Rural America Is Not a Lost Cause for the Democratic Party

With our future under attack, it is critical that young people continue to engage in politics with the intensity necessary to overcome the strength of our opposition. We are still at the very beginning. But our generation is standing up in huge numbers to build power on the scale that we need.

Young people across the country are running for office, engaging vigorously with politics, organizing for candidates and the issues of our time, and inspiring peers to do the same. In 2016 and 2018, younger generations—those ages eighteen to fifty-three—outvoted baby boomers and all older generations. The number of millennials in the US House increased fivefold after the 2018 election, and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC) became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg inspired millions to mobilize for cli mate justice. Youth-led organizations such as Run for Something and the Sunrise Movement have achieved important electoral and legislative victories.

Yet the growing engagement of young—and overwhelmingly progressive—people in politics is a defining challenge for the Democratic Party. Party operatives demonstrated this during a candidates’ training that Chloe attended in 2018. The communications director for Sara Gideon, the Maine Speaker of the House at the time, was talking to local candidates about their relatability. Chloe wrote down what happened: “There were a few candidates in the room, and she was trying to relate to us. She was like: ‘Jason, you’re a small business owner and a dad. Holly, you work as the opioid outreach coordinator for the police department. And Chloe, you got a lot of energy.’ It was just that ageist thing of a young person not being worthy of a substantive comment.”

The political establishment, including much of the older Democratic Party leadership at the national level, is having difficulty adjusting to the new voices at the table. The satirical newspaper The Onion ran this July 2019 headline making light of the struggle: “Pelosi Concerned Outspoken Progressive Flank of Party Could Harm Democrats’ Reputation as Ineffectual Cowards.” This waggish take captures the real frustration felt by many young people who are trying to push the party forward and to the left. The day after The Onion headline ran, Speaker Pelosi and Representative Ocasio-Cortez met behind closed doors to discuss what CNN reported as “deep divides in a caucus fractured along ideological and generational lines.” The roots of this fracture lie in the unique context that is pushing so many young people to engage with politics.

Millennials are keenly aware that politics as usual is failing every American except the richest and most powerful. We came of age in the Great Recession, 40 percent of us saddled with student debt, all look ing toward a future of climate chaos. While the income of other generations rebounded from low points during the recession to back above projected levels, millennial families were left behind as the only group to see their earnings not only fail to rebound but even continue to fall. Almost two-thirds of us “have more fear than hope” about our democratic future, and 77 percent of us blame politicians. We saw firsthand how running and electing young leaders can turn this feeling around for young people in the region. “Politics in this area can so often feel en trenched and demoralizing,” one woman wrote us, “it’s inspiring to see another young person move back home and work for these communities and places we care so much about.”

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