The Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School tracks the perceptions of young voters aged 18 to 29 years old with their semi-annual national polls. In the spring of 2021, pollsters found that despite the chaotic state of American politics, hope for the country, particularly among young people of color, was rising dramatically. During our Young Social Workers Speak panel discussion on Social Work Day on the Hill, our panelists expressed optimism that the country is not doomed to failure. One precocious panelist, Pilar Bonilla, said her source of optimism stems from the fact that many of the older, set-in-their-ways troublemakers will be leaving the planet in the coming years. I reminded her that people are living longer, and some of us oldheads might be hanging around for a while.
She is correct about the growing influence of young voters. Young voters will be the majority of eligible voters by 2028 and comprise 60 percent of voters by 2036. They tend to be less ideological and lean more progressive than their elders. They were credited as the difference makers in President Joe Biden’s securing the win over Donald Trump and helping the Democrats tamp down the projective red wave that generally gives the opposition party disproportionate numbers in the 2022 midterm elections. Republicans are responding by trying to make it more difficult for young people to vote.
Still, they came out to vote in overwhelming numbers last week in Wisconsin to elect the progressive Democrat to the State Supreme Court, ensuring abortion rights will be protected in the state. Republicans attributed their loss to the large number of students at the University of Wisconsin who showed up for an election they would usually ignore. Likewise, young Chicago voters turned out in record numbers to elect Brandon Johnson mayor over his “tough on crime” Democratic opponent.
The idea of a “wait until they’re dead strategy” triggered a reminder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait. Democracy is hanging in the balance. What young voters do today matters. Our poorly regulated free market capitalism is teetering on the brink of collapse as we slouch towards oligarchy. Global warming is wreaking havoc throughout the world, and we are nearing a tipping point, according to a new report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Economic inequality and slowing social mobility continue unabated. There are 5,550 superyachts floating on the seas while nearly one billion people struggle to eat.
According to a 2020 poll by the Pew Research Center, the public is taking notice. Young people have more negative views about the impact of billionaires. We have moved away from the view that poor people are lazy and morally bereft. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults (65%) say the main reason people are rich is their advantages, and even more (71%) attribute being poor to facing more obstacles. Half of young people aged 18 to 29 believe too many billionaires are bad for the country. While the economy appears to be in good shape, there are concerns about the future.
Democrats have benefited from young voters, although many young voters are disappointed with the party’s performance. According to the Harvard IOP Fall 2022 Youth Poll, nearly two of three respondents favored Democratic control Congress, while President Biden’s approval rating hovers around 39 percent. Democrats hold a 41 to 26 percent advantage over Republicans. Democrats have bought into the neoliberalism world order rather than forcefully respond to young voters’ policy choices. Instead of promoting major change, Democrats appear content to play the game by outraising and outspending Republicans.
Democrats have also benefited from conservative Republicans’ overreach on reproductive rights. They are paying a significant political price for the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. The recent ruling by Trump-appointed U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk revoking FDA approval of the abortion-inducing drug Mifepristone has riled women. Young women voters are going to the polls to express their anger. I don’t think we will be hearing much about banning Tik Tok before the 2024 elections.
Social workers must be engaged in these discussions and struggles to create a functioning multiracial democracy. We should continue our efforts to provide evidence-based interventions to help people cope, but we must do more to address the sociopolitical environment. Our Code of Ethics demands that we do.