Young Americans have grown increasingly cynical about politics, institutions, and political leaders. The sources of that cynicism are no mystery.

A person steps on a ripped Make America Great Again sign in Boston on November 7, 2020. (Pat Greenhouse / the Boston Globe via Getty Images)

For a certain niche of America’s pundit class, Joe Biden’s lack of popularity remains something of a mystery. Is it the economy? Inflation? Gaza? Biden’s catastrophic approval ratings make the question difficult to ignore, but few seem able to settle on an answer. As Ross Douthat fairly observed in March, “There isn’t a chattering-class consensus or common shorthand for why his presidency is such a political flop.”

I have no special insight into the causes of Biden’s unpopularity as such. Being a socialist, I thought (and argued vociferously) that he would make a bad president and that predictions of an “FDR-sized” administration were more a case of liberal wish fulfillment than a serious possibility. Suffice it to say, it was probably not a good idea for a man born closer to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln than his own to seek reelection when 70 percent of voters didn’t want him to. Whatever the official story might be about the state of the US economy or the wonders of Bidenomics, there also remains plenty of financial pain and general hardship throughout the country even if the pace of inflation has slowed.

When it comes to the segment of the electorate in which Biden is the least popular, however, the debate’s tendency toward mystification is a lot more puzzling. Having won the under-thirty vote by a comfortable margin of twenty-three points in 2020, Biden is now trailing Donald Trump with that cohort in several battleground states and is essentially drawing even with him nationally. Being election season, analyses of Biden’s cratering youth support have tended to emphasize immediate factors like the economy and cost of living, and the terrain of discussion has often been about whether these or the president’s support for Israel’s ongoing destruction of Gaza are the reason such a reliably Democrat-leaning demographic seems to be jumping ship.

These are questions worth probing. At Vox, for example, Christian Paz observes that Biden was already losing younger Americans before October 7 and cites data that suggests bread-and-butter economic issues are of greater priority to young voters than more straightforwardly progressive concerns like the war or climate change. Eric Levitz hypothesizes that an environment characterized by diminished trust in government is likely to reap greater electoral benefits for the Right, because the liberal mantra that “America never stopped being great” militates against the preferences of those who have lost faith in the system (whereas the Trumpian message is more likely to appeal to them).

More striking than the fact of the incumbent president’s cratering support with those under thirty is that anyone is surprised by it. Indeed, there is good reason to think that a deeper kind of alienation now pervades among the young than anything that might be reducible to particular candidates or a particular election.

To this point, recent polling conducted by the Democratic-aligned firm Blueprint suggests there is something more profound and existential at work than how well a typical twenty-something in California or Michigan feels Biden has handled the cost-of-living crisis or the protests that have sprung up across the campuses of American universities. In an online survey, the study found that roughly half of those aged eighteen to thirty don’t see themselves or people like them represented in elections and agreed with the statements “the political system in the US doesn’t work for people like me” and “it doesn’t matter who wins elections, nothing changes.”

An astonishing 64 percent, meanwhile, believe that America is in decline, while a slightly higher percentage agreed that “nearly all politicians are corrupt, and make money from their political power,” with only 7 percent disagreeing. In assessing these findings, Blueprint’s lead pollster Evan Roth Smith was remarkably direct as to their meaning and implications: “These statements blow me away, the scale of these numbers with young voters. . . . Young voters do not look at our politics and see any good guys. They see a dying empire led by bad people.”

There are many ways all this might be interpreted, and there needn’t be a single explanation for why Biden is currently sinking among voters under thirty. Nonetheless, Blueprint’s study suggests there is a need for mystification when it comes to the broader feeling of cynicism many now share regarding the political class. It’s silly to think that age comes with an inherent value system or that some particular measure of political wisdom or ignorance can be neatly mapped onto people by virtue of age. Contrary to popular belief, the young aren’t always more likely to lean left, and older voters have not always been the reliable bastion of conservatism that they are today. Having lived through the same events, however, those belonging to particular generations often share a common outlook on politics, even if its contours are blurry and its implications widely contingent.

Seen in these terms, it’s absurd to think that the deep malaise and abiding lack of optimism measurable among today’s young represents any kind of puzzle. Where those who grew up before the 1980s might remember the broadly shared prosperity of the postwar era and the sense of democratic possibility that accompanied it, those born near the turn of the century have grown up in their ruins. At the mercy of an ever-more financialized economy that offers most neither freedom nor security, they’ve seen wages stagnate and social programