Democrats have been knocked down, and they cannot get back up without millennials' enthusiastic support.
There is no sugar-coating the fact that this is a rough time for the Democratic Party. Despite gaining some seats, the party is still firmly in the minority of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Losses in state legislatures and governors' offices are even more drastic outside of a few solid blue states. Nonetheless, demographic trends could still favor the Democrats over the long term as millennials age and the country grows more diverse. There are many valid critiques of this point in the wake of the 2016 election, but if I had to choose either party's demographic outlook for the next few decades, I would take the Democrats' base every time. Nonetheless, demographics are not destiny, and the Democratic Party must embrace the country's younger generations in order to return to power.
Millennials' left-leaning political preferences are among the Democratic Party's greatest strengths. Millennials overtook the Baby Boomer generation in 2016 as the largest potential share of the electorate for the first time. This bloc of potential voters prefer the Democratic Party by a margin of over 20 percentage points. Communities of color are the youngest and fastest growing demographic groups in the United States, and they largely support Democrats. Over decades to come, millennials' political power will only grow. If the Democratic Party hopes to rise in strength alongside them, it needs a strategy to get millennials involved and maintain their enthusiasm for the Democratic agenda.
As things stand, however, millennials exercise low levels of political engagement compared to older generations. To some extent, this problem will decline over time. Young Americans, after all, have registered low voter turnout levels for generations, only to become more active as they age. I also suspect that President Trump's uniquely awful political agenda will drive higher levels of political engagement by millennials all by itself. Still, the Democratic Party would risk missing the opportunity of a lifetime if it fails to leverage young voters to its electoral advantage.
While the Democrats' political ideology is undoubtedly more appealing to millennials than the Republican agenda, Democratic leaders should not take their support for granted. Recent elections have shown that young voters rally around a different set of issues than older voters, and the Democratic Party must make room for those priorities when plotting their agenda. The Democrats must also put millennials in positions of power to make this commitment clear.
Higher Education Reform
Millennials are the first generation to truly face the necessity of higher education (though not necessarily a traditional four-year degree) to their long-term economic success. In pursuit of this goal, millennials have driven themselves into unprecedented levels of debt, even as their salaries and job prospects have stagnated.
The status quo - in which even a public education can leave a student indebted for most of their working life - is simply not sustainable. Millennials are desperately looking for a solution to this problem. It is no surprise that Sen. Bernie Sanders was able to win over an enormous swath of Democratic primary voters by promising relief, even as virtually every other candidate focused on other issues. While there's room for debate on specific policy solutions, the Democrats must put higher education and tuition reform at the top of their agenda. Millennials expect nothing less.
Even as its voters skew younger, the Democratic Party's leadership is largely made up of older people. The average age of the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives is 71, a number reduced somewhat by 55 year-old Rep. Crowley. The average age of Democratic leaders in the Senate is little better at just under 65. This is largely the result of long-held congressional norms that reward seniority, but such practices are not sufficient if the Democrats truly wish to represent the voters who elect them. In this case, Democrats should imitate congressional Republicans, who shuffle their leadership routinely in order to showcase their ascendant members.
Outside of its congressional leadership, the Democratic Party should encourage more millennials to run for office at every level. With Barack Obama out of office, millennials are eager to see themselves and their priorities represented in government. Already, young people are taking the reigns of the progressive movement on their own. The first congressional race of the Trump Administration is being contested by Jon Ossoff, a 30 year-old millennial from Georgia. Meanwhile, Democratic organizers have founded Run for Something, an organization designed to recruit and train millennials to run for public office. These efforts deserve both support and encouragement from areas of the Democratic "establishment" that have been traditionally resistant to change.
There are enormous opportunities to get millennials involved in politics at the local level, where Democrats have been undoubtedly lacking in recent years. Entire metropolitan areas have been transformed due to millennials' shifting education and employment trends. It is frankly absurd that more young people have not been given a stake in decision making within these communities.
Greater involvement by millennials would solve multiple problems at once for the Democratic Party. First, giving young people a stake in local politics will help improve their levels of political engagement overall. Quite simply, millennials will participate if they feel that their voices will be influential and taken seriously. Furthermore, engagement at the local level will help build the Democratic Party's often-criticized bench of potential candidates.
Why it Matters
With party identification on the decline across the country, securing support for the future is a matter of survival for both of the United States' major political parties. For Democrats in particular, enthusiastic support from millennials will be crucial to the party's medium to long-term success. Instead of waiting for demographics to pose an existential crisis, the Democrats should get ahead of the curve and begin the process of empowering millenials now.