Young people aren’t particularly excited about Joe Biden. One strategy to change their mind? Convince them that they’re voting for a big, progressive crew.
Ben Wessel was nervous. Joe Biden had just won the Democratic nomination, and the youth-focused super PAC Wessel runs, NextGen America, now had to figure out how to persuade the generation of TikTok and trigger warnings to turn out to vote for a 77-year-old man best known for record players and malarkey.
Much of NextGen’s staff supported Senators Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. Wessel, who is 31 and a D.C. native, liked Warren best too. “There are so many people on our staff who were like, I don’t know if he was in my top three,” Wessel told me recently.
And Wessel’s worries about Biden weren’t just personal. Although the former vice president still leads Donald Trump in the polls overall, Trump backers are more likely to “strongly support” Trump than Biden backers are to strongly support Biden. Biden supporters said they were not as “excited to vote” for him as Trump supporters were to vote for Trump, nor are they as “enthusiastic” about their candidate, according to polls done in recent months. This problem is especially pronounced among young people, whose votes Sanders, not Biden, won in every state on Super Tuesday. Today, Biden’s net favorability rating is negative among voters under 35, according to a recent CNN analysis. (In response to a request for comment about these figures, Biden campaign spokesperson Jamal Brown said, “Poll after poll shows Joe Biden leading the race, and our campaign will be working hard to win every vote.”)
Biden’s victory in the primary launched a period of mourning and freaking out among young people, Wessel said. A dozen years ago, Barack Obama seemed like liberal Millennials’ cool college friend—slightly older, much smarter, potentially willing to get you weed. Millennials had a crush on Obama. He was our new bicycle. And Joe Biden—well, he was also there!
All of this left Wessel with a problem, given that his job is to get Democrats into office, regardless of whether they are cool. In May, NextGen announced it planned to spend $45 million to help Biden beat Trump.
To see what messages might resonate with young voters, Wessel and his colleagues turned to Global Strategy Group, a polling firm they often work with. In April, the firm began conducting focus groups through Zoom with young Democrats. Andrew Baumann, a senior vice president with Global Strategy Group, would moderate the discussion among a handful of voters, with Wessel and his colleagues messaging him on the side, suggesting ideas to test out.
At first, these focus groups only underscored Biden’s enthusiasm problem. In the words of one Hispanic Gen Z participant, “I honestly don’t know enough about Biden to really form an opinion.”
Some of the messages Baumann tried on the group didn’t perform very well. For instance, participants didn’t like being told that Trump is so bad, they simply must vote for Biden, even if they don’t particularly want to. “They needed positive reasons to do it,” Baumann told me. The “You must stop Trump” strategy didn’t work.
The message that did work would spring from Wessel’s mind, but he doesn’t remember exactly how it came to him. Wessel had been talking with Gretchen Barton, a researcher at Olson Zaltman, a firm that studies what makes consumers and voters tick. Barton told him about a study she did of young voters. These voters, she found, “had a rebellious hope in the face of overwhelming odds.” When asked to describe what voting felt like, one participant imagined Katniss Everdeen, from the Hunger Games franchise. “I feel like we’re living in this kind of dystopia where elites are using us as pawns for their own benefit, and people at the bottom are suffering,” the participant told Barton and her colleagues. “I identify with Katniss trying to give the people in my community a little more dignity and love and trying to make the world a better place. I feel like voting is an expression of this.”
Wessel thought back to the image of Katniss—a heroic underdog trying to defeat evil. He thought about how Millennials have been kicked in the butt by
- Hurricane Katrina,
- the Iraq War,
- the Great Recession, and
- the pandemic and the current economic collapse.
He thought about how, though many of the young people he knew liked Sanders better than Biden, others preferred Andrew Yang, or Warren, or Beto O’Rourke. “It was pretty all over the place,” he said. There wasn’t just one person they expected to swoop in and save them.
He came up with what NextGen now calls “the Democratic Avengers,” after the Marvel movie featuring an ensemble of superheroes. The idea is that by voting for Biden, you’re voting not just for him; you’re voting for all of the Democrats—many of them cool and hip!—that Biden will have in his orbit. Biden might borrow policies from Warren, for example, or have Sanders as an adviser. “If he is elected, it won’t just be Joe Biden,” this message reads. “Biden has pledged to build an administration filled with progressive leaders, experts, and activists from inside and outside of politics.”
