“The Kids Are All Left:” Out of the Democratic Party

Reviewed by Nick Rueth


Melville House Publishing 224 pp.

David Faris’s new book, The Kids Are All Left: How Young Voters Will Unite America, argues that young people are going to and will continue to vote for Democrats. Faris, a professor of political science at Roosevelt University in Chicago, predicts that young politically conscious people will become voters that “will unite America” through the mass election of responsive and like-minded progressive officials. The book was published in June, and America’s mainstream politics have changed much since its publication: Faris could not predict the continual failure of most Democratic legislators to defund or abolish police following the murder of George Floyd, and the horrific continuance of COVID-19 and its deaths. However, Faris also writes, apprehensively and perhaps prophetically:

Imagine that someone like Joe Biden wins the 2020 Democratic nomination and brings Democratic majorities with him into both branches of Congress. Instead of aggressively passing climate change legislation and working with other countries to update and expand the Paris Accords, the Biden administration pursues some limp set of reforms…In that scenario, young voters may revolt against the Democratic Party because it isn’t left enough, flocking to third parties or perhaps exiting the political arena altogether, having lost hope that normal politics is up to the task of arresting global warming, reversing inequality and increasing social justice.

The apparent purpose of Faris’s book is to give the (likely older, non-millennial, or Gen-Z) liberal reader encouraging numbers on youth voting and ideological patterns. He finds that younger generations consistently support Democratic Party positions in greater numbers than older generations and are further left. Of course, the idea that young people are further left depends on the moving target of what is considered left, as the right has steadily pulled American politics toward economically and socially conservative policies (aside from a few progressive accomplishments during the Obama administration).

Faris also argues that the prevailing assumption that young people are liberal and turn conservative as they age no longer holds in our highly polarized political environment, in which Republicans have particularly “repulsive” attitudes on racism, climate change, LGBTQ+ rights, and more. Faris’s Republican-Democrat binary obscures the general record of the Democratic Party, which is at best indifferent to such issues. To talk as Faris does of the Republican Party as the party of racists and elitists obscures the various ways the Democratic Party has failed to support and include Black, Indigenous, people of color, and working-class communities. Recently, the DNC’s platform committee voted two-to-one against the legalization of marijuana. (Polls show that two-thirds of the public support legalization.) The committee also voted three-to-one against Medicare for All (which has fifty-six percent public support and which Democratic voters overwhelmingly support) in a time when 5.4 million people have lost health insurance as a result of pandemic layoffs.

Faris’s demonstration of the young left’s support of the Democratic Party relies in large part on the annual Harvard Youth Poll, a survey of eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-olds’ political ideologies and engagement. Since 2006, the poll has shown that millennials and Zoomers average about a two-thirds majority (or more) in support of LGBTQ+ rights and anti-interventionist foreign policy, and they largely oppose tax cuts. These policies, along with student loan forgiveness, climate change action, affordable health care, and anti-racist programs and legislation (which neither Faris nor the poll mention), are precisely what the Republican Party is not pursuing, and in many cases, is working against. Since 2006, according to the Harvard Youth Poll, young people have voted for Democratic House candidates by around twenty percent more than the overall vote. Roughly speaking, this age group has voted for Democratic House candidates by a near-two-thirds margin. In 2018, thirty-to-forty-four-year-olds voted for these candidates by a nineteen-point margin, compared to eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-olds’ thirty-five-point margin.

