Donald Trump is gone.
For many, that statement is accompanied by an understandable surge of relief. The Trump administration was a deep shock to the normally indomitable status quo, and every day brought a new scandal or moment of terror. So the impulse to have politics “go back to being boring,” as Politico put it, is strong, and reasonably so.
But giving into that temptation is a bargain with the devil; real change demands that grassroots organization continue, and that young people (a traditionally disengaged group) remain willing to fight for the future they believe in.
Some will, sensibly, object that this seems unnecessary. Trump has been forced from the White House, and the party that supported him has lost both houses of legislature. And by many metrics, the youth vote was already decisive in Biden’s narrow victory, particularly in swing states like Pennsylvania and Georgia. Young voters of color were especially critical, as all preferred Biden overwhelmingly. Surely, triumphalism makes sense with such a meaningful victory?
Just looking at news coverage, one would certainly be inclined to believe it. The media is awash in articles proclaiming Biden the next FDR, ready to achieve the highest ideals of American democracy and usher in an era of progressive leadership. Even outlets like Business Insider (hardly a bastion of liberalism) proclaim that “2020 may have finally captured youth turnout — and the momentum could keep going,” and many Democrats are declaring that, with growing vote shares of youth and people of color, the time to appeal to “angry working-class white people” is past. A “multicultural cosmopolitanism,” as Foreign Policy put it, of young people, people of color, and affluent urbanites, is the future of the Democratic party.
The assumption that youth will unquestionably vote Democrat is a dangerous one. By focusing its 2020 campaign on Trump rather than on the strength of its own platform, the Democratic Party left itself vulnerable to a down-ballot rout. Polls predicted Democrats would expand their House majority and take the Senate, but instead the House majority actually shrunk and the Senate is now 50-50. The 2020 exit polls show a dangerous truth: the number of voters who voted for Biden because they genuinely liked him and his platform was pitiful. Trump supporters, as YouGov found last June, were over twice as enthusiastic, and the Wisconsin Examiner reported that young people were fired up to vote, but not because of enthusiasm for Biden. An analysis by The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement also found 40 percent of young Biden voters turned out solely because of the pandemic. For so much of the youth turnout to be unenthusiastic and focused on the short-term is not encouraging. And while Biden may have won the youth vote, those more concerned with jobs and the economy voted overwhelmingly for Trump. More than anything, it seems these decisive Biden votes were… resigned.
This kind of resigned voting for unremarkable candidates is not inevitable. Since 2016, Bernie Sanders and other progressives have championed youth and the policies they believed in, winning support in great numbers. Sanders’s campaigns may be over, but the explosion of grassroots progressivism and the precedent he set remains relevant. It carried progressives like AOC and the Squad to office, and produced newly-energized political action. Our publication has covered a number of issues with youth at the forefront, from student activists with the Climate Strike to electoral activism in the 2020 election. The recent on-campus rally hosted by the Lowell Black Student Union against racism at Lowell is a perfect example of youth-led action in the name of political change. Despite these successes, the fight for these issues doesn’t end with a single demonstration or even a concession to some bottom-up demands — extracting a promise of change easily revoked is not sufficient.
It’s strange, then, that most of the emphasis at the national level has shifted away from this so dramatically. The promises of “unity” Biden’s inaugural speech invoked, and a return to a “sense of normalcy” as a longtime Biden aide put it, contrasts sharply with youth activism. It promises what the Washington Post called the “return of the technocrats,” not meaningful change. Biden’s actions thus far are mixed — despite promises of another universal stimulus and undoing Trump’s immigration reforms, his administration has expressed openness to income limits on stimulus checks and reopened “overflow facilities” to prepare for more border apprehensions, according to USA Today. There have been positive actions, like Biden’s executive orders canceling Trump’s travel ban and the Keystone XL pipeline, but this is concerning nonetheless.
Political administrations seldom genuinely represent their constituents, especially when those constituents lack power and status. If Trump got millions to turn out into the streets to stand for a better society only for the Biden era to send them home, then the past four years taught us nothing. The power of youth and its influence on Democratic policies pushed Biden’s election platform left, but consistent and determined action is required to ensure follow through. Young people will determine the future, but only if we fight for it.
If democracy only starts and ends in a voting booth every four years, then the fight for a better future has already been lost.