This idea went over really well, according to Wessel and Baumann. In the focus groups, one white Millennial said “the saving grace of this (potential) presidency would be his crew. If he actually chooses true progressives and activists, I will be surprised but happy to admit I misjudged him.”
The Democratic Avengers has since become one of the group’s most popular messages about Biden, according to its surveys, and the idea has made its way into ads. One features action-movie music, a comic-book font, and various Democrats stylized as cartoon characters. Bernie Sanders, it reads, “supports a $15 minimum wage!” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is “champion of [the] Green New Deal!” Joe Biden, meanwhile, “is building the team that we want to run things!” A similar theme has also made its way into an ad by Students for [Ed] Markey, another old guy who recently triumphed somewhat unexpectedly. Recently, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert made a loving send-up with a similar Avengers theme.
The prospects of the Avengers strategy are still murky. The Avengers-style ad by NextGen had 145 views on YouTube when I last played it. Young voters’ cynicism about Biden and other traditional politicians might extend to a PAC’s dorky attempt to convince them that senators are superheroes.
I pointed out to Wessel that this message is exactly what conservative pundits say about a potential Biden presidency: that the aging moderate will be easily manipulated by more radical Democrats, such as Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders. He didn’t seem concerned. “The Republican Party saying it’s the Biden-Bernie agenda? Yeah, that’s totally motivating for our voters,” he said. “Keep it up.”
It was motivating for one woman I interviewed who was depressed about Biden’s nomination. Gemma Rose Cohen, a 33-year-old from San Francisco, told me it wasn’t that she didn’t like Biden, “just that I felt like he was from the last generation of Democrats.” She was still planning to vote for him, but she felt a little meh about it. But when I told her that Biden might surround himself with other, more leftist Democrats, she sounded more enthusiastic. “He’s already incorporating those progressive ideas and working with people that I love,” she said.
If the Avengers model works beyond focus groups and the occasional YouTube video, it could suggest that young people, or at least Democrats, or at least young Democrats, are actually more interested in liberal policies than they are in charismatic candidates. Rather than get fired up about Biden’s personality, 20-somethings might thrill to a coterie of technocrats who have concrete proposals to change the way the country works. Brent Cohen, the executive director of Generation Progress, another youth-voting advocacy group, told me that he’s not worried about the Biden enthusiasm gap because “young people vote based on policy.” And he and other Democratic strategists believe that when it comes to policy, the choice for young voters is clear.
Their incomes are flat. Their wealth is down. And Washington is aggravating future threats.
For Americans under the age of 40, the 21st century has resembled one long recession.
I realize that may sound like an exaggeration, given that the economy has now been growing for almost a decade. But the truth is that younger Americans have not benefited much.
Look at incomes, for starters. People between the ages of 25 and 34 were earning slightly less in 2017 than people in that same age group had been in 2000:
The wealth trends look even worse. Since the century’s start, median net worth has plummeted for every age group under 55:
.. Why is this happening? The main reason is a lack of economic dynamism. Not as many new companies have been forming since 2000 — for reasons that experts don’t totally understand — and existing companies have been expanding at a slower rate. (The pace of job cuts has also fallen, which is why the unemployment rate has stayed low.) Rather than starting new projects, companies are sitting on big piles of cash or distributing it to their shareholders.
This loss of dynamism hurts millennials and the younger Generation Z, even as baby boomers are often doing O.K. Because the layoff rate has declined since 2000, most older workers have been able to hold on to their jobs. For those who are retired, their income — through a combination of Social Security and 401(k)’s — still outpaces inflation on average.
But many younger workers are struggling to launch themselves into good-paying careers. They then lack the money to buy a first home or begin investing in the stock market. Yes, older workers face their own challenges, like age discrimination. Over all, though, the generational gap in both income and wealth is growing.