Interestingly, in his discussion of polling, Faris says little about the intersections of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or class with specific policy issues—only party identification. He is undoubtedly aware of the Democratic Party’s inclusion of politically marginalized groups in anti-progressive policies, whether it be allowing gay people to fight in wars for oil or supporting a Black woman as a state attorney general to incarcerate parents of truant children and increase the prison population through marijuana convictions, but he would rather ignore such actions that preserve the profit-driven American imperialist and carceral state and instead tell readers that the kids will vote left. Faris’s very lack of critique of and engagement with these performative politics shows his (and establishment Democrats’) reticence to engage in a self-criticism of Democratic neoliberalism and their desire to push on as usual. If continued, this reluctance will further alienate its essential younger demographic, the Republican Party will soar into greater power when only old people vote, and young people’s demands will be further ignored. The country will be increasingly primed for violent uprisings, as protests and demands continue and escalate for many more months, possibly years, in the absence of substantive change. Millions of people have already been continuously in the streets amid a pandemic, protesting racist police violence and defending themselves against a militarized police force in conjunction with federal forces. Not only are these protests racially diverse, but people under fifty years old make up a whopping seventy-nine percent of protestors.

The problems we’re seeing—authoritarian militarized police violence, a deadly virus, mass unemployment and soon-to-be-mass-houselessness—continue to intersect and pile on one another. These are in many cases especially harmful to BIPOC and low-income people. Most of these issues are nothing new; it’s simply that a growing number of people are being affected as they are also coming into political consciousness—enough so policies like defunding police, Medicare for All, or the Green New Deal are no longer fringe views; to many young people, they’re seen as necessary. The generation gap between neoliberalism and economic and social leftism is growing larger as young people as a whole are increasingly poor or financially unstable, opposed to racist institutions and laws, and faced with looming climate catastrophe. If the Democratic Party continues to ignore the left’s demands, we will undoubtedly see even more deaths.

I am one of the young people I am talking about here—twenty-three years old, white, queer, an unemployed recent college graduate moved back to my parents’ home. I have stayed away from most Chicago protests and actions while living with my family, given the coronavirus. But I absolutely support protestors against police brutality, and I believe violence against property—also known as looting—is justified by capitalists’ exploitation of labor, which results in the perpetual poverty of people such as “looters.” Also, property damage caused by looting cannot be equated with the actual physical violence inflicted on Black people and protestors by police. I also voted for the first time in 2016 at the age of nineteen, for Jill Stein for president, refusing to support Hillary Clinton because of her hawkish foreign policy and proposed mediocre economic reforms, and I knew Illinois would secure Clinton’s electoral college votes without my vote.

In 2018, many progressives were pleasantly surprised when multiple young, progressive Democratic candidates won Congressional elections and became the potential future of the party—namely “The Squad”: Congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. And the reinvigorating candidacy of Bernie Sanders, who endorsed the popular legalization of marijuana and Medicare for All, gave me and others hope that we might be able to push the Democratic Party left. But Bernie lost this years’ primary (in part because every other candidate rallied around Biden). Young leftists are also increasingly failing to identify with the Democratic Party, instead identifying as independents, which does not bode well for the conservative, historically anti-progressive, alleged sexual assaulter, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Not only does Biden oppose young people’s positions on universal healthcare and marijuana legalization, he opposes defunding police. He also wrote the 1994 crime bill, and in 2014 he and Obama deployed militarized police to Ferguson to quash protests in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder by police. These factors may lead to an even lower youth turnout than usual, though there are also many youths who feel they must vote Donald Trump out of office. Other young people I’ve talked to say they will still vote for Senate, House, gubernatorial, and alderperson elections while writing in someone else for president or altogether abstaining from voting for a president. Furthermore, individuals involved in community organizing, activism, and mutual aid don’t place as much importance on elections as do those who are politically engaged only during election years—at least in my experience. We work outside of and in resistance to electoral politics, precisely because of elected officials’ refusal to adequately address our needs and demands.

What’s surprising is that someone as far left as Angela Davis may vote for Biden, but this is because she believes Biden is more likely than Trump to “be most effectively pressured into allowing more space for the evolving anti-racist movement.” This coming from the vice-presidential candidate of the Communist Party in 1980 and 1984. Biden is more likely than Trump to act on climate change (feebly, as hinted by Faris), preserve the ACA, and reinstate some environmental and economic regulations on corporations—and it is possible, as Davis says, that Biden may be pushed to the left if people simultaneously vote in a large number of progressive Congresspeople. Still, with two such unlikable presidential candidates (and a convoluted vote-by-mail and registration system), I predict a large number of people will again not vote as in 2016, particularly leftists and independents. This seems to me both understandable (given Biden) and inexcusable (given Trump).

