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Impatient with their elders, young Democrats step up

Whether moderates or progressives, they believe they better understand the anger and urgency felt by their fellow citizens.

By Emily Tamkin

Noah Arbit was not planning on running for office this year. When he saw a chance for a Democrat to take the seat representing the state district in Michigan in which he lives, he said, he called local election officials to see who wanted to run. Nobody did.

“That was the moment I said, ‘OK, fine. I’m going to do it,’” Arbit, 26, recalled.

Arbit is part of a wave of younger Democratic candidates who see a challenge to democracy and are frustrated by the response of the current party leadership, much of which, from the White House to the Senate to the House of Representatives, is older. Not “older” as in people in their thirties, forties or fifties but in their seventies or eighties, long past the retirement age for many Americans outside politics.

Arbit is quick to clarify. “I don’t really think it is about age. I think you can be a young person who’s not in touch, and an old person driven to meet the moment.” People are “chafing against”, he said, “leaders who fail to meet the moment… just putting up a lacklustre response”.

“What people are tired of are Democrats who are scared of their shadows. I think that’s why a lot of young people have said, ‘No, I’m going to do this myself.’ We’re tired of waiting, watching, and wondering.”

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It isn’t just at the state level. Gen Z people are running for Congress, too, in states as varied as Florida and Missouri. There was a 266 per cent increase in millennials running for Congress between 2018 and 2020, according to the Millennial Action Project. There are big differences between a 25-year-old Gen Z candidate and a 40-year-old millennial, but both are significantly younger than the Democratic Party leadership and the older generations that still make up the majority of Congress; members of both generations are running because they feel that they are better positioned to represent constituents and, critically, better understand the anger and urgency felt by their neighbours and fellow citizens. The first millennial of either party to enter the Senate was only elected last year: Jon Ossoff, a 35-year-old Democrat from Georgia.

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Often, younger candidates are considered to be more progressive. There’s a reason for this: younger voters tend to be farther to the left than their older counterparts; many candidates do explicitly say that they want to push their party to take bolder action, and some of the most famous and successful younger candidates who have taken on older elected officials and won have done so from the left. That was true of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, now 32, who defeated Joe Crowley in a Democratic primary election in 2018, ending his two decades in Congress and taking his New York City seat. Two years later Jamaal Bowman, now 46, did something similar in a neighbouring district, taking on Eliot Engel from the left and winning.

But perhaps the most famous Democratic millennial in America today – Pete Buttigieg, 40, who ran for president in 2020 and is now Joe Biden’s transportation secretary – had presented himself as a centrist (and, to some, the future of the party) by the time his campaign ended. And elsewhere in New York, a candidate is trying to make the case that the difference isn’t between progressive and moderate, but between urgency and complacency. Suraj Patel, 38, has tried twice to unseat Carolyn Maloney, 76, who represents New York City’s east side and has spent almost 30 years in Congress. This time, redrawn electoral maps meant that Maloney would have to compete with Jerry Nadler, 75, who has also spent 30 years in Congress and represents New York City’s west side. Neither Maloney nor Nadler dropped out, and so they are running against one another – and Patel is running against them both.

“1990s Democrats have lost every major battle to Mitch McConnell,” Patel said, referring to the Republican leader in the Senate. “Our generation’s going to have fewer rights.”

Patel asserted that he was the only one in the race with “ideas, stamina and energy”, describing himself as practical and pragmatic. “It’s not ideological,” he said, but rather about facing America’s problems with a “sense of urgency”. He pointed to domestic problems, such as trying to find baby formula for his nephew during a formula shortage, and foreign policy, such as needing people who understand the media on which misinformation prospers to fight it and defend liberal democracy.

Incidentally, at a debate against his opponents on Tuesday night, Patel stressed the need for change but was also the only candidate of the three to say Biden should run for re-election. Still, the New York primary is, Patel says, “a referendum on now”: on what’s happening in America today and on whether elected leaders are rising to the moment.

Whether voters agree with that assessment won’t be known until the primary result later this month. What is known now, though, is that across the country younger people are running for office – and not because they’re optimistic about the state of the United States.

Young people have to step up and take positions of leadership, said Arbit. “If we don’t, and this country goes off the rails, there’s no one coming to save us. We have to save us.” On Tuesday 2 August, he won his primary.

[See also: The rise of JD Vance – from hillbilly to Capitol Hill]