support than in any election since the beginning of the Obama era. While millennial support for Republicans has remained relatively unchanged between 2012 and 2016, Democrats lost 5 percent of total millennial voters in this time. They lost 5 percent amongst white millennials, 8 percent amongst African-American millennials, and 4 percent amongst Latino millennials.
A flurry of opinion pieces blamed this on everything from sexism to racism to “fake news” but none of these pieces account for the simplest explanation — the Democratic platform did not address the realities of the millennial generation.
The politics of “good enough” is not enough to win the future. A generation of Democratic politics has been shaped in reaction to an increasingly radicalized right. Even many of the boldest of the boomer generation have been jaded by compromise and the cognitive disenfranchisement of being the party of opposition rather than ideas.
This bunker mentality, of a generation beaten down by the culture wars, has created a world where hope, bravery and vision are the enemy of the preservation of the ever smaller portion of political terrain held by Democrats.
[Note: A version of this story was originally published earlier this year in the Spanish language journal “Comunicación i Política.”]