The Establishment’s Mistake: Ignoring the Youth Vote
If you’ve been paying attention, election results aren’t turning out the way that the pollsters and the pundits expected them to in four of the most high-profile recent elections in Western democratic countries.
In the highly contentious 2015 Canadian federal election, at the beginning of the campaign it looked as though people were angry enough that they were ready to oust the Conservative government under Stephen Harper that had reigned for a decade, but the NDP was clearly the front runner. By the beginning of August, Maclean’s Magazine, a middle-right leaning magazine that is highly respected in Canada for its analysis of business and politics, said it was anybody’s game. And of course, at the last minute, what actually happened was that the Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau swept in to claim the victory.
In the 2016 United States Presidential election, it was clear to everyone that Hillary Clinton was going to win, and by a landslide. Of course, though she did win the popular vote, that’s not what actually happened.
Most pundits were refusing to call the 2017 French election. But of course most of the world breathed a sigh of relief when Emmanuel Macron beat far-right Front National leader Marine LePen.
And in Britain just this past month, Elizabeth May and the Conservative Party of the UK called a snap election, smugly confident that this would result in the vast majority needed to give them a free hand in Brexit negotiations. But it didn’t turn out that way. The Labour Party under democratic socialist Jeremy Corbyn showed so well that they stole the Conservative majority, endangering their control of government to the point that they had to make a devil’s bargain to keep power, and most pundits treated it like a victory for Corbyn, rather than May’s defeat. This, despite the fact that the Conservatives won their highest vote share since 1983, rivaling their results under the Iron Lady, and despite sabotage within Corbyn’s own party from people who thought he was running too far to the left.
So what gives? How could these expert opinions have been so wildly inaccurate?
I believe it comes from an Establishment tradition of underestimating the youth vote. This has been exacerbated in recent years by the difficulty of polling young people, who do not participate in traditional models like phone polls, and whose voices on social media are being drowned by fake accounts and internet bots. But in part, it’s deliberate.
It is not in the Establishment’s interests for the youth to vote. They engage in a policy of denigrating the importance of the youth in election results. They project the impression, furthered by the media, that the youth do not care about politics, and their vote won’t matter anyway because they’re so outnumbered by other demographics. Conservative and right-wing parties, knowing that they don’t do as well when more people show up to vote, institute policies when they’re in power that make it more difficult to register, such as requiring ID under the pretense of “voter fraud,” something that is more difficult for young and poor people to acquire.
This policy is threatening them at the polls. Galvanized by consistent policies that our youth rightfully see as contrary to their values and destructive of their future, there is a huge movement in today’s youth to be more politically involved. If the system is the only way to change the future, they will engage, and when they do, sh*t gets real.
The voter turnout at the Canadian 2015 election was the highest in 2 decades. New voters and the youth demographic were considerably more involved than in previous years. And they were overwhelmingly behind Justin Trudeau. Some cynically claim it was because of the Liberal position on legalizing cannabis (and there may be some truth in that); others think maybe it was just that Trudeau was the youngest of the candidates; still others believe it was genuinely because the Liberal Party made an effort to engage young voters. Whatever the reason, it worked.
In the UK general election a massive surge of young voters almost turned the tide completely in the Labour Party’s favour. More than a million new voters registered in the month that Ms. May and the Conservatives allowed before the UK election. The youth turnout was the highest in 25 years, according to the statistics, and they were mostly behind the Labour Party and its socialist platform.
On the other hand, in some places, youth engagement and this policy of ignoring the youth vote seemed to benefit the New Right more than the left. Early polls suggested that almost half of France’s youth vote supported LePen and the Front National (though later this was amended to 34% of the youth vote, just a little more than her typical support level across the voting spectrum.) And of course the American election remains a tangled, ugly mess, vote tampering from outside forces aside. But it’s clear that one of the factors that influenced that election was that the youth supported Bernie Sanders, felt he was cheated of the Democratic nomination, and decided to cast their votes on third parties or on no one instead.
Speculation runs rampant among political pundits as to why the youth supported one candidate or party or another. Some say that the parties who engaged the most with social media did better among the youth than those who did not. If you discount the fact that Trump may have won because the millennials opted out of Clinton, this would seem consistent. And this could also be confusing cause with effect. Young people drive social media, so more young people are going to be engaged by definition.
Others disparagingly observe that “populists” are doing better among younger voters. I think this is an oversimplification. The truth is that young people are angry. They know that not only is the existing system not working, it is rigged against them and is selling away their futures. They have no loyalty to their companies because they know their companies have no loyalty to them; and I think the same holds true in politics.
But does that mean they will jump on any populist parade that comes along? I don’t think so. The election results in the US tell us that. When given the best of bad options, they’ll choose not to choose, and without the youth to help contest them, that allowed the core right wing supporters to take the victory.
The political wisdom suggests that middle-centrists are the best the left can do in a popular vote. But remember, the political pundits are paid mostly by multi-million dollar media corporations, who are clearly invested in the Establishment, corporate interest. Left-wing policies cut into their profit margin.
When given the option, young voters choose the candidate they perceive as being the most Progressive, as evidenced in the Canadian and UK federal elections. They want change, and they overwhelmingly vote in a way that suggests that they value progressive change.
So, what can the Establishment do to win over young voters, which is becoming a more and more significant demographic with every passing year, as slowly the Baby Boomers fade into the sunset? They can run on more Progressive, left-wing platforms, and then do the things they’ve promised when they get elected.
And if you’re a young voter reading this, and you’ve been feeling despair, I hope if nothing else this shows you that the path to victory is to get involved in the process at a grassroots level. Primary your Senators, register to vote, join movements like #Resist. Because you are a far more powerful force than you know, and our hopes for the future rest upon you.