The US midterm election was meant to be the vote at which Joe Biden paid the hefty price for devoting too much attention as president to younger voters. “He championed the entire far-left agenda,” fumed the commentator Andrew Sullivan on 4 November in his Substack blog, before going on to object against such alleged Biden priorities as “critical queer theory in kindergarten”. Sullivan, for those not familiar with his work, is not some extreme Trumpite, but a moderate self-confessed fan of Michael Oakeshott, the English philosopher who defined conservatism as a preference for “the familiar to the unknown, the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible”. Yet his Substack take typified a boomer American political centre in which all is not well.
“I am aware of the profound threat to democratic legitimacy that the election-denying GOP core now represents,” Sullivan wrote. “But that’s precisely why we need to send the Dems a message this week.” Not only did this make no logical sense (if the fundamental threat is from the Republicans, why prioritise punishing Democrats?), but it also obviously contradicted every tenet of Oakeshott-style conservatism. Sullivan’s distorted argument was that Biden had been too craven to young Americans and their values, and therefore needed to be “sent a message” in the form of votes for a Republican Party swathes of whose candidates refuse to accept the legitimate result of the 2020 election, and elements of which have even encouraged violence in the service of their own delusions.
Fortunately, on 8 November many American swing voters did not see things thus. The widely predicted Republican “red wave” did not materialise. The Democrat John Fetterman, for example, won the Senate seat in blue-collar Pennsylvania, a race with which the supposedly “woke” Biden had closely associated himself. Democrats also held vulnerable House seats in Virginia and Michigan. At the time of writing Republicans may fail to take the Senate and could win the House only narrowly – when both races had long been deemed easy wins for the party. Various Republican candidates who backed Donald Trump’s lie that Biden did not win the presidency legitimately in 2020 have lost their races. Almost all midterms are bad for the sitting president, but Biden seems to have got away with the least-bad such result in a long time.
He has the young to thank. CNN’s House exit poll showed American voters aged under 30 to be the group that prevented the “red wave”. Republican candidates had huge, double-digit leads in groups of voters aged 45 and above. Millennials (or more precisely those aged between 30 and 44) leaned only slightly towards Democrats, by four points. Voters under 30, however, which are mostly Gen Z (generally considered to be those born between 1997 and 2012), backed Biden’s Democrats by a lead of 28 points.
The gulf between how young Americans are portrayed in much of the media and how they behave could hardly be greater. To heed the likes of Sullivan (let alone those to his right) is to imagine the country’s woke youth as a hopeless bunch: self-absorbed, censorious, instinctively sceptical of democracy. Yet the reality is that America’s young just saved the country from a potentially terminal landslide by illiberal, anti-democratic forces.
A sizeable part of the country’s electorate, concentrated among its Make America Great Again-leaning older generations, now votes for candidates who believe they can simply invent an alternative version of the 2020 election. By contrast, voters under 30 have collectively rejected that by buttressing a series of Democrat candidates, even some at odds with certain of their interests and priorities. That ought to blow apart the hand-wringing commentaries about Gen Z’s alleged obsession with “critical queer theory in kindergarten” and the like. Yes, the current generation of young Americans, like every generation of young Americans before it, has developed some specific, annoying habits (in this case, a tendency towards preachiness). But when it came down to it on 8 November, when the country’s democracy was on the line, they did the right thing.
The midterms were of course only a prelude to the presidential election in 2024, which after Tuesday’s vote now looks set to be a contest between Biden (bolstered by the results) and Ron DeSantis (the right-wing Republican governor of Florida whose re-election appears to have sidelined Trump). DeSantis has flirted extensively with conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election. His election to the White House would be a disaster for the institutions and norms of liberal democracy in America.
The best defence against this is America’s young turning out in 2024 like they did on Tuesday – and ideally even more so. The political future of the world’s most powerful country lies in their hands. So perhaps in the coming months and years, older centrist and right-of-centre commentators and politicians might want to think twice before dismissing as “far-left” pragmatic policies that improve the lives of the young or otherwise tilt towards their sociocultural values.
You do not have to agree with America’s Gen Z on everything to recognise that they are their country’s best and perhaps even last bastion against the failure of democracy – and thus against the fragmentation of the US’s alliances around the globe. They are the guardians of the republic, and with it the West. Eventually they will run the country that, given China’s many woes, looks as if it will remain the world’s leading power for decades to come. Take them seriously. They are not the gormless, self-indulgent, irredeemably woke intransigents of lazy media cliche. In fact, the kids are alright.