Democrats’ Feedback Problem and the Millennial Vote

May 8, 2018
Zhivko Illeieff

Recently, a Reuters poll indicated that Democrats are losing support from those in the millennial birth cohort (people born in 1981 to 1996, according to PEW).

“Two years ago, young white people favored Democrats over Republicans for Congress by a margin of 47 to 33 percent,” the article states,”that gap vanished by this year, with 39 percent supporting each party.”

Two years after Democrats lost to the Donald, they are losing support from one of their core constituencies. Shouldn’t this be BIG NEWS? 

First of all, millennials’ rejection of the Democratic Party is hardly surprising. After all, the Party’s most recent presidential candidate called her opponent’s supporters, most of whom millennials, “basement dwellers” and Trump’s supportersbasket of deplorables.” To add to that, Joe Biden, rumored to be the Democrats’ 2020 front-runner, recently told young people to “give him a break.” All in all, Establishment Democrats seem to get off on “tough love” messaging. When that strategy isn’t succeeding, their inability to communicate authentically with millennials becomes even more apparent.

Democrats’ inability to engage members of the millennial birth cohort is exemplified by two common narratives that have been used to explain millennials’ lack of support for the Democratic Party—the myths of the “Bernie Bro” and the apathetic millennial voter. 

The first narrative is a remnant of the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primaries. Simply put, this is the notion that some of Bernie Sanders’s supporters, dubbed as “Bernie Bros,” are sexist, intolerant, idealistic, impractical, and overall bad for the Party. One of the articles on the topic describes “Bernie Bros” as “male, white, and well-educated.” According to the author, “[t]he Berniebro asserts that this country needs highly principled, pie-in-the-sky progressive policies, regardless of how likely they are to become legislation.” Some articles describe “Bernie Bro” behavior as “derogatory and misogynistic.”

Perhaps bifurcating Democrats’ core constituency was not a good idea for the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in general, considering the manner in which they were caught. The 2017 DNC leaks clearly showed that operatives within the DNC used the term to vet journalists’ loyalty and went as far as to fabricate an anti-Bernie narrative.

“Wondering if there’s a good Bernie narrative for a story, which is that Bernie never ever had his act together, that his campaign was a mess,” DNC’s former national press secretary wrote to another operative, “It’s not a DNC conspiracy, it’s because they never had their act together.”

The DNC, perhaps feeling a bit pushed to the wall, didn’t even acknowledge the content of the leaks and instead chose to pin the “mishap” on Russia. Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned from her post as chair of the DNC after the leaks.

Needless to say, the “Bernie Bro” narrative also alienated millions of women who support Sanders. In 2016, a USA Today/Rock the Vote poll found Sanders nationally “with a 19-point lead over front-runner Hillary Clinton, 50 percent to 31 percent, among Democratic and independent women ages 18 to 34.”

It goes without saying that smearing millions of potential women voters with a term reserved for college jocks is about the cheapest campaign tactic in the book, as Glenn Greenwald has described the “Bernie Bro” narrative.

Much like calling a segment of the population “deplorable,” one would think that smearing ambiguously defined sections of the electorate is an ineffective political strategy. The Democrats tried to copy far right propaganda techniques and failed. First, because they got caught; and second, because the GOP/Fox News propaganda team is much better at that game. Using talking points in favor of corporatism, and engaging in smear tactics based on ageism and dumbed-down understanding of democratic socialism is what Fox News does best. Unfortunately, this didn’t stop Establishment Democrats from calling common sense proposals with wide public support a “pie in the sky.”

But the Democrats don’t even have a pie in the sky. Voting records indicate that, despite calls to Resist™, D’s in the post-Trump era seem to find ways to deregulate the banks (again), fund foreign intervention, and give Trump even more money for military spending.

This is a much bigger problem than campaign messaging—it is systematic disregard for feedback or any type of dialogue that goes against the status quo. 

Another common narrative blames the millennial electorate for “not showing up.” However, according to a Pew Research Center survey, millennial and gen x voter turnout actually increased in 2016. To be clear, while it is true that overall support from people in the millennial birth cohort decreased for Clinton compared to Obama, this is also true for African American and Latinos voters in general:

Source: CNN

In other words, the “not showing up” blame game falls flat when it comes to indicators other than birth cohort membership. Are those who blame millennials for Clinton’s loss ready to do the same about African Americans and Latinos? 

Much like the “Bernie Bro” myth, this type of smear campaign places the blame on the millennial birth cohort, which merely diverts attention from the reasons why millennials are leaving the Democratic Party in the first place. This is identity politics at its worst. 

This brings us back to the main question: why is the Democratic Party losing millennial support? Let’s see what other surveys tell us. According to a recent NBC poll, 71% of millennials say “the Republican and Democratic parties are doing such a poor job of representing the American people that a third party is needed.” Across  generations, trust in our institutions is at historically low levels. Americans’ preferences on the role of government, the environment, race, immigration, and other issues have never been as polarized as they are today.

Once we focus on the whole picture rather than using generational labels to divide and blame tens of millions of people, we get a more complex understanding of the causes for millennials’ lack of  support for the Democratic Establishment, which have little to do with birth cohorts and a lot more to do with Democrats’ disregard for feedback. 

Two years after it lost to a real estate magnate, the Democratic Party has yet to address the very real divide between the Party and its more progressive base, and instead chooses to wheel and deal with the GOP and Trump. If you don’t agree with me then ask yourself: do Democrats have a clear message and strategy when it comes to improving our lives? As it pertains to their millennial base, do they provide a platform for us to express our beliefs and collective vision? Do they have any messaging that doesn’t rely heavily on Trump’s policies?

As a millennial, I believe the answer to these questions is a resounding “no.” Does that make me a Bernie Bro and a “purity leftist?” I think it makes me someone who has no idea what is left of the Democratic Party. And I believe I am not alone. 

One of the biggest stereotypes about the millennial cohort—our search for authenticity—is also the Achilles’ heel of the political duopoly (at least until they figure out how to engineer that…and they are surely trying). 

What I do know is that an open and transparent platform that encourages feedback has the potential to galvanize not only generational cohorts, but millions of people who are looking for political representation. 

Trump succeeded with fake promises and the help of the corporate mediaImagine what can be done through a Party that truly values dialogue, rather than implementing a two or four year “performance review” and hoping that the numbers stack up in the end.  

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Featured · Millennial Label · Opinion · Politics
Zhivko Illeieff

Writer & media producer. Founder of Post Millennial (PM), a platform for first person perspectives on generations. Contact:

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