Biden’s gambit to lock in the youth vote for Democrats
The kids are alright, but they are moving left — and some elder politicians are moving left with them.
In a July poll, Gen Z’ers (born after 1996) viewed socialism more favorably than capitalism. A 2019 poll showed Gen Z’ers and Millennials (born after 1980) with equally favorable views of the two economic systems.
America’s youth aren’t calling each other “comrade.” Rather, there isn’t a knee-jerk anti-socialism reaction compared to older generations who came of age during the Cold War. The formative years of today’s youth were characterized by capitalism challenges — the financial crisis, the long but slow economic recovery, and the pandemic recession (albeit with robust pharmacological, fiscal, and monetary responses).
Kids today define “socialism” differently, viewing it as representing greater equality or government activism rather than government ownership or modified communism. A “helping hand” is preferable to the “invisible hand” of a free-market economy.
America’s elderly can’t just dismiss these ‘krazy kids.’ Millennials in 2019 surpassed Baby Boomers as the largest generation. In the 2020 election, Millennials and Gen Z’ers made up nearly one-third of all voters, while Boomers and older generations declined to under 50 percent of the electorate. This trend will only continue; in fact, the younger generations could constitute the largest vote share as soon as 2024.
The kids aren’t necessarily going through an angsty socialist phase. The most formative time for the development of voting preferences is between the ages of 14 and 24. Those views tend to stick with a voter well into future election cycles. In a race to capture this growing generation of voters, Democrats have an early advantage, winning Millennials and Gen Z’ers by 20 points in 2020.
Despite being the largest generation, Millennials make up just 6 percent of Congress. Constitutional age limits prohibit Gen Z’ers from holding office, although some can run come 2022. So, it’s up to America’s gerontocracy to win this group over.
To that end, President Biden is making a go of it. He’s not an obvious champion of America’s youth. The oldest president ever, Biden is the consummate institutionalist who began his career representing the “corporate state of Delaware” eight years before the first Millennials were born. He’s unhip to issues like cannabis legalization that are overwhelmingly popular with younger Americans. Biden is also uneager to take sweeping action on student debt forgiveness.
Yet FDR was an unlikely New Deal icon as a New York patrician, and LBJ was an unlikely civil rights champion as a Southern Democrat. Biden wants his presidency to be “transformational” not “transitional” and is looking towards history to best position his own legacy and the Democratic Party.
Having a keen understanding of where the middle of his country and party are, Biden spots an opening where both extremes in a politically polarized era want to reform American capitalism. He’s taking a “whole-of-government” approach with an overarching theme that the government, in fact, may know better than the market. From climate change to industrial policy to corporate taxation, Biden is channeling “Scranton Joe” populism over “Corporate Joe” pragmatism. It’s a $6 trillion legislative agenda that rivals the likes of FDR and LBJ.
Biden’s latest move — a competition executive order — goes to the heart of American capitalism. Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan and Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust-designate Jonathan Kanter are among the band of hipster antitrusters who want to make what’s old cool again in embracing a “New Brandeis” approach to regulating corporate power. Instead of looking at just prices, Biden’s antitrust personnel are focused on the impact to small businesses, workers, and democratic norms. If implemented, it could upend 40 years of competition policy.
It’s too soon to declare America’s youth as Biden-stans. They are the most supportive of regulating big businesses, but they are also big fans of some of them. Amazon has a higher favorability rating among young Americans than Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and even the Black Lives Matter movement.
Biden is undertaking a major experiment of the government’s role in capitalism. But experiments can fail. If the Biden agenda contributes to spiraling inflation or an Amazon that no longer offers the prices and accessibility consumers enjoy, it could put off a generation of young Americans to Democratic policies.
Waiting in the wings is a Republican Party eager to call the Democratic agenda a failed socialist experiment.
In the end, the kids could be all right.
Ben Koltun is the director of research at Beacon Policy Advisors LLC, an independent policy research firm based in Washington, DC. He’s also a Millennial.