There’s a third reason so many politically engaged young lefties feel disaffected: These young people have come of age in a time of rising populism, declining democracy, climate catastrophe, and vicious inequality. “This is a cohort that has never felt stable or secure, personally, financially, or physically,” John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, told me. “They don’t have a moment where they felt great to be an American, or when America was truly united.” These voters aren’t old enough to recall the surge of patriotism after 9/11, he noted; some don’t even remember Barack Obama’s election. But their feeling of vulnerability has made the youngest American adults much more likely than older voters to agree that the government should, and indeed needs to, solve the country’s problems.
Yet Biden and a Democratic Congress have failed to deliver on many of their promises. The Republican-dominated Supreme Court now looks set to gut the administrative state and wind back any number of laws and rights, and will likely keep doing so for decades. Conservatives, through techniques such as gerrymandering, have tilted state legislatures and Congress to the right. The problems are getting more and more pressing, and the government is getting less and less capable, in the eyes of many young progressives I spoke with (a point on which many political scientists, historians, and politicians concur). “The country’s broken, held together with McKinsey slide decks and duct tape,” Beatrice Adler-Bolton, a co-host of the podcast Death Panel, told me.
The youngest Americans will bear the worst consequences of our warming world and our government, which gives disproportionate power to older people in conservative states. And young progressives might not get their say in Washington for a long time, if ever. “On abortion access or raising the minimum wage or gun safety, we have seen the inability of our legislators to enact the policies that the vast majority of Americans support,” Tzintzún Ramirez, of NextGen, said. “Now we have an extreme right-wing Court that is making decisions over the health and the lives of millions of people, with next to no accountability.”