A new survey says that 77 percent of college students plan to vote in the midterm elections. The political scientist in me doesn’t believe that will happen, but it’s fun to imagine what would happen, over time, if it did.
It’s no secret that voting rates tend to rise with age, into postretirement years. People who mostly ignored politics while in their 20s often start paying attention as they get older. Theories abound as to why, but the pattern (at least in the U.S.) has been consistent for decades.
There’s an old saying in politics that if you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu. Combine that with different voting rates for different ages, and it becomes clear why Social Security is giving record increases this year while public higher education continues to face cuts.
At any age, people with the most strongly held political views tend to vote at the highest rates. That makes a certain sense—people with the most strongly held views on baseball probably watch more games than everyone else—but it leads to some serious distortions of outcomes. The most involved are not necessarily the most representative.
Broadly, the youngest potential voters are much more comfortable with diversity than older generations are. I notice it most with issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. In my adult lifetime, for instance, same-sex marriage has gone from a fringe issue to a mainstream issue to a largely settled question. It’s difficult now to watch comedies from the ’80s and ’90s without cringing at the casually homophobic or transphobic humor that was so commonly accepted at the time. I see that as progress, though some disagree.
Even as a rising generation is more open than any of its predecessors, our politics seem to be moving in the other direction. The Dobbs decision on abortion, rescinding a right recognized for almost 50 years, is the most obvious case, but the increasingly crude and violent racism and antisemitism of the last few years also run counter to the values of the youngest potential voters. In the short term, such a dramatic mismatch may be sustainable through voter suppression. Over the long term, victory will be determined by whether or not votes are allowed to matter.
In my conversations with college students and recent grads, I’ve noticed how aware they are of the cutoff of eligibility for their parents’ health insurance at age 26. I don’t even volunteer it; they bring it up unprompted. (A recent conversation with someone working a temp job at a museum: “I love this, but I can only do it for three more years.” “Huh?” “That’s when I turn 26.”) When nobody offers to address that, voting won’t change it.
If the young voted at higher levels, they could change what count as issues. We might spend less time hearing about border walls and the dangers of chosen pronouns and more time hearing about affordable rent, tuition and health insurance. They’re unburdened by nostalgia for older ways of life, not having any living memory of them, so they’re more willing to address issues like climate change. They care deeply about the future, since they’ll be living in it.
I’ve never had much patience for cultural laments that begin with “kids today …” From my dealings with them, young people now are much more courteous, realistic and forward-looking than my generation was at that age. They could wield tremendous power and do a lot of good. Here’s hoping they realize that in time for the rest of us.