Democracy Discriminates Against the Young

by Benjamin Studebaker

Young people overwhelmingly support Bernie Sanders in this election, but many of them are not showing up. He crushed the demographic in Massachusetts, but still lost the state narrowly:

Young voters are just not keeping up with older folks:

This has been true for a long time–Millennials did not invent low youth voter turnout:

Many people see figures like this and their knee-jerk response is to scold young people for failing to show up, often attributing it to the laziness or lack of civic virtue of the current crop of young people. But as we see above, young people have been less active in politics since long before Millennials came on the scene. There are larger reasons why young people tend to feel disenfranchised by democratic politics–it’s because the system discriminates against them.

People tend to worry about problems they are having or are going to have in the future. This is why the issues older people face–security in retirement, healthcare costs, taxes on savings–tend to get attention. Older voters face these issues right now, and mature adults and middle aged voters are worried that they will have to face those issues later. By contrast, the issues that face young voters are often issues that older voters and mature adults have already dealt with and no longer have a personal stake in.

Let’s use an example. One of Bernie Sanders’ signature issues is tuition free college. Tuition free college solves a lot of problems. By eliminating student debt, it ends the threat the student debt bubble currently poses to the economy and stimulates consumer demand among the young, enabling young people to enter the housing market earlier. It lowers economic barriers to educational attainment, helping people from disadvantaged backgrounds to be more competitive in the workforce and improving the skill level of the workforce as a whole. It gives young people the opportunity to follow their passions without financial anxiety, and it reduces the power their parents have over what they choose to study, increasing their freedom to make their own decisions about their futures and empowering them as citizens.

If you’ve already graduated from college, you have little direct personal stake in this issue. It may be true that society benefits from eliminating the student debt bubble and from having a highly skilled workforce, but theses abstract social benefits often mean little to voters, especially if these benefits require direct immediate personal sacrifices. In the case of tuition free college, Bernie Sanders wants to pay for it with a financial transaction tax. This is a small tax on individual transactions (0.5% on stocks, smaller on bonds and derivatives) and it mostly hits rich Wall Street firms and high frequency traders, but older people still don’t like the idea of paying even marginally higher taxes on their investment transactions, even though the cost to themselves is very limited and the benefits to society and to young people are quite large.

So instead, they’re more attracted to Hillary Clinton’s proposal, which does not include the tax but also would require young people to work throughout school. Working during school prevents young people from putting their full effort into their school work, and it also diminishes the time they have to exercise and develop their creative capacities and have enriching personal experiences. Few young people enjoy the kind of jobs that are available to college students. For some, the pressure of holding a job while going to school is too much, increasing the drop out rate. But older people like this proposal for three reasons:

  1. When they were younger, many of them had to work during school, and like frat brothers who were hazed as freshmen and then come to believe it’s their turn to do the hazing when they’re upperclassmen, they resent the idea of young people getting a better deal than they did and have rationalized the hazing as character building.
  2. Older people own the businesses that benefit from the cheap labor this policy forces college students to supply.
  3. Older people don’t want to pay the trivial 0.5% financial transaction tax on their stock trades.

These people don’t care about young people because the problems of youth are in their pasts. Their priority is to protect and maximize their savings and government entitlements in preparation for retirement. At every point in history, there are always more voters who are in the workforce or retired than there are voters who are in college or planning to be in college, so in democracies healthcare and pensions will almost always be given priority over education. There just aren’t enough people in our society who are still considering going to school:

US Population Under 30

The picture gets much worse once we take out those who are too young to vote:

US Population 18 to 30

This means that as much as democracy works against the interests of 18 to 30 year olds, it works even more against the interests of under 18’s. Minors cannot vote, so their political interests are only looked after to the extent that their parents actively choose to prioritize their children’s educational interests. Today, 57% of American households are childless, either because the person or people in the household never had children or because the children are grown. In both cases, the people in the household have no direct personal stake in the education system.

So in democracies, young people have to hope that a large enough percentage of older people will care about their interests out of social principle. Over the last few decades, this hasn’t been forthcoming–rising school costs have massively outpaced inflation:

While Clinton’s response is a bit unnecessarily callous, the republicans are showing young people overt contempt–their candidates believe that college costs should continue to rise until students are forced either to choose more economically viable majors or decline to attend college in the first place. Marco Rubio put the point this way:

Not only is this untrue (philosophy majors make much more than welders), but the principle of using financial ability to determine whether someone can attend a university or choose a career they’re passionate about rather than one that has an immediate financial return discriminates against people from poor backgrounds. Affluent families can pay to send their kids to nice schools, and they can even pay to help their kids study what they find interesting, but poor families don’t have the resources to do this, so the republicans’ college policy is anti-meritocratic and deepens existing ties between educational opportunity and economic class.

But should we expect anything else? In democracies, majorities rule, and majorities always have little reason to prioritize the issues and interests of the young. On some level, young people intuitively understand that the voting system is rigged against them, and that’s why they’ve never really been inclined to vote. Young people have been much easier to mobilize for non-violent direct action campaigns, like the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements in the 1960’s. Direct action campaigns can succeed without majority participation, because it doesn’t take a very large number of people to draw attention or be disruptive. Direct action also often entails physical activity–marching, occupying, and so on, sometimes in poor weather–which favors young people in good health.

This is one of the more insidious reasons that older people are inclined to make sure that young people are busy with student jobs and student debt–if you’re working your way through school or working to repay your debt, you don’t have time to participate heavily in direct action. On some level, many older people tend to believe that if young people aren’t kept busy with structured activities, they’ll be up to no good. In the same vein, when young people do participate in direct action, they are often misrepresented as criminals or thugs. This is all tied to the different political roles that young and old people have. Young people are more often concerned with education and with long-term big picture political issues. Older people are more often concerned with preserving the benefits they expect to receive in the short to medium term and the system they expect to deliver those benefits for them. Older people are more likely to fear big system changes because they have become heavily invested in their own expectations for their retirements, which are grounded in decades of experience under the extant system. Younger people are not yet firmly committed to specific life plans. This makes them more objective and allows them to dream bigger.

We need more political participation from young people, but scolding them for not voting isn’t the best way to get them involved. We need young people to feel politically efficacious. Progressive political campaigns need to get young people involved in non-violent direct action like they did during the 1960’s, when young people were able to accomplish many of their political goals, including civil rights legislation, an end to the draft, and a lowering of the voting age. These direct action movements should be mobilizing support and making news, and not just in election years. They should be highly organized and tied to specific goals and issues, rather than identity groups or vague concepts. Regardless of whether or not Bernie Sanders manages to win, the people involved in his campaign need to begin organizing political movements that can get young people directly involved in meaningful and impactful action and continue to draw attention to left egalitarian goals and issues. If Hillary Clinton is the next president, direct action of this kind will be the only way the left can effectively pressure Clinton to defend the interests of young people and other little guys that get the short end of the stick in our politics today. Young people should do more than just admire Sanders’ participation in direct action movements in the 60’s–they should start doing what he did when he was their age.