The Promise and the Peril of the Millennial Left: On The Value of Demands But Not Ultimatums

It has been a long time since I’ve considered myself to be a socialist or even a “radical,” and longer still since I’ve even remotely approached being “young.”

Yet I’ve watched with amazement as young people have mobilized behind the Sanders campaign and behind broader efforts to transform U.S. society from top to bottom. 

This mobilization is extraordinary, and its contribution to public life in the U.S. is immeasurable.  Many on the left have recently waxed eloquently about this (see, for example, here and here).

At the same time, skeptic that I am, I believe that this extraordinary mobilization needs to be kept in proper perspective.

Last week an excellent open letter was published online: “#YouthVote Letter to Joe Biden.” Endorsed by eight important organizations that helped to power the Sanders campaign, its preamble describes the text as “an open letter to Vice President Biden from millennial and Gen Z leaders to earn the trust of the vast majority of the #youthvote. Included are suggested policies and personnel commitments he could make to bridge the generational divide in the Democratic Party.” The letter is very serious in its constructive engagement with the Biden campaign and its commitment to helping to “unite the [Democratic] party to defeat Trump.” It is equally serious in outlining a wide range of proposals that are described in the letter as “commitments [that] are needed to earn the support of our generation and unite the party for a general election against Donald Trump.”

The list of “commitments” is long. It includes policies on climate change, gun violence, immigration, health care, criminalization, education, a wealth tax, foreign policy and democratic reform; proposals regarding the personnel of a Biden transition and administration; and a demand that the campaign “must demonstrate a real passion and enthusiasm for engaging with our generation and its leaders.”

Every aspect of this open letter makes sense. I personally support most of its proposals. Regardless, it is entirely legitimate for activist organizations that mobilize important constituencies to publicly articulate their political demands. Politics is all about the articulation of demands. These particular demands are noble, progressive demands, and they clearly explain, in the words of Waleed Shalid, one of the signatories, “how to earn our support.” The Biden campaign ought to pay attention to these demands, and work hard to cultivate the support of their proponents.

Yet while it would be a mistake for Biden to ignore these demands, it does nobody any good– including the demanders themselves–to exaggerate their political significance. And I am afraid that the open letter does this in two ways.

The first is perhaps most important politically: while the letter articulates the demands of its proponents, it offers no acknowledgment of the fact that the Biden campaign, like any campaign, must attend to many demands, some of which are even in tension with one another. 

The need to unite the party is paramount. And this surely involves “healing the wounds” of the contest between “the Sanders wing” and “centrist Democrats.” But such healing, and such unity, requires real compromises between these “wings.” Such compromises require that “the left” articulates its concerns and that these be incorporated. But they also require that the concerns of “the center” be acknowledged as more than what are often disparaged as “neoliberalism” or “class compromises,” and that these too be incorporated. Indeed, the very reason for the open letter is the suspension of the Sanders campaign, and the reason for this suspension is that Sanders saw no path to victory. In other words, Biden beat him. The reasons why Biden prevailed surely include mobilizations of bias against Sanders in the party and in the mass media (such mobilizations are endemic to politics). But they also included the fact that the Sanders campaign failed to reach out to important Democratic constituencies, especially African-Americans, suburban women, and many middle-class professionals. These constituencies matter too. And if the #YouthVote organizers are serious about unifying the Democratic party, some acknowledgment of the need to compromise with these constituencies surely would be advisable. “Healing” is not simply about them. It is about the entire range of Democratic constituencies.

Perhaps even more importantly, if Trump is going to be defeated in November, the Biden campaign cannot simply unite the Democratic party. Even if it makes mobilizing new voters a central part of its campaign strategy—and such mobilization is likely to be harder under the conditions of pandemic– it must also make some effort to simultaneously appeal to “swing voters,” especially in key Electoral College states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The proper balance between gesturing left and gesturing center that is required to win these states is surely open to legitimate debate. But to ignore or deny the importance of such a balancing act is a recipe for political disaster. It would have been good if the open letter at least acknowledged this, and what follows from it: that there are limits to how far to the left Biden can move without jeopardizing his chances in a general election. And it is to be hoped that the letter’s drafters understand this, whether they chose to acknowledge it publicly or not.

And this brings me to the second problem with the open letter: it not only exaggerates the importance of “youth” as a constituency, it also exaggerates the importance of the eight signatory groups as the tribunes of “youth.”

