The next president of the United States will probably be someone who’s over the age of 70. Donald Trump is 73; Joe Biden is 77. Bernie Sanders, who is currently leading the Democratic Party’s primary field, is 78. But young people are transforming American politics, driving substantive ideological trends in both major parties via the politicians they support. Sanders, for example, owes much of his leading status to the young. In fact, young Democratic voters prefer him to Pete Buttigieg, a more moderate millennial, by a wide margin.
They’re also entering political office themselves. In doing so, they begin an inevitable process: Soon enough, their generation will be the one controlling Congress and the White House. What will that America look like? Will it take up the political revolution promised by Sanders, will it tilt to the right, or will it default to the patterns established by the political class that millennials will eventually replace? Without the aid of a crystal ball, nobody can answer these questions with any certainty. But the future is beginning to take shape, and in her new book, The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, journalist Charlotte Alter provides us an invaluable early glimpse into the events and movements that will influence politics for decades to come.
Alter, a national correspondent for Time magazine, recounts the trajectories of several prominent members of America’s newest class of politicians. Alter’s subjects are diverse — they range from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist; to Dan Crenshaw, the Texas Republican whose inflammatory attacks on migrants and fellow member of Congress Ilhan Omar made him infamous. But Alter identifies some connective tissue among these up-and-coming leaders — namely a view of politics that can be less rigidly hierarchical and places a greater emphasis on plurality compared to their boomer predecessors. Alter spoke to New York about her findings and what they may tell us about the future of both major parties. The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For is out now from Viking.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for length.
You talked to young politicians from across the political spectrum: leftists, more traditional Democratic liberals, some Republicans, too. Are there any common characteristics that distinguish this younger class of politicians from their older colleagues?
A couple of things. Millennials obviously are much better with technology and are much more fluent in the language of social media than their boomer peers are. They definitely care way more about climate change in particular. And that’s true across the political spectrum. Republicans, too. The young Republicans I talked to told me that climate change is happening and the government has to do something about it.
They do have totally different ideas about what that should be. They’re not onboard with the Green New Deal. They don’t embrace socialism the way young leftist millennials do. They have a real disagreement about what that climate action should be. But one major point of agreement across the aisle, people of both parties is like this, is that climate change is a real threat.
Another thing that I noticed is that morality politics have changed a lot. So again, across the spectrum, young Republicans have given up on the battle against marriage equality while older Republicans who maybe have a more 1990s, Christian right sort of framework are still beating that drum. Marijuana legalization was another place where young Republicans just were not fighting a battle that older Republicans are fighting. A lot of young Republicans that I talk to think that marijuana legalization will be good for business and good for health. I think there’s a little bit more of a live-and-let-live-type attitude amongst some of these younger Republicans. One big exception to that is abortion, where both sides are still really entrenched. And I didn’t see a lot of generational movement there.
We’re seeing an intergenerational fight within the Democratic Party that isn’t just about age, but about substantive differences in ideology and tactics. Do you think that a similar dynamic exists in the Republican Party right now?
One thing that’s happening in the Republican Party right now is that they’re losing young people. There was a Pew statistic that should be very scary for anybody who cares about the future of the Republican Party, which is that only half of young Republicans stayed loyal to the GOP over the course of 2015 to 2017. During Trump’s rise, basically. So half of those people defected from the GOP, and then came back, which means they have maybe a soft allegiance. They’re still with the GOP, but were upset enough that they left and came back in. And then half of those people permanently defected. Overall, a quarter of young Republicans have permanently defected from the GOP.
Some of the polls that look at the attitudes of young Republicans are in some ways kind of skewed, I think, because they’re looking at the attitudes of people who still call themselves Republicans. They’re not looking at the attitudes of people who, if you’d asked them in 2013 if they were Republican, they would have said yes. A lot of those people now identify as independents. So young Republicans in particular have been especially turned off by Trump. Not only turned off by him, but he’s made their lives more complex. They find themselves constantly having to defend him, constantly having to tiptoe around him or justify him. I talked to some young Republican members of Congress who, even though they support the president, they don’t ever mention him in their speeches. You can infer that they don’t want there to be a quote out there of them saying how great Donald Trump is so it can be used in an attack ad against them ten years from now.
You mentioned that on morality issues, like same-sex marriage, there are some generational differences within the Republican Party. But race and immigration are issues that have been at the fore of the Trump presidency. Have you noticed similar generational differences there, or is it a bit more complicated?
