Democrats Must Invest in Young People If They Want to Win

The midterms proved the climate generation is a force to be reckoned with.

Varshini Prakash

Youth climate activists with the Sunrise Movement in Washington, D.C. in June 2021. Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Leading up to Election Day, many media outlets were talking about a coming red wave.” Republicans were predicted to take the House by huge margins and win the Senate. Young voters were expected to stay home. 

Instead, Democrats shocked the country. Election night was filled with progressive triumphs. Green New Deal champions Summer Lee and Greg Casar won in Pennsylvania and Texas; Maxwell Frost, the first Gen Z candidate in history, was elected in Florida; Lt. Gov. John Fetterman won his Senate race in Pennsylvania; and voters across the country passed ballot amendments to support abortion rights, marijuana legalization and the elimination of forced prison labor. While Democrats may ultimately lose the House, it still appears to be the best midterm election for an incumbent president since 2002.

So what happened? Young people showed up. 

This election saw the second-highest youth midterm turnout in the past 30 years, and turnout in battleground states was high. In Wisconsin, the state Democratic Party reported that early youth voter turnout was 360% more than in 2018. In Pennsylvania, young people voted for Fetterman at a rate of 70%. Just as we propelled the Democratic Party to victory in 2018 and 2020, last week we were the wall that helped hold back the supposed red wave.

Just as we propelled the Democratic Party to victory in 2018 and 2020, last week we were the wall that helped hold back the supposed red wave.
Activists affiliated with the Sunrise Movement in Brooklyn in 2019. Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Young people are and will be the bedrock of the Democratic Party. We organize, we get out the vote and we consistently vote for Democrats. Sunrise contacted more than 3 million voters (primarily under 35) over the past year through phone calls, texts and canvassing. Other grassroots groups also stepped in to reach youth voters during these midterms including NextGen, RISE, United We Dream, and Leaders Igniting Transformation, among others. But at the same time, we are chronically overlooked and underinvested in. This year, there was no concerted effort by the Democrats to get out the youth vote. These victories happened despite that under-investment, pollsters not knowing that young people don’t pick up random calls, and despite politicians barely talking about issues crucial to young people (like climate). In a sign of how small any investment really was, our organizers on the ground — all the way up to Election Day — fielded questions about where and when to vote, and even who the candidates were that they should support.

If Democrats want to keep winning, and if they mean it when they say they want to protect our country from fatal storms and nationwide abortion bans, they need to listen now more than ever.

If Democrats want to keep winning, and if they mean it when they say they want to protect our country from fatal storms and nationwide abortion bans, they need to listen now more than ever.

First, the Democratic Party needs to recognize its possibilities. Youth from 18 – 29 are the only age group in which a strong majority supported Democrats during these midterms. And according to the Edison Research National Election Pool exit poll, 63% of the youth vote for House candidates went to Democrats, compared with 35% to Republicans. Even more to the point, 89% of Black youth and 68% of Latine youth voted for a Democratic candidate for the House. 

If this is what we could do without investment, imagine what we could do if young people were organized, if they believed in the ability of government to change their lives, and if they saw politicians who looked and talked like them? Today’s early twentysomethings were in high school when Donald Trump was elected. We taught each other how to resist, organize and plan walkouts. We have a clear-eyed vision for what this world can be — and if we’re invested in, we can lead the way for the country. 

Second, Democrats need to run on our issues. Young people are not turning out because things are going well; we’re voting because we’re terrifyingly aware of the stakes. We’ve faced a year of unrelenting climate disasters, the reversal of Roe v. Wade, and bullets flying through our schools with horrifying regularity.

The climate crisis is at the forefront of young voters’ minds. On college campuses, young people named climate and abortion as issues that got them to the polls. In this election, 84% of Democratic voters said climate was a very serious issue, and responding to climate disasters like hurricanes is one of the very few areas in which people across the political spectrum see a strong and crucial role for the government. More than any other issue polled, climate is where Democrats are trusted to act more than Republicans. Running on climate change ought to be a no-brainer for Democrats. Look at Casar in the 35th District in Texas. After running on a Green New Grid” — a reference to fixing the state’s electric grid — Casar mobilized thousands of young people after a season of climate disasters. Now he’s a blue dot in a sea of red.

More than any other issue polled, climate is where Democrats are trusted to act more than Republicans. Running on climate change ought to be a no-brainer for Democrats.
Members of the Sunrise Movement outside DNC headquarters in New York City in 2019. Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

And third, Democrats need to deliver policy wins. Passing popular policy, from the first major climate bill in U.S. history to canceling student loan debt, has absolutely been effective. Young people were not excited to vote months ago, but after the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and the Biden administration’s plan to cancel student loan debt, President Joe Biden’s polling numbers improved and may have led to the game-changing turnout. Still, that last-minute attempt isn’t enough. The Inflation Reduction Act is a far cry from what we need to stop the climate crisis, and we can’t help but imagine how much young people would have turned out if Democrats had passed the full, ambitious suite of policies they were promised with Build Back Better.

Meanwhile, right-wing extremists like Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida and Senator-elect J.D. Vance in Ohio won handily. The GOP spent the past few decades organizing and polarizing communities on the ground to build power, which is how they were able to load a Supreme Court willing to reverse Roe v. Wade despite a Democratic trifecta in the House, Senate and Oval Office. And they’re not stopping. Fox News host Laura Ingraham recently named bringing young people in as a top goal for Republicans ahead of 2024.

We must be as ambitious as our opponents. If the Democratic Party is serious about holding power and protecting our rights, leadership must invest in our generation and fight for the progressive policies — like meaningfully tackling the climate crisis — that we believe in. That is how we win. 

And that’s why the Sunrise Movement has adopted a new strategy. We are going to be doubling down in our cities, towns and schools to train and activate thousands of young people. It’s time for us to get serious about building long-term power and organizing a movement across race and class that can transform our society and take over every level of government — especially as right-wing extremists continue to wage that battle themselves. 

We will be running campaigns focused on communities, schools and organizing Black and brown folks across the country who have long been ignored and chewed up by our system. The campaigns are designed to:

  1. Prove that the government and the Green New Deal can work for us by winning policy that impacts our lives and breeds hope.
  2. Build community-organizing strength around our ideas as we train the next generation of Green New Deal leaders.
  3. Take the power back from corporations by finally having our own stranglehold on politicians in key states, in local elections and in federal politics.

We will continue to push Biden and Congress on investment at the federal level, and we will continue to build people power from the ground up, which will shape the future of the country on a national scale. That is how power in this country has been built for decades, from the civil rights movement to the labor movement that helped force the original New Deal.

We are on a mission to deliver a Green New Deal for our generation. We will build a country where everyone has access to clean air, clean water and a good-paying job, where all of us and our kids won’t live in fear of the worst impacts of the climate crisis. 

We are pouring our blood, sweat and tears into organizing young people. 

Democrats, what are you doing?

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Varshini Prakash is the executive director of Sunrise Movement.

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