Not many millennials showed up to vote in the midterms earlier this month. While the generation tends to lean Democratic, polls illustrated that conservative-leaning millennials showed greater enthusiasm prior to the election, and that appears to have played in Republicans’ favor.
Some disgruntled liberals have pointed disdainful fingers at millennials for not getting out to vote. It is clear in retrospect, however, that the Democratic Party took the support of this demographic for granted. Democrats failed to engage us, to rally us, to ask for our votes. If the Democratic Party is to gain any traction here in Maine, the newly elected party chairman, Phil Bartlett, has to fix the statewide approach to youth engagement.
As far as demographics and political identities go, Democrats theoretically have in this generation a winning hand that they seem reluctant to play. The values of millennials plant us decisively in the progressive camp and by 2016, nearly the entire generation will be old enough to vote.
Instead of using this year’s midterm elections to cultivate this base and build toward long-term success, the Democratic Party took our support for granted, passing over an opportunity to court the support of more than 50 million young people who don’t identify with the GOP. Unrepresented and unengaged, young progressives stayed home this year.
Here in Maine, the party had a great opportunity to underscore its values by standing behind or at least putting some enthusiasm into promoting Shenna Bellows in her race against Republican Sen. Susan Collins. Bellows, who appeared all but ignored by a party positive she would lose her match against the popular incumbent, was one of the younger statewide candidates. Besides, she was the one who ran a campaign based on values most in step with those of young millennials regardless of party affiliation. She positioned herself as socially liberal, an innovative communicator and, most importantly, a civil libertarian.
Instead of investing in Bellows as part of articulating a longer-term vision, the Democratic Party put all of its political eggs into the gubernatorial basket. More broadly, when it came to addressing issues such as access to higher education and Maine’s flailing public university system — which students at the University of Southern Maine have been outspoken about for nearly a year — Democrats addressed them only in passing if they addressed them at all.
While shaping a strong, long-term youth engagement and mobilization strategy in Maine is now a task that rests with Bartlett, the national Democratic Party remains aloof.
Party brass giddily flirt with the prospect that Hillary Clinton will be the party’s 2016 presidential nominee as if she’s a member of a political dynasty who’s next in line. But the prospect of a Clinton candidacy is a reminder of exactly the type of corporate liberalism that the party needs to abandon.
The promise of the milestone achievement offered by Clinton’s nomination is exciting, but not enough to erase the taste of a vote for the invasion of Iraq or for authorization and reinforcement of the Patriot Act. Rosy, retrospective remembrances of yesterday are one thing, but running them for office is an indication of a lack of imagination and ambition, particularly to younger voters.
If Democrats want to stand a fighting chance in the next round, they must clearly articulate their progressive vision and make a compelling case for why these approaches are best for Maine and the country at large. This approach is for the good of us all, they must explain, not simply for the satisfaction of Portland-area and coastal liberals. Specifically, they need to engage and motivate younger voters, not simply take our support for granted.
Democrats can’t count on millennials’ support simply because our values match on paper. They need to engage, actually stand for and champion policies that are worth achieving, invite us into the process and acknowledge the issues we bring to the table.
In his new position, Bartlett is tasked with making the party relevant again, no matter how much its larger body stands in defiance of that mission. To do so, he needs to get the party on track so it takes young voters seriously and energizes them with a clear call to action. If the party doesn’t follow through, it will continue to lose us to the ongoing decline of party affiliation rampant among disaffected millennial voters.
Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was a teenager and is a former candidate for the Legislature. He’s an owner-partner of a Portland-based content production company and lives with his family, dogs and garden in Cornish.