Larry Downing / Reuters / Landov

Five ways to pander to millennials in 2016

If politicians want young people to vote, they have to appeal to more than a sense of civic duty

November 18, 2014 2:00AM ET

The midterms are over, and the Democrats lost, so we know who’s to blame: millennials. As the most progressive-skewing birth cohort, young people are responsible for canceling out conservative older voters. The problem is, we — and I do mean we — couldn’t be bothered to show up. Under-30 eligible-voter turnout was 21.5 percent, according to preliminary numbers from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. That number was actually up slightly from 2010 but abysmal compared with the traditional 60 percent or so that politicians can expect from voters over 65 during midterm years. Older people voted, the more progressive young bloc didn’t, and now we all have to live under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. This is the grumbling liberal line, but the Democrats have no one to blame but themselves.

When commentators talk about young voters, they speak in terms of generic civic participation. Facebook’s targeted banners pitch voting to millennials in the same way it might sell recycling or the ice bucket challenge, as a depoliticized responsibility to pitch in and make the world a better place. But young people see through it: It’s hopelessly naive and has nothing to do with the way American politics actually works. Survey data from the Harvard Institute of Politics before the election showed “18- to 29-year-olds’ trust in public institutions at a five-year low — and their cynicism toward the political process has never been higher,” director Trey Garson said. The survey also found that young conservatives were more excited to vote than their progressive counterparts. Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns were able to motivate young supporters to turn out, but our faith in the system has tanked since.

So how should the parties appeal to these cynical young voters? How can anyone motivate such a historically unmotivated demographic? The answer is simple: pandering. “I voted” rhetoric doesn’t offer millennials anything for their time and attention except maybe a shallow feeling of moral superiority, and that’s not going to cut it. When a party wants farmers or misogynists or Christians or old people to come out and vote for them, they offer support for their agendas and their interests. There are some easy stands either major party — or even a third protest party or independent candidate — could make to appeal directly to potential young voters. Here is a five-point plan:

End unpaid internships. The vast majority of unpaid internships are in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Interns are owed minimum wage, and the Department of Labor knows it. One cost-effective way to pander to millennial voters is to go after employers for past-due wages. The infrastructure already exists within the department to do just that, but it’s woefully underfunded; a new subdivision in the wages and hours enforcement division dedicated to shutting down these exploitative arrangements could pay for itself with fines. And when young workers get their checks in the mail — money they’re owed by law — electoral politics starts to look a lot more relevant to their lives.

Marijuana is one of the only drugs growing in popularity among millennials; cigarettes and even alcohol are on the decline.

Increase Pell Grants. Student debt and the costs of higher education are huge concerns for young voters, but neither party has addressed the crisis. Pell Grants, the largest source of nonloan aid for low-income college students, haven’t even kept up with the increased costs of public college. According to College Board data, in the 1993–94 school year, the maximum Pell Grant covered 91 percent of the cost of tuition and fees in state at the average four-year public university; by this year the proportion dropped to 63 percent. Committing the federal government to match 100 percent of average in-state tuition and fees with a maximum grant wouldn’t break the bank, and the Treasury borrows at a much lower rate than students and their families. It’s a modest start to addressing the higher education cost crisis, but it’s more substantive than anything either party has offered yet.

Legalize marijuana. While the Democrats suffered defeats at the polls, legal weed won big in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C. In Alaska and Oregon, legalization ballot measures not only passed but also outperformed all four of the major party Senate candidates. Now four of 50 states and, if the polls can be trusted, most Americans, support legalization, but neither major party does. John Hudak at the Brookings Institute hoped the Alaskan initiative could put Democrat Sen. Mark Begich on top, but his Republican opponent and weed both won. So far the parties have been cautious on the issue, but young people are growing less so. Marijuana is one of the only drugs growing in popularity among millennials; cigarettes and even alcohol are on the decline. In fact, teen attitudes and behaviors are back where they were in the mid-1970s. Legalization is on the way, and the party that says no is going to lose credibility with the next generation of young voters. On the other hand, the first party to come out and say that the time for weed prohibition is over will look sane, responsible and chill.

Build a national university. College costs way too much, and so far there’s no good plan to change the model and no incentive for any of the decision-makers to hold the price down. Even Barack Obama’s administration admits that the number of new college seats hasn’t kept up with the number of prepared students, driving up demand, competition and tuition. A new model is necessary, and it’s going to take some experimenting to figure out how to provide a quality education at an affordable, stable cost. The federal government could take the lead with a pilot campus committed to keeping tuition and fees below the average Pell Grant award. It would be a bold, flashy statement about what the cost of higher education should be, and if it works, it could expand and force public and private universities to lower their inflated costs. An Olympics-style competition among the states to host the campus could bring public awareness and snag a sweet piece of land, and there’s no shortage of students looking for a scam-free lower-cost option. Fund it with the profits from federal student loans; there’s no shortage there either.

Lower the voting age. For this year’s independence vote, the still-not-nation of Scotland lowered the voting age from 18 to 16. The decision would affect Scotland’s residents long into the future, and it would have been unfair to exclude older teens who are preparing to join the adult world. In the U.S., by the time teens can vote, many of them have already committed to a college plan, starting to take out tens of thousands in debt. If the federal government thinks 17-year-olds have enough maturity to lend them thousands of dollars — not to mention drive a car — then they can pick between Republicans and Democrats as well as the average 85-year-old. A party that puts votes for 16-year-olds on the table would show some faith in young people’s judgment and perhaps inspire some reciprocity. Perhaps that’s just a nice spin on a cynical power-for-power trade, but it’s better than Rock the Vote.

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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