To Win Millennials, Democrats Need To Start Talking With Them

Millennials are not avocado-eating caricatures; They are real people with real Issues, and it’s time to speak to them honestly.
09/28/2017 03:58 pm ET
Brian Snyder / Reuters

This week, a new poll came with some tepid news for Democrats. On the positive side, Democrats can say that Millennials favor them 17 percent more than they favor Republicans. And, on balance, Democrats have a net positive favorability rating overall among Millennials — but only by a single percentage point (43 percent favorable versus 42 percent unfavorable). This is good news as far as it goes, but it really begs the question: in a moment where Millennials hold an overwhelming -43 percent net unfavorable view of the President, why do they feel so lukewarm about his “better deal” opposition?

As we all know, “within the next decade, as their numbers and participation rates swell, Millennials will be the single largest cohort in the electorate.” And while Brookings research shows that millennials are more likely to vote and tend to have more progressive ideals, the NBC poll clearly shows that they are not party loyalists.

If you actually talk to Millennials, a great wave of alienation and disenchantment washes over all of their political discussions. They feel like a forgotten generation, lied to about what success means, how to get there, and who among political leadership is their friend. Worse, there is a persistent knowledge that even when political leadership try to appeal to Millennials, they rely more on stereotypes of upper-middle and upper-class, hyper-educated, city-dwelling Millennials: the avocado eaters. While these individuals exist, they are a tiny proportion of the Millennial population just as the upper class is always a tiny proportion of any population. If Democrats want to energize this generation, which by all political rights should be energized, they need to start understanding and speaking to the real human beings that make up this generation.

So, to set the stage, imagine the average Millennial.

If the mental image you just saw had anything to do with what Democrats call Millennials, you are way off. The average Millennial is a 29-year-old without a college degree (though he has taken some college classes), who earns about $35,000 in work that could hardly be called a “career” (think, seven jobs before 29 years old) and whose income comes from working two jobs. She is unlikely to be married, but likely living with a partner in a home that they rent in the outer suburbs.

This is not the typical image put out as Millennial by Democrats, and the reason is twofold: first, Democratic leadership disproportionately hails from the large urban centers that give rise to the avocado-eater illusion; and, two, the same leadership — by and large — has not taken the time to actually meet with Millennials to hear about their concerns. They have not taken steps to break through the stereotype. No wonder Millennials feel less than enthusiastic about Democrats even while they despise the current Republican president.

I have a dog in this fight. I lead an organization called New Leaders Council. We are the leading progressive political training organization for Millennials. We operate across the country, with chapters stretching from Missoula, Montana, to Atlanta, Georgia, and Nebraska to New York. We build our program from the ground up in each community, with Millennial leadership shaping it at every level. Our community is a pretty robust sample of the Millennial generation — 57 percent non-white, 53 percent female, and cut from every economic sector from city dwellers to honest-to-god farmers. And they are politically engaged.

I hear from them about how they want to be energized by Democrats, but the party is of two-minds about them. The party wants their votes and funds, but does not want to listen to their concerns. I saw this first hand last month. NLC hosted the premier leadership conference for Millennials in 2017: our Millennial Compact with America event. There, we laid out a policy platform written by Millennials that clearly set out their policy aspirations (you know, the exact things a Party would want to talk about to energize them).

The schizophrenic response of Party leadership was on full display. On the bright side, some leading Democrats attended and (most importantly) engaged fully with our leadership. I saw Party leadership Senator Durbin and Congressman Lujan, DNC Vice Chair Michael Blake, and Representatives Schakowsky, Swalwell, Moulton, and Kelly. Importantly, I saw numerous local elected officials. All of these leaders went deep in conversation with our new generation leaders. But, on the other hand, I have only seen one presidential hopeful do the same so far (Senator Merkely, who has attended NLC events nationally and advises in his local NLC Portland chapter). There is still plenty of time before 2020 really looms, but the longer major potential candidates go without engaging with Millennials the greater the challenge of activating them will be later.

If the response to an organized gathering of politically-active Millennials leaders is this ambivalent, I don’t think we should be surprised at the most recent poll numbers. This is exactly the kind of behavior that causes the disenchantment that plagues non-politically active Millennial thought.

Democrats need Millennials. For Democrats to be successful, they need every one of their constituencies to be engaged for 2018. Looking beyond 2018, though, Millennials offer the best demographic path back to being a majority party. And more importantly, America needs Millennials. This group could unleash a new era of economic prosperity if it were able to exercise its buying power — if they were able to buy homes instead of paying student loans, if they were able to take root instead of being forced to work two, low-wage jobs. We cannot afford to wait. It is high time Democrats break through the stereotypes built in their minds about Millennials, and start going out and listening to their concerns. Millennials are waiting.

Mark Riddle is the President of New Leaders Council, a 501 (c)(3) non-profit leadership development organization whose mission is to recruit, train and promote the next generation of progressive leaders. NLC operates a one weekend a month, five month training institute which focuses on training these next leaders in entrepreneurship, fundraising/finance, communications/new technology, political/business/non-profit management, and local and national policy issues. NLC operates its institute in 48 communities nationwide with over 5,000 alumni that have come through its ranks since 2006. Many of our alumni have gone on to run for public office, start innovative businesses and run non-profits. Learn more about NLC at newleaderscouncil.org.

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