Joe Biden’s supporters have utilized the fear of Trump’s re-election to get him elected, in campaigns such as Settle for Biden, a self-described “grassroots group of former Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders supporters who recognize Joe Biden’s flaws but know that our nation will not survive four more years of Donald Trump.” A quick look at their “About Us” page tells us that Joe Biden is apparently running on the most progressive platform in American history. How could I not have seen that? Ok, fine—I’ll leave Biden bashing to Twitter. Still, the group uses vague language that extols racial “unity,” restoring America’s place in the world (an idea rife with implications of xenophobic fearmongering, murderous economic sanctions, global military occupation), and representation for “every American.” These goals are setting the country up for another generation’s disillusioned bloc of nonvoters. Settle for Biden claims that “our nation will not survive four more years of Donald Trump.” And while this is true, it is largely BIPOC and low-income people who will literally not survive another four years of his presidency. The white leftists who supported Warren or Sanders don’t have nearly as much to fear; they are mostly safe from police brutality, immigrant detention camps, and are more likely to have healthcare than their non-white counterparts.

I live in Illinois, a state that is safely predicted to choose Biden; still, I will hold my nose and vote for Biden (against my instincts) because I am afraid of low voter turnout due to coronavirus, as well as possible attempts to discredit mail-in ballots. No one expressed our dissatisfaction in electoral politics better than my preferred 2016 candidate, Jill Stein. In a November 2019 interview on Fox News, Stein said that nonvoters “are disproportionately Black, Brown, millennial, and poor. We have a younger generation right now that sees no future ahead of them.” Stein has said Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election because of the millions of Obama-Trump voters and roughly 100 million nonvoters. Of course, we can’t say that all the 100 million were dissatisfied with the conservatism of our two-party system. There are millions upon millions of people who do not vote because they cannot vote, due to lack of documentation, voter ID laws, cleared voter registries, work, felony convictions, and lack of access to polling places. These people are largely BIPOC and poor.

In contrast to Faris’ neat view of young leftists uniting America, I believe the majority of Democratic candidates who win this November will not be progressive candidates like the incumbent Ed Markey, who was greatly helped by the young environmentalist Sunrise Movement. Instead, I foresee a 2021 Democratic Congress that represents corporate interests and retains establishment leaders such as Nancy Pelosi, who flippantly dismissed the possibility of the necessary Green New Deal. I also predict that other moderate Democrats will win in more traditionally conservative states and counties. With the rise of moderate Democratic state governments, progressives will need to move toward communal aid and activism. Though some will believe that the failures of electoral politics will render voting meaningless, this doesn’t mean that millennials and Zoomers will suddenly give up on voting, when they can’t stomach another Trump presidency or the like.

Faris’s book warns Republicans of their party’s coming apocalypse, but I think the Democratic Party should take note too: its moderate economic and cultural appeasements do not and will not satisfy the needs of people who are increasingly financially insecure, BIPOC, feminist, socialist, communist, gender nonconforming, environmentalist, anti-racist, abolitionist, anti-imperialist, and decolonial. If the Democratic Party doesn’t radically change, leftists will continue to grow our collective power beyond our present political currents—through the increased formation and strengthening of unions and workers’ power, intracommunal aid, national progressive organizations and movements, and more. We have seen in the inaction of Democratic governors and mayors that the preservation of Black lives or a scorched West Coast will not be adequately addressed simply through electoral politics, and neither will economic justice or our future.

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author photoNick Rueth is the assistant reviews editor for ACM. They write about gender and politics and have published work in the Queer Reader. They have interned at the Los Angeles Review of Books and are working on a novel about love, rebellion, and power.