In a representative government, the young need to be confident they can assume their place at the table.
By a show of hands, students up and down the Willamette Valley in Oregon made clear they have no little to no optimism when it comes to our democracy. I recently spent some time in high schools, colleges, and universities there talking about the importance of civic participation. The expectation was that they’d jump at the chance to contribute their two cents to The Oregon Way, a nonpartisan blog I run focused on keeping elected officials accountable and improving Oregon’s civic culture. The reality was far different. Even in the activist breeding ground that is Portland and its surroundings, the next generation is growing weary of political engagement or, at least, traditional forms of political engagement.
Some conservatives may cheer the idea of young liberals in Oregon and elsewhere sitting on the sidelines. If the next generation gives up on running for office, voting, and lobbying, then those in favor of the status quo can sleep a little easier at night. This sort of thinking, though, fails to incorporate the importance of every generation feeling bought into our democratic processes as the primary means to effect political change. It also fails to consider that, absent channeling their activism into traditional means of democratic participation, young people will seek the paths of least resistance when it comes to making their voice heard—protests, boycotts, and cancellations will become their sole means of engagement.
If conservatives want America to avoid attempts at radical and immediate change, then they ought to champion making young people feel as though they can actually make an impact through traditional democratic processes. The longer young people are left on the sidelines, left without sufficient representation, and left without hope of steering policy, the more likely it is they’ll pursue actions that undermine the credibility of our democracy.
Young people seeking change through alternative means is not new. Tom Hayden and the like knew how to use their feet, their voices, and their bodies to draw attention to issues. But those tactics were only a subset of the tools at their disposal. Hayden and many others also knew how to mobilize behind candidates for office, to author and pass ballot initiatives, and to engage in necessary art of policy making and compromise. Youth today are not thinking of running for office, though—that’s a tactic of what they perceive to be a bygone era; it’s also a near impossibility—they have too much debt (as do their friends) to even think about trading whatever career stability they can find for the precarious proposition of running for office.
It’s true that AOC, the Squad, and some other relatively young people have employed formal democratic tools to advance their agenda. But they’re the proverbial exceptions that prove the rule. Septuagenarians, millionaires, and career politicians still control the “adult table” in D.C. The kid’s table has some powerful members, but they only get attention when they throw their carrots across the room. Even the most formidable millennial and gen Z politicians are relatively minor players in shaping state and national political outcomes. That, again, was not the case in earlier eras.
Boomers occupied positions of power, real power, at a much younger age than millennials and gen Zers. Then-Senator Biden, for example, was part of a cadre of elected officials, appointees, and bureaucrats that came to power long before they had made their millions. The transition of offices to Biden and others of a similar age helped perpetuate democratic norms by validating the effectiveness of traditional democratic processes for a new generation. Regardless of your politics, that’s a positive outcome for our democracy. When even the most passionate and ideological members of each generation think that our democracy can function, we all benefit from the predictability and transparency associated with playing the same game by the same rules.
After jumping through the door of political opportunity, though, the boomers slammed it in the face of younger generations and forced them to find other, more disruptive means to try to bring their agenda to fruition. The barriers to entry in politics dissuade even the most fervent believers in our democracy from realizing their potential in elected office.
During my trip home, I also talked with one of the youngest city councilors in Oregon today. He has occasionally thought about running for the state legislature but has never taken the plunge. He doesn’t know who he’d call to fundraise. He doesn’t have the support of the ever-aging members of their party’s central committee. He doesn’t feel like he can pass up grad school for a state representative’s salary of barely $30,000. That one Oregonian is experiencing what young people around the country have long known: There’s no lane for them in politics as usual.
By instituting term limits, increasing pay for state legislators, and putting real campaign finance reform in place, there’s a chance millennials and gen Z will come to embrace our traditional democratic processes as a tool worth using. Each of the aforementioned policies would make it easier for younger officials (and other candidates from non-traditional backgrounds) to run for and win elected office. If the barriers to entry aren’t lowered through one or several of those reforms, young Americans will only grow more skeptical of upholding and passing on democratic norms. That should scare us all.
Our democracy is not perfect, but it’s a system of government that must be passed along to the next generation. Denying young people of any and all political persuasions the chance to inherit and control that system is a recipe for the sort of discord antithetical to conservativism. “In a democracy, conservatism relies on equality of opportunity,” wrote the legendary Economist editor Walter Bagehot. That equality is not realized in today’s political arena—threatening both conservatism and democracy. According to Pew, America is one of just six countries where more than half the population wants “major changes or complete reform to the political, economic and health-care systems.” Given the choice between pragmatic reform and wholesale revolution, conservatives should pick the former and act on that choice by helping make way for the next generation of political leaders.
Kevin Frazier is the editor of the Oregon Way, a nonpartisan online publication. He currently is pursuing a J.D. at the UC Berkeley School of Law and a MPP at the Harvard Kennedy School.