Democrats Are in No Position to Dispell Young Adults’ Distrust of Washington

In the not so distant past it was taken as gospel that young adults would form a solidly Democratic voting bloc for the foreseeable future. We’ve always disputed that view, pointing to both history (both Reagan and H.W. Bush won majorities of 18- to 29-year-old voters) and current policy (where Democrats have completely abandoned issues central to young adults) as reasons why.

Our point of view was partially vindicated in the most recent elections. A slew of great candidates coupled with youth-centric messaging and a tireless get-out-the-vote effort allowed Republicans to cut Democrats’ edge with 18-28 year olds in half. There were also key candidates in important races that won the youth vote outright. For instance, Ohio Governor John Kasich won the young adult cohort by 15 points, just four years after losing the same age group by 10 points, or Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who won Millennials by 5 points, a huge improvement from four years earlier when the Republican candidate lost by 38 points.

Some political observers think the swing had much less to do with any changes in Millennial view, or anything that Republican candidates did to speak to those views, than it did with things that Democrats did wrong. As Juan Williams writes for The Hill:

Young people of all colors, but mostly blacks, Hispanics and immigrants, are the primary source of that pressure. Their political agenda extends beyond outrage over the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York. They also want Democrats in Congress to get busy defending ObamaCare. But their rising political engagement is best seen over the last few weeks in the ongoing demonstrations.

The problem is that Congressional Democrats, wounded by the midterms, are failing to capture the political energy of this youth movement. . .

It is up to the Congress, not the president, to address the cancerous distrust that young people and minorities harbor for the criminal justice system. Only Congress can bring the nation’s attention to high alert with public hearings and legislation to repair a broken judicial structure.

The problem in Williams’ argument is that young adults’ distrust extends well beyond the criminal justice system. Indeed, it extends to nearly everything that the government touches. To see how deep the cynicism goes one need look no further than a recent poll surveying young Americans’ political attitudes released by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. The poll found that young adults’ level of trust fell for nearly every single public institution over the last four years.

Trust in the president fell by 12 points to 32 percent. Trust in Congress fell 11 points to 14 percent. Trust in the federal government as a whole fell 9 points to 20 percent. And the list goes on.

And it goes on for good reason. In just the last year young adults have been faced with stories about the Department of Justice attempting to prosecute reporters, the NSA spying on citizens without their consent, IRS officials targeting groups with certain political leanings (and then deleting emails about the incident) and the Department of Health and Human Services bungling the Healthcare.gov rollout. How on earth can anyone expect young adults not to be cynical when the headlines are dominated by the White House either infringing on the rights of its citizens or messing up key things it’s been tasked with.

Does any of that guarantee a permanent Republican majority? No. Far from it. But it does give Republicans the perfect opportunity to show Millennials the value and the power of freedom. If Democrats are going to focus on something as narrow as the criminal justice system then it seems as though they’ve lost the larger point.