Given these trends, you’d think the government would be trying to help the young. But it’s not. If anything, federal and state policy is going in the other direction. Medicare and Social Security have been spared from cuts. Programs that benefit younger workers and families have not.
.. The biggest example is higher education. Over the past decade, states have cut college funding by an average of 16 percent per student. It’s a shocking form of economic myopia. In response, tuition has risen, and students have taken on more debt. Worst of all, many students attend colleges with high dropout rates and end up with debt but no degree.
And as badly as the government is treating the young today, the future looks even more ominous.
First, the national debt, while manageable now, is on pace to soar. The primary cause is the cost of health care: Most Americans receive far more in Medicare benefits than they paid in Medicare taxes. The Trump tax cut also plays a role. It is increasing the debt — and it mostly benefits older, affluent households.
Much of the Evangelical Industrial Complex has been created to make Christianity relevant, acceptable, and attractive to our consumer culture. Author and missional expert, Michael Frost, says this is a mistake. Instead, we should be emphasizing our faith’s weirdness and call more Christians to be eccentric—literally “off center.” Also this week: Phil and Skye take on “The Good Place,” a TV show about heaven without God or religion, the UK’s Supreme Court rules in favor of a Christian baker, and (fake) butt news from a Hawaiian seal hospital.
Choosing between a focus on race or class is the wrong choice to begin with... There’s a lot of discussion about how far left the Democratic Party should go these days. Is it destroying its electoral chances when its members call for a single-payer health plan or abolishing ICE?
That’s an important question, but the most important question is what story is the Democratic Party telling?
.. As Alasdair MacIntyre argued many years ago, you can’t know what to do unless you know what story you are a part of. Story is more important than policies.
.. The story Donald Trump tells is that we good-hearted, decent people of Middle America have been betrayed by stupid elites who screw us and been threatened by foreigners who are out to get us.
.. Back in the 1980s, the Democrats told two different stories. One was the compassion story associated with Mario Cuomo and Ted Kennedy: Too many Americans are poor, marginalized and left behind. We must care for our brothers and sisters because we are all one family.
.. The other was the brainpower/meritocracy story associated with Gary Hart and later the New Democrats: Americans are masters at innovation. We must use our best minds to come up with innovative plans to solve our problems and head into a new technological century.
I don’t hear those two stories much anymore. The Democrats are emphasizing fighting grit these days, not compassion or technocratic expertise.
Today’s Democrats tell two other stories.
- The first is the traditional socialist story associated with Bernie Sanders: America is rived by the class conflict. The bankers and the oligarchs are exploiting the middles. We need a fighter who will go out and battle concentrated economic power.
- The second is the multicultural story: American history has been marked by systems of oppression. Those who have been oppressed — women, African-Americans, Latinos — need to stand together and fight for justice.
.. Racial justice socialism seems to be the story of the contemporary left. This story effectively paints Trump as the villain on all fronts, and Democrats do face the distinct problem of how to run against a bully like Trump. But is it good politics for the entire Democratic Party to embrace it?
.. no national Democrat has ever fully embraced this story successfully. In fact, Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama went to great lengths to assure people they were not embracing this story.
- .. They did because Americans trust business more than the state, so socialism has never played well.
- They did it because if you throw race into your economic arguments you end up turning off potential allies in swing states like Wisconsin, Iowa and Pennsylvania.
- They did it because if you throw economics into your race arguments you end up dividing your coalitions on those issues.
In brief, Democrats have stayed away from this narrative because the long hoped-for alliance between oppressed racial minorities and the oppressed white working class has never materialized, and it looks very far from materializing now.
.. for 100 years, Democrats have tended to win with youthful optimism and not anger and indignation.
.. The Democrats who have won nationally almost all ran on generational change — on tired old America versus the possibilities of new America:
- F.D.R.’s New Deal,
- J.F.K.’s New Frontier,
- Bill Clinton’s bridge to the 21st century and
- Obama’s hope and change.
If I had to advise on a Democratic narrative I’d start with three premises:
- First, by 2020 everybody will be exhausted by the climate of negativism and hostility.
- Second, the core long-term fear is American decline; are we losing our mojo?
