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Young Democrats Wonder Whether Party Is Prioritizing Nostalgia Over The Future

Former Georgia House Democratic leader Stacey Abrams (center) and "rising stars" in the Democratic Party speak during the second night of the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday.
Democratic National Convention via AP
Former Georgia House Democratic leader Stacey Abrams (center) and "rising stars" in the Democratic Party speak during the second night of the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday.

The second night of the Democratic National Convention began with a montage of young elected leaders — 17 of the party's "rising stars" delivering a joint keynote from across the country.

But the convention's first two nights also prominently featured speakers more reminiscent of bygone political eras than the current one, like Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, John Kerry, Colin Powell, Cindy McCain and Caroline Kennedy. That lineup has made some young people wonder whether the party is emphasizing nostalgia over the kind of forward-focused vision for the country most likely to entice younger voters.

When convention organizers unveiled the speaker list last week, a group representing more than 200 convention delegates under age 35 wrote an open letter calling for more generational diversity in the program.

Joseph Mullen, an 18-year-old Bernie Sanders delegate from Florida who founded the Young Delegates Coalition to bolster the voices of millennial (ages 24-39) and Gen Z delegates (ages 18-23) in the party, says it's not just a question of representation. Appeals for a return to normalcy fall flat with many young voters.

"We are in such a critical state as young people where we are watching climate change erode the shorelines down here in Florida," Mullen says. "We are watching our peers and fellow students be killed in school because of gun violence. These are urgent catastrophes in our country. These are things that are impending, right in front of our faces. And to me, it feels like we don't have the time to say we're going to go back to the old model of politics."

Before showrunners added the 17-person keynote address and other tweaks to the agenda, Mullen said the average age of a confirmed convention speaker was 62 years old and the whole week originally featured only two elected officials under age 40: Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

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Tuesday's keynote was a welcome addition, Mullen says, but when members of the Young Delegates Coalition gathered for a virtual watch party Tuesday night, two squares on the convention bingo cards they printed for the night encapsulated their frustration. The squares were to be marked off when someone complained about Bill Clinton speaking too long or Ocasio-Cortez speaking too little.

Zenaida Huerta, a 22-year-old Sanders delegate from California, says the party missed an opportunity with young voters by not featuring Ocasio-Cortez more prominently.

"Her speech really was an emotional and passionate plea and full of imagery of the pain that Americans and young Americans, frankly, are quite familiar with," Huerta says. "Young Americans right now are leading marches against racial injustice across America, and they're the ones suffering the most under this economic system."

Huerta says the rawness that Ocasio-Cortez captured in just over a minute did more to speak to young voters than any of the septuagenarian talkers who got more time.

Prentiss Haney, executive director of the Ohio Student Association, says the speaker lineup makes him think the campaign is making a calculated choice about which voters are most likely to show up and help Joe Biden across the finish line this fall.

Haney points to a poll released in June by the Alliance for Youth Action that found 43% of persuadable young voters had not been contacted by the Democratic Party or the Biden campaign.

"Young people are not confused about the choice or the stakes," Haney says. "What they want is to be acknowledged around their political agency, and to understand what's the path forward? What's the long arc?"

From Michigan, 27 year-old state Rep. Mari Manoogian helped deliver the opening keynote. It was pretaped, but by 10 o'clock Tuesday night, she was just getting a chance to grab some dinner after the segment aired.

Manoogian attended her first convention as a high-schooler with her dad. She says that the Biden campaign has been serious about engaging young people beyond just the convention and that the keynote made that clear.

"This is not the first time I've had any interaction with the campaign before or with folks who are working to get Biden and [Kamala] Harris elected," Manoogian says. "This is a deep relationship that we've built with them. And they listen to us. They take our opinions very seriously. And that, to me, is showing that, you know, not just when it matters for television, but when it truly counts, they're taking young, progressive leadership seriously."

Matthew Nowling, interim president of the College Democrats, says you have to look at the convention week as a whole. On top of daytime programming for young people and progressives throughout the week, he says there is plenty for young people to like on the main stage, like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former first lady Michelle Obama.

"I don't know how many of my friends are sitting through the whole thing," he says. "But I do know that people are on social media and seeing different clips from it, like I know that my Twitter feed was inundated with clips of Michelle Obama. We grew up with Barack and Michelle Obama, so I saw a lot of nostalgia about that and her message really connecting."

Wednesday's night's convention lineup will kick off with Emma Gonzalez, one of the founders of March For Our Lives, and include a conversation with young climate activists. But these slots are still relegated to a few minutes at the beginning of the night, before most major networks begin to carry the programming.

During the primary campaign, Biden struggled to gain significant traction with young voters — a key demographic the Democrats will need to turn out in November. On Super Tuesday, for example, exit polls showed that Sanders won 18- to 29-year-old voters in every state but Mississippi. According to Pew, Gen Z is projected to make up 1 in 10 eligible voters in 2020.

Cameron Kasky, who helped found March For Our Lives in response to school shootings, says candidates like Sanders and Andrew Yang were exciting during the primary because they had a new game plan for the country. Now, it's about a binary choice between Biden, 77, and President Trump, who is 74. Even though that's the reality of this moment, Kasky says there are still things the campaign can do to keep young people engaged.

"If the campaign focuses on letting it be about Joe sharing the mic with people and lifting up different stories, that could be really effective, Kasky says.

After organizing a youth-led movement to curb gun violence, Kasky says he's learned politicians need to prove they're listening to young voters, not just paying them lip service.

"When we were working with young organizers and going to different cities around the country, we'd be sitting down with local March for Our Lives chapters. And people would say, 'The one constant the one thing we've dealt with with politicians on both sides of the aisle is they're just not listening to us.' So if Biden's campaign is able to go out there and say, 'We hear you and we really do want you to have a seat at the table,' that's going to be effective."

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Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.