Why the young college vote matters in 2020

Julia Prager-Hessel, Contributing Writer

Ashley Chen | Production Manager

Young people across the country have become increasingly politically active over the last two presidencies, with explosive reactions first to a young liberal making promises of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ and then a conservative billionaire speaking to unprecedented anger and disillusionment.

Many students at Tulane and at schools across the country find themselves wondering why Bernie did not win in 2016 and why he has fallen significantly behind Biden this year, as it seems like every liberal on campus is a ‘BernieBro.’ That’s because of the loud, yet relatively weak nature of the youth vote — the 18-24 year-olds who form a voting demographic in American politics. 

The youth vote — historically a liberal force — did not carry the Democrats in 2016, nor is it large enough to propel Bernie Sanders now. That’s because young Americans have become more dissatisfied with the artificiality of politics and the hypocrisy in our electoral system, and they have chosen to participate in ways other than voting. They write op-eds, phone bank for candidates and subscribe to political revolution pages and passionate Instagram posts.

Whether they vote or not, the 18-24 year old demographic of Democrats swing almost entirely for Sanders, and it has more to do with our age than we realize.

The Youth Vote in 2020

The youth vote has not leaned toward Joe Biden during this primary cycle. College-age voters know him only as President Obama’s right-hand man, not for his individual achievements, probably because his 30+ years in the Senate ended while most current college students were still in elementary school. In recent years, Biden has been a professor and a grandfather, and our generation is more vulnerable to political attacks aimed at him because we were not old enough to witness him in the limelight or judge his political character in its historical context.

This situation is in stark contrast to that of Bernie Sanders, who has been the beneficiary of the youth vote. Sanders launched an insurgency campaign in 2016 that pulled the Democratic Party to the left and created a rivalry with one of the most prominent politicians — and women — of our time in Hillary Clinton. 

Sanders’ politics have been at the forefront of the American political consciousness for the last five years, whereas it is up to those aged 40 and older to remember the nearly 50-year prime of Joe Biden. No one can fool us about what Sanders has stood for, but if a millennial on Facebook criticizes Biden for a deal in the Senate made decades ago, we do not have the years to contextualize it or even doubt its veracity.

Bernie started campaigning for 2020 in 2015 and has not stopped. Biden has been on vacation.

Not only does the youth vote swing toward Bernie because of Biden’s inactivity in recent years, but we have only been old enough to really follow two administrations first-hand: Obama’s, who filled left-wingers with hope, and Trump’s, who filled them with rage. Both figures are polarizing and historic in their own ways, and it is because of the previous two revolutions that young people think revolution is possible again.

College-aged students have been taught from experience that these historic administrations are the norm, not the exception. Older generations disagree, and their having witnessed more moderate presidencies contributes to why Democrats above 40 support in large numbers for Biden. Young people so often accuse those who support Biden of playing it too safe, but they should consider the possibility that while Bernie is a known quantity to us, Biden is the known quantity to older generations. 

Moving Forward

On one hand, older generations could take note of the turning political tide. With the polarization of the Democratic and Republican parties, moderate candidates are less desired by both groups. On the other hand, younger people could learn from their parents and allow youth voters’ hopefulness for a revolution lead to safer options for meaningful, if incremental, change. 

There are dangers to both plans. In diving unapologetically into our most extreme desires for justice, our election runs the risk of giving us two radical candidates on each side. The country, then, could end up voting along strict party lines, decreasing both our willingness to look at candidates as individuals and the likelihood of bipartisan compromise to actually accomplish change.

When we sacrifice our ideals for perceived pragmatism, however, the United States becomes less of an experiment in how wonderful democracy can be and succumbs to its lesser evils of institutionalized racism, sexism, and all that comes with being stuck in its ways without the promise of hope, change or massively needed progress.

Young people therefore must advocate for our ideals with our most aggressive sense of righteousness while listening to and compromising with those who also seek to enact justice even if their ideals are different from ours. 

That means we must cast votes with our conscience for the candidate we feel will best represent those ideals out of the options given. Protest votes and radical choices from privileged college students only serve to inhibit the political process. They end up hurting those whose fates are actually held in the hands of who we elect to the highest office in the United States.