- Third, communities and nations don’t come together when they talk about their problems; they come together when they do something on behalf of their children.
Maybe the right narrative could be rebuilding social mobility for the young: America is failing its future. We need to rally around each other to build the families, communities, schools, training systems and other structures to make sure the next generation surpasses this one. People are doing this at the local level, and we need a series of unifying projects to make national progress.
.. This story pushes people toward reconciliation. It is future-oriented.
(By Ben Shapiro)
Young Americans are moving to the left. On virtually every issue, they support the Democratic party.
.. among likely American voters aged 18-29, fully 65 percent supported Democratic control of Congress. Polls consistently show greater warmth for socialism among millennials than their elders, greater sympathy for regulation, and less interest in protecting core constitutional liberties ranging from freedom of speech to freedom of religion
.. “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 20, you have no heart; if you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 40, you have no brain.” We tell ourselves that as Americans age, get married, have children, and pay taxes, they’ll inevitably move to the right.
.. Older conservatives, clutching the Trump presidency like a security blanket, sound less like steady advocates for calm and more like the man questioned about how things are going just after jumping off the top of the Empire State Building: “So far, so good.”
.. among Generation Xers (born between 1965 and 1980), 29 percent considered themselves liberal in 1994; today, that number has shot up to 43 percent.
..Typically, conservatives combat this sort of broad-based political change by pointing out the extremism of the left. During the Carter era, things certainly looked dark for the GOP, but conservatives were able to point out Carter’s incompetence; after Bill Clinton’s 1992 election victory, Republicans ran against Hillarycare and higher taxes; after Barack Obama’s landslide 2008 election, conservatives made war on Democrats’ overspending and regulatory overreach.
.. Thought leaders like Ta-Nehisi Coates have sought to replace the blue-collar base of Bill Clinton with the intersectional coalition of Barack Obama, using identity politics as a club against Americans who refuse to admit their “white privilege.”
.. Instead of looking at young Americans vs. older Americans, let’s look at young conservatives vs. older conservatives. The data show that young conservatives tend toward libertarianism on issues like drugs and sex but share the same priorities as older conservatives on fiscal and economic issues.
.. It makes sense, then, that liberal social values have resonated with younger Americans. They believe that the case for religious freedom is actually a case for religious bigotry and think that opposition to same-sex marriage reflects a hackneyed version of Old Testament sexual repression. Millennials were raised on the gospel of diversity and tolerance, not the Judeo-Christian moral standards of their grandparents.
.. But the leftward shift on social issues has infused even young religious conservatives. Forty-five percent of millennial evangelicals said they supported same-sex marriage as of 2014; the numbers are undoubtedly higher now
.. Young conservatives in general are far more likely to support gay rights and marijuana decriminalization as well as openness to immigration. But they’re not embracing gay rights and marijuana decriminalization for the same reasons as liberals. Young liberals embrace the LGBTQ agenda because they believe that the strictures of traditional sexual lifestyles are damaging and intolerant; some even embrace marijuana decriminalization because they think that broadening one’s experiences by smoking pot is a necessary precondition to maturity. Young conservatives are far more likely to support same-sex marriage and marijuana decriminalization because they believe that the government should leave everyone alone.
.. Young liberals call for tolerance because they want to promulgate a lifestyle, in other words; young conservatives call for tolerance because they actually believe in tolerance, even of lifestyle choices with which they disagree.
.. Tolerance is a moral touchstone, then, for young Americans on both the left and the right, but for different reasons.
.. All of which suggests young conservatives have a shot at winning over their friends and classmates: They’re operating in the same moral universe as many of their peers.
.. They’re small government, leave-everyone-alone libertarians. Young conservatives may not care about same-sex marriage, but they’re deeply pro-life and pro-gun.
.. They militantly oppose the myth of a racist, sexist America, even as they condemn individual cases of racism and sexism.
.. An incredible 82 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters between the ages of 18 and 24 say they “want another Republican to challenge President Trump for the party’s nomination in 2020.”
.. Why don’t young conservatives like Trump? It’s a question that baffles older conservatives. To older conservatives, Trump has been a savior.
