This article originally appeared on American Prospect Magazine’s website.
If there’s a silver lining to Nov. 2’s election result for progressives, it’s that young people, ages 18 to 29, turned out in record numbers and voted decidedly for the more progressive candidate, John Kerry. It’s the only age group Democrats won and one of the few voting demographics to actually increase its support for the Democratic candidate from 2000.
News of Kerry’s success among young people has been buried in the larger result: President George W. Bush’s victory by more than 3 million votes. Many also have focused on the fact that, in exit polls, a plurality of voters said that “moral values” was the most important issue.
Much like conservatives during the dark winter of 1964 after Barry Goldwater’s loss to Lyndon Johnson, progressives are now checking their pulse. Everyone is asking: What’s the long term vision? What do we stand for?
The logical conclusion — especially among partisan insiders with a propensity for triangulation — is that the United States is a center-right country and that Democrats need to move to the right if they have any hope of being more than a bicoastal minority. Disassociate from the battle over gay marriage, the thinking goes; concede to social conservatives on late-term abortions and parental notification; cower in the wake of Tom Daschle’s defeat and shed the party’s supposedly obstructionist image; give the president his Supreme Court nominee, no matter how radical and out of step.
This would be a tragic mistake. As Harry Truman said, if you run a Republican against a Democrat that acts like a Republican, the real Republican wins each time.
The successful party of the future will heed one result from last Tuesday: that young people — the leaders and voters of tomorrow — favored Kerry by a 10-point margin nationally, a 14-point margin in Ohio, an 18-point margin in Florida, and a 32-point margin in Pennsylvania.
By all accounts, this demographic is different than the rest of the country. They’re not so divided on the issues that divide the country. Sixty-three percent support civil unions or legal partnerships between homosexuals. More than half of 18- to 24-year-olds support a woman’s right to choose. And a majority of college students — many of whom consider themselves conservative — support affirmative action and believe health insurance is a right that government ought to provide. The issues that today shade America red and blue are not dividing the next generation.
At the same time, there’s also evidence of increased religiosity among America’s young people, especially among blacks and Latinos. But it’s not necessarily the kind of religious belief that pushes others into the so-called “religious conservative” camp. Community service, as well as church attendance, is at an all-time high. Young people are acting on their deeply held convictions about caring for the needs of their families, their communities, and the poor, according to Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
Moreover, this is the most tolerant generation in American history. More than any other age group, this one reflects the world we’re actually living in. They have gay and ethnically and religiously diverse friends. While some may choose abstinence, they’re not naive enough to believe abstinence alone is a remedy to unwanted pregnancies. They’re making moral and value judgments based on reality: that government should reward love and fidelity regardless of the genders involved; that politicians have no business regulating a woman’s body; that our leaders have an obligation to leave the world better off for the generations that follow; that America’s historic commitment to ethnic, religious and racial equality compels us to stand up for suffering people at home and in places like Sudan.
These are fundamental progressive values that the next generation already shares. To be sure, Democrats face a challenge today, but the challenge is not about figuring out what they stand for; it’s about sticking up for what they stand for and explaining to Americans why their stance is the moral one.
Today’s young voters could be the core of a progressive majority in 2028. Twenty-four years from now, today’s youth will be middle-aged. And while old age, children, and a mortgage may tarnish their idealism, it’s hard to believe that it will undermine their tolerance or transform their values. The party of the future will be the party that best reflects the values of this emerging majority. The Democratic Party shouldn’t let this year’s setback undermine a very promising future.
Ben Hubbard is campus programs director at the Center for American Progress. In early 2005, The Center will launch the Campus Progress Network — a brand-new effort to counter the growing strength and influence of right-wing groups on college and university campuses, and to identify, assist and empower new generations of progressive leaders. Learn more – including how you can get involved at CampusProgress.org
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