The question of “representation” is a complex and thorny one. Who speaks for whom?  Democratic politics claims to furnish some means for adjudicating this question. But the question of what “democracy” requires is no less complex and thorny. 

The politics of representation is a challenge for democratic politics in general, and especially for democratic politics on the left, because such a politics seeks not simply to speak for but to mobilize subordinate, marginalized or silenced groups, and to do so on behalf of often radical demands. It is thus especially important on the left to be mindful of what has long been called the problem of “substitutism”—the problem of organizing a group, and then claiming to “represent” a much larger group, like “the working class,” or like “youth” or “Generation Z.”

The open letter claims to speak for “youth,” and it demands “engagement with our generation and its leaders.” But it does not speak for a generation and its leaders. No group can speak for an entire generation. The open letter speaks for the most active and progressive among “millennial and Gen Z leaders.”  And it is entirely appropriate that it articulates the demands of this leadership and the organizations and activists these leaders lead. But it is equally important for these leaders, and these organizations and activists, to understand the limits of their appeal, and the current limits of their own political power.

Sanders mobilized millions of young voters, and clearly appealed to such voters more than any other Democratic candidate. This is remarkable and must be taken seriously.

At the same time, two other things are also true. 

One is that the Sanders campaign failed to turnout the youth vote that it sought, something ultimately acknowledged by Sanders himself. 

The second is that while broadly “progressive” ideas may be more popular among younger voters than the general population, and while this popularity surely explains the mobilization of progressive youth behind Sanders, many young people are not liberal and do not vote Democratic. According to a Brookings report after the 2016 election, 37% of 18-29 year-olds identified as Democrats, but 27% identified as Republicans, and 35% identified as Independents. According to Roper, 36% of this demographic group voted for Donald Trump. That is a very large number of young people for whom the open letter presumably does not speak. (Having taught at Indiana University, Bloomington and lived in Southern Indiana for the past 32 years, this comes as no surprise to me.)

These are facts. And they are well understood by the Biden campaign.

The Biden campaign knows that the open letter speaks for a very important constituency, but not the entire young electorate. And this is why, while it will make concessions—and I personally agree with the argument that the concessions thus far have been too weak—there are limits to the concessions it can, will, and should make to the left if its goal is to defeat Trump.

If the millennial left wishes to grow, as it does, then its leaders also need to understand this. Making demands, exerting pressure, building coalitions, forging compromises—these are ways of building political power over time. But such empowerment also involves an honest recognition of limits, in part because it is only by working against limits, rather than denying them, that it is possible to surmount them, in time.

In a recent Washington Post column, Helaine Olen argued that “Millennials will carry Bernie Sanders’s ideas into the future.” I agree, and would go even further: these young progressives represent a vital part of the future of the Democratic party if it is to have a future. Their demands ought to be taken seriously because they matter in November but also because they matter beyond November. They are promising demands, linked to excellent policy ideas. Anyone who doubts this should read We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style, the new collection edited by Kate Aronoff, Peter Dreier, and Michael Kazin. The ideas featured there ought to become central to Democratic policy discussion and debate.

At the same time, while “we own the future” is a powerful rallying cry, it is also a very misleading description of the actual political situation as it currently exists. Much work remains to be done, over many years, for these ideas even to “own the future” of the Democratic party, much less “the future” more generally. And even if a suitably transformed Democratic party were to develop a strong majority, it would still contend for power in a world containing other political forces, and at least one major political party, standing against it.

This is why, while I think that the open letter is terrific, I hope that the demands it articulates are in the end not strict conditions of support, but instead, as the letter’s preamble says, “suggested policies and personnel commitments” (emphasis added) that could “bridge the generational divide within the Democratic party.” Biden ought to seriously engage these leaders, their ideas, and their organizations. And he ought to make very clear that his very candidacy is itself a bridge, away from Trump and towards a better future. At the same time, in order to arrive at such a future, we need to leave Trump behind. And to do this, we need the bridge that Biden’s campaign promises. The policy debate is far from over. But I hope that as November approaches, the groups behind #YouthVote recognize that while their continued activism is essential, so too is the mobilization of every possible voter to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, in November.

Biden may be an uninspiring and feckless candidate. But his platform is more progressive than many acknowledge. And his victory is necessary if Trump’s authoritarianism is to be kept at bay, and a substantial agenda of policy reform, including many of the ideas that #YouthVote supports, is to be made real. There is no other way to a future worth creating.

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