.. Yes, he’s rough around the edges and impolitic; he’s crude about women and ignorant about policy. But he’s politically incorrect, and he speaks the language of the average American. What’s not to like?
.. Young conservatives, however, are more likely to see Trump as an obstacle to progress.
.. they see him mainly as a club the left can wield against the right in perpetuity—a political monster living under the bed that Democrats can dredge up every time conservatives seem to be making headway. They cite his egregious response to the Charlottesville alt-right march and subsequent terror attack and his willingness to wink and nod at the alt-right during the campaign; they point to his nasty comments regarding women, as well as his penchant for bedding porn stars; they cringe at his reported comments about immigrants and balk at his nearly endless list of prevarications.
.. Older conservatives judge Trump on his politics; younger conservatives judge Trump on his values.
.. older conservatives already fought the character battle over Bill Clinton, and they carry the scars from that ordeal. They remember arguing that Bill Clinton was unfit for office based on his treatment of women and his perjury, and they remember losing that argument. They remember arguing that character counts, even as Democrats held aloft the banner of “Lion of the Senate” Teddy Kennedy, who left a woman to drown in his car and made waitress sandwiches with fellow Democratic senator Chris Dodd.
.. Older conservatives remember Mitt Romney, the cleanest candidate for high office in modern American history, being destroyed by the media over pure nonsense. Older conservatives weren’t looking for character in 2016. They were looking for a hammer.
.. Younger conservatives, however, still feel that the battle over character is unfolding, which it is—among young Americans. Young Americans are still trying to decipher which party best reflects their moral values. Trump presents a serious problem for young conservatives trying to make the character argument in favor of the Republican party. Young conservatives didn’t see the battle of 2016 as a battle in which character had already lost. They saw it as presenting a question about their own character.
.. Young conservatives want to be able to tell their friends—all future voters, by the way—that they didn’t stand by silently when a candidate of their party said he could grab women by their private parts.
.. Second, older conservatives saw the 2016 election as a cataclysmic event, perhaps, indeed, the end of the republic. Hillary Clinton posed an existential threat to the future of the country.
.. They believed that Hillary, if elected, would usher in a generation-long rule of the hard left.
.. Donald Trump’s victory, in that view, was a miracle of biblical proportions, the hand of God reaching down and plucking a reality TV star out of the realms of cornball theatrics and plopping him into the Oval Office in the biggest upset in political history.
.. Younger conservatives were far more sanguine about 2016. In their view, Hillary would certainly have been a rotten president. But would she bar the door to all future conservative victories? Younger conservatives thought such an outcome unlikely.
After all, Republicans were likely to retain control of the Senate and the House.
Furthermore, Hillary was widely disliked, burdened by scandal, and unpopular even with her own base.
Older conservatives looked at young Americans and saw the end of the country; young conservatives looked at other young Americans and saw the possibility of change.
.. Third, because young conservatives and older conservatives disagreed about the consequences of 2016, they also disagreed about the level of risk to the Republican party.
.. Thanks to the crisis mentality of older Americans, the brand damage done by Trump became of secondary concern;
thanks to the lack of a crisis mentality among younger conservatives, the brand damage done by Trump became a crucial problem.
.. Young conservatives simply couldn’t understand how so many older conservatives were willing to dispose of key planks of the Republican platform to back Trump, or why so many older conservatives who had preached to them about personal values were suddenly gushing over a man who bragged about sleeping with other men’s wives.
.. Young conservatives knew that they were constantly being called racist, sexist, and homophobic by their comrades at school; they had always responded by saying that they and their party were being slandered. And they were right. But here was Trump—a man who, during the election cycle, feigned ignorance about David Duke—providing a custom-made caricature for the use of young liberals.
.. fourth area of controversy between older and younger conservatives regarding Trump: Is Trump an asset in the fight against political correctness?
.. 71 percent of Americans “believe that political correctness has silenced important discussions our society needs to have.”
.. Older conservatives resonate to the verbal brickbats thrown by President Trump. They see him as a bull in a china shop, but he is our bull in their china shop. That’s the reason Trump could so easily escape punishment for political snafus that would have crushed any other conservative. He routinely claimed his own blunderings were the result of his willingness to fight political correctness. “Sure, he says dumb stuff sometimes,” the argument goes, “but he’s also willing to label the New York Times fake news. Nobody else fights like Trump fights!”
