Jessica Cisneros came so close. But as the sound and fury of Super Tuesday faded to a whimper, it became obvious that she would not unseat Henry Cuellar. The conservative Democrat will instead represent Texas’s 28th Congressional District for another two years. Cisneros, meanwhile, promised supporters that her fight would continue. There’s every reason to believe it will: At 26 years old, she has plenty of time to hone her strategy for elections to come.
Cuellar may have won, but he doesn’t have much to celebrate. His margin of victory over Cisneros, a newcomer who lacked his connections and the support of the party’s elders, betrays vulnerability. The combined support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Koch network, and the local oil and gas industry was barely enough to keep him in power. Two years from now, or four years from now — whenever Cisneros or someone like her marshals the resources for another primary run — the Cuellar coalition might be obsolete.
The fragility of Cuellar’s grasp on power has implications much bigger than Cuellar himself. It also indicts party leaders, who largely embraced Cuellar ahead of Tuesday’s election. Though Cuellar has an A rating from the NRA and a poor record on climate change, and backs severe restrictions on abortion rights, Pelosi not only endorsed him but actively campaigned for him. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee instituted a blacklist designed to deter vendors and consultants from providing their services to insurgents like Cisneros. Pelosi and others worked against the labor movement, and major party allies like EMILY’s List, all to keep Cuellar in a district that any Democrat would probably win.
But their political calculations may soon be out-of-date. By working against young candidates like Cisneros, even in safe Democratic districts, party leaders are working against a viable future for the party. Young voters are already worlds apart from Democrats like Cuellar. They want universal health care and colleges they can afford to attend; they want to raise children on a planet that isn’t doomed. The generation gap that separates Democrats of Cisneros’s ilk from the party’s more conservative Establishment has as much to do with ideology as it does with age. If the party concedes nothing to the young left, it will weaken itself.
Though the midterms sent young moderates like Abby Finkenauer of Iowa to Congress right alongside socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, young Democrats are much more likely than any other demographic to back Medicare for All and the Green New Deal — both hallmarks of the Cisneros campaign. In a recent survey by Harris Poll, nearly half of all Millennials and members of Generation Z said they’d prefer to live in a socialist country. Sixty-seven percent said they supported the notion of tuition-free college; an even higher number, 73 percent, said they wanted universal health care. It isn’t difficult to understand why young adults diverge so dramatically from their forebears. The trajectories of their adulthoods have been altered fundamentally by student-loan debt, a looming climate crisis, and medical costs they can’t afford. Pelosi and others may believe they’re holding back the tide — that by keeping moderates in their seats, they deflect damaging right-wing policies. To voters staring down the rest of their uncertain lives, the party’s stratagems look a lot like cowardice.
A similar dynamic is playing out in the presidential primary. Youth turnout is still low, but when they do vote, young voters overwhelmingly prefer Bernie Sanders. Moderate Democrats, though, are coalescing around Biden. The party Establishment’s clear preference for Biden over Sanders, and Cuellar over Cisneros, stems from the same strategy and the same fear. It posits, to the persuadable, that politicians like Biden and Cuellar are just more electable, which makes them a sure defense against Trump. In Biden’s case, the party’s pundit-fueled obsession with electability probably helps explain why older voters prefer him by far to his democratic socialist alternative.
But circumstances have forced younger voters to adopt a much different definition of security. While the 78-year-old Sanders may seem like a liability to older voters, his policies and image as a fighter recommend him to the young. He’s a necessity, not a risk; his urgency isn’t utopian, but realistic. Considered against the backdrop of a warming planet and an increasingly stratified economy, the Sanders platform doesn’t look that radical at all. For the same reasons, candidates like Cisneros have also begun to look like inevitabilities. Their victories may be few at the moment, but organizations like Justice Democrats — the group that recruited Cisneros, and Ocasio-Cortez too — will keep fielding them.
Democrats don’t necessarily have to worry about losing young people to the GOP; Republicans have a much more difficult time keeping young voters engaged. The real risk is alienation. The party might not turn young people to the right; it just might turn them off altogether. It’s unwise to assume that young people who do not vote will at some point become old people who do. The alternative possibility — that disillusioned youth will become disillusioned middle-aged people and eventually disillusioned seniors — must rate consideration. Unless Democrats can find a way to stoke youth enthusiasm about their candidates and the electoral process in general, their long-term prospects are poor. They might defeat Trump, though it’s a dubious prospect if the frequently incoherent Biden is their nominee. Even if they manage to get Trump out of power, defeating one man is only half the battle. The president’s brand of far-right nationalism only amplifies mainstream conservative thinking. It will be with us for years. The party needs fighters, and it needs popular support, and it won’t have either if it remains so dramatically out of step with the needs of the future.
Pelosi and friends should look at Henry Cuellar and bemoan the time and effort it took to keep him in power. They should look at Joe Biden and worry; 2016 is not such a distant memory. The party is skilled at mollifying the oldest and most conservative factions of its base. But what harm would it really do to let young people lead for once? The worst outcome is a more cohesive party, united in its commitment to legal abortion and green policy and universal health care that lives up to the name. The future might actually be worth living.