Technology

Gen Z takes control of its future

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Seventy years ago, in November 1952, the Peanuts comic strip debuted a new gag: Lucy holds a football for Charlie Brown to kick, then pulls it away at the last minute. 

Fifty years ago, in November 1972, the Democratic Party began its own Lucy-and-the-football ritual. The youth vote — empowered by the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 — meant there were 25 million potential new voters. Surely those kids protesting Vietnam would swing the election to antiwar Democrat George McGovern? Nope: Richard Nixon won in a landslide. Most young voters hadn’t even registered to vote, and the ones that did were more Republican than anyone expected. 

Democrats have been taking runs at the youth vote football ever since. I’m old enough to remember 2004, when another war president was supposed to be ousted by an Eminem protest song, and 2016, when Hillary Clinton wanted young voters to “Pokémon Go to the polls.” Barack Obama brought a surge of young voters in his 2008 landslide, but it may not have been decisive and definitely didn’t stick; youth turnout cratered in Obama’s disastrous 2010 midterms.  

But November 2022 saw the third straight U.S. election with an unusually high turnout of 18 to 29 year olds, and the first with Joe Biden in the White House. This time, a Democratic president’s low approval ratings didn’t matter. Gen Z is showing up in large enough numbers to swing tight races. They’re pushing Democrats in a progressive direction. Their concerns (climate change, abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, gun safety) are massive, generational problems that won’t be fixed in one election cycle. They’re in it for the long haul.  

Even before enough votes were counted to determine control of Congress, the GOP was in full-scale meltdown about Gen Z’s role in future elections. Senator Ted Cruz feared Democrats “governing as whacked-out lefty nut jobs” had “excited young voters who came out in massive numbers.” A podcast host for right-wing youth group TPUSA warned “Gen Z is willing to vote and it’s not going to be for us.” One far-right advocacy group founder tweeted that “Gen Z is destroying this country at the ballot box,” then suggested repealing the 26th Amendment: “raise the voting age to 21.”  

The right is right to be worried. Around 27 percent of eligible 18-29 year olds showed up at the polls, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). In swing states, the number was 31 percent. That may not sound like much, but it’s the second highest midterm youth vote turnout ever after 2018, when Trump was president. 

And yes, Gen Z definitely leans Democratic: 63 percent voted for Democrats in House races in ’22, according to a nationwide exit poll from Edison Research; roughly the same as the 65 percent support for Biden in 2020 among 18-24 year olds. 

Without the youth vote, there’s no way John Fetterman would have seen off Dr. Oz in the Democrats’ only Senate seat flip of 2022. The 18-29 year old vote in Pennsylvania was lopsided in Fetterman’s favor by 42 percent, more than enough to cancel out Oz’s Boomer supporters. CIRCLE points to that race, the Georgia Senate vote now heading to a runoff, and the Wisconsin governor’s race as three crucial Democratic elections where young voters tipped the balance.  

Three national elections make a trend that no politician, pundit, or party dare ignore – especially as more than half of Gen Z is currently under 18. In 2024, according to the nonpartisan States of Change project, the massive post-1945 Baby Boom generation will drop to just 25 percent of the electorate. Generation X, my people, will hold steady at 25 percent. Meanwhile, Gen Z and their millennial elders (who started turning 40 last year) will take the lion’s share of the electorate at 45 percent. 

What does that mean? Well, it’s entirely possible that no U.S. president will be elected again without majority support from this younger, wiser, more activist cohort. It means that Democrats have learned to keep the youth vote on board with popular policies like Biden’s student loan forgiveness, rather than patronizing Pokémon talk. Expect more of the former from this administration. 

We can also expect more legislators like Maxwell Alejandro Frost, 25, who will become the first Gen Z member of Congress in January. Frost ran on an unapologetically progressive platform: Medicare for all, affordable housing, environmental justice, and creating a “national taskforce” to end the gun violence that has become the leading cause of death for children.  

That suggests we can expect more primary fights for obstructionist Democrats, like Arizona Senator Krysten Sinema, who defy the will of younger voters. As for Republicans, they’re likely to be destroyed at a national level if they keep pursuing populist distractions. You can’t keep claiming that crime is higher in blue cities than it is in red states; the kids know how to use Google. You can’t raise race-baiting issues like the supposed “border crisis” with the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history

You certainly can’t keep associating your brand with the election-denying nightmare that is Donald Trump. Even the next most likely candidate, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, will go down in flames if he keeps denying climate change in the face of hurricanes drowning his state, or signing abortion bans. All of the misinformation tactics that drove “low-information voters” to the polls won’t work on a generation that is constantly having to correct their parents’ Facebook posts. This is a high-information voting bloc, and it has learned how to fact-check on the fly. 

Will Republicans listen? That’s a great question. Decades of success with older voters have made the GOP uniquely vulnerable to the future. The party has stood on the sidelines and laughed at the Democrats’ relentless pursuit of young voters ever since 1972. It keeps edging further to the right, thanks to its own activists launching and supporting primary challenges. They haven’t just been ignoring the top concerns of younger voters; they have been actively mocking and legislating against them.

So unless something radically changes inside the GOP in this election cycle, the 2024 race – and everything beyond – will look very different. Then it may be Republicans running up to the youth vote football like Charlie Brown, with progressive Gen Z activists playing Lucy. 

Indeed, it’s not outside the realm of reason to suggest that U.S. politics in the future may be a battle between two (or more) very different parties – centrists versus progressives, perhaps. Political parties have died out in American politics before (anyone remember the Whigs?), and you’d be hard pressed to find Gen Z support for 82-year-old Nancy Pelosi’s claim that the country needs a strong Republican party

The ball’s on your side of the field, GOP. And Lucy is waiting.   

   

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