So I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that. I do think that young Republicans generally do support immigration more than their older Republicans do. There are obviously some big exceptions, like Representative Dan Crenshaw of Texas, who has emerged as being particularly tough on immigration. But people like Carlos Curbelo, a former congressman from Florida, and Elise Stefanik of New York were among the people who pushed back against some of the things that Trump did on immigration initially.
I think what is important to think about when thinking about young Republicans in this context is that I think a lot of them — and I want to make sure I phrase this the correct way — have an understanding of racial justice that is closer to their Democratic peers than to their boomer Republican peers, who think of racial justice like, “Oh, segregation’s over, everything’s fine.” We see that in young Republicans’ support for criminal justice reform and things like that. But there is a culture war in how those values are expressed. And I think that a lot of young Republicans in particular are turned off by PC culture and sort of the sanctimony of some of their left-wing peers. So they’re kind of pushed away from that side of the movement, and they feel attacked.
How is social media changing the way this new generation of politicians are running for office right now?
It’s changed it entirely. Instagram is to AOC what radio was to FDR and television was to JFK. It is a completely new and essential way of communicating with the public. It’s not as if any of these people, like, started using social media the second they started running for office. It’s not a blazer that they put on that they hadn’t been wearing before, you know. So a lot of these people are used to communicating in a mass way. They’re used to being in front of a camera. They’re used to asking people to do things on the internet: “Please click this. Please check this out. Here’s what I think about this thing.” In some ways, social media has made it so that almost every millennial is a public figure in some way or another. Everybody has a side to them that is public-facing, and running for office just means that you lean into that public side way more than you would have if you were a private citizen. I think in previous generations, people had to just develop that public side out of nowhere because you didn’t have a built-in mechanism to have that public facing side of you. So many of the major social movements, particularly on the left, like Occupy and Black Lives Matter, also started on social media and kind of mimic social media in their structures. They are networked. They’re not hierarchical. There is no one person who is in charge and telling everybody what to do. There is sort of an organic way that information and ideas and attitudes kind of flow within these movements. These movements were created by thousands of voices speaking at once. And that’s what I really tried to get at in this book. That’s why it’s called The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For. In some ways, the thesis of this book is that millennial politics is rooted in a sense of plurality, that there isn’t going to be any one person like Pete Buttigieg or AOC where if they become president, it will be the era of the millennial politician. That’s not the point. The point is that this is a generation that is much more networked, has their politics much more rooted in mass movements. This is a book about politics in the plural, trying to move away from the great man idea that there is one person and the decisions they make are the most important decisions in the world.
Do you think social media is making it easier for people to run for office?
Yes, it’s definitely making it easier. I think it’s making politics seem accessible to more people. Somebody like AOC uses her social media to essentially communicate the message that I’m a normal person just like you, and I ran for office and won. That’s the point of democracy, that an ordinary person can, with the help of a lot of other people, run for office and win and represent their community in the United States government. That’s the way our system is supposed to work. A lot of the anger at the democratic system among millennials reflects the extent to which it hasn’t worked that way. It is so expensive to run for office, so it does feel inaccessible. And the people who are in power don’t feel like they’re really of the community. Social media can help that democratic impulse of allowing people to feel like they’re actually connected to the people who represent them.
The youth vote is going to be critical to a Democratic victory in 2020. Based on your reporting, what do you think the party has to do in order to turn out young voters in November?
As you and I both know, Bernie Sanders is the candidate of choice for young people. Though I saw a really interesting poll recently that showed that among young Democrats, Bernie was at 53 percent and Warren was at 17. So 70 percent of young Democrats were with one of the two progressive candidates.
I think a lot of this goes back to Barack Obama, because the election of Barack Obama was an incredible, mobilizing moment for so many young people who cast their first presidential vote for the first black president. He won in this unbelievable historic moment that many people remember as one of their first moments of political awareness, one of the first times they participated in the political process. He was somebody who was cool and gave these soaring speeches. He created in many young people a sense that your vote was something you only gave to somebody who you truly believed in.
And I think that that is something that’s going to be a real challenge for Democrats, because young people will vote if they really believe in somebody, if they think it’s incredibly important and if they feel like it is a major transformative moment. What you’re seeing in youth-voting patterns is that when there is an uninspiring candidate or somebody where it doesn’t feel that urgent, they don’t show up. And I think that that’s one of the main reasons that Hillary Clinton struggled with young people. The Democratic Party should worry that if they nominate somebody who doesn’t really speak to these young voters, they risk a lot of them not showing up because young voters don’t think of voting as a duty. They think of it as something that they need to be inspired to do.