.. Young conservatives, by contrast, see Trump’s strategy for fighting political correctness as counterproductive. It’s one thing to attack politically correct viewpoints with data —to “destroy,” in the common YouTube parlance, political opposition through superior intellectual heft. But saying innately offensive things and then justifying those offensive statements under the rubric of political incorrectness actually undermines the battle against political correctness.
.. The left wants to make the case that when conservatives say they’re being politically incorrect, they’re actually covering for their own bigotry; lending that case a helping hand by promoting bigotry under the guise of fighting political correctness does the left’s work for it.
.. conservatives must stop promoting the notion that policy victories translate to political victory. Foolishly hopeful Republican legislators keep repeating the tired nostrum that if they simply pursue solid policy, young Americans will follow—if they pass tax cuts, cut regulation, and build up the military, they’ll stave off the impending generational electoral tsunami.
.. That argument did little to stir older Americans who had been through the political wars; it didn’t upset seasoned politics-watchers who knew that Hillary Clinton was more than a little deplorable herself. But it worked among young Americans, and it will continue to work so long as conservatives’ response is “but Hillary.”
.. So, how should conservatives respond?
They should respond by acting morally and arguing morally.
First, and most pressingly, with regard to President Trump this means condemning bad behavior.
.. Young Americans aren’t judging Trump. They’ve already judged him. They’re judging you and determining whether or not they can ever vote for the same candidates you endorse based on whether or not they admire your character.
.. Second, conservatives must argue in moral terms, and they must use moral terminology young Americans understand. This means learning to argue on secular grounds rather than religious grounds and recognizing that tolerance is a key value to young Americans.
.. Arguing in secular terms doesn’t mean arguing without reference to values. It means arguing against the controlling hand of the left. Capitalism is good because you own your own labor and you have the right to exchange that labor for someone else’s labor and no one has the right to steal your labor from you. Socialism is evil because it says that a third party can tell you what your labor is worth.
.. Political correctness and identity politics are evil because they utilize censorship to box you into a group identity that denies your individuality.
.. Most of all, conservatives can’t lose hope. A crisis mentality breeds poor decisions and short-term thinking that sacrifices long-term interests. We’ve seen discouraging trendlines before. But they can be reversed. In 1976, it would have been difficult to imagine the Reagan Revolution that was just four years away.
It’s not that the students are hopeless. They are dedicating their lives to social change. It’s just that they have trouble naming institutions that work.
.. The second large theme was the loss of faith in the American idea. I told them that when I went to public school the American history curriculum was certainly liberal, but the primary emotion was gratitude. We were the lucky inheritors of Jefferson and Madison, Whitman and Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Kennedy and King. Our ancestors left oppression, crossed a wilderness and are trying to build a promised land.
.. Others made it clear that the American story is mostly a story of oppression and guilt. “You come to realize the U.S. is this incredibly imperfect place.” “I don’t have a sense of being proud to be an American.” Others didn’t recognize an American identity at all: “The U.S. doesn’t have a unified culture the way other places do,” one said.
.. I asked them to name the defining challenge of their generation. Several mentioned the decline of the nation-state and the threats to democracy. A few mentioned inequality, climate change and a spiritual crisis of meaning. “America is undergoing a renegotiation of the terms of who is powerful,”
.. I asked the students what change agents they had faith in. They almost always mentioned somebody local, decentralized and on the ground — teachers, community organizers.
.. One pointed out that today’s successful movements, like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, don’t have famous figureheads or centralized structures.
.. one big challenge for this generation is determining how to take good things that are happening on the local level and translate them to the national level, where the problems are
.. I was also struck by pervasive but subtle hunger for a change in the emotional tenor of life. “We’re more connected but we’re more apart,” one student lamented. Again and again, students expressed a hunger for social and emotional bonding, for a shift from guilt and accusation toward empathy. “How do you create relationship?” one student asked. That may be the longing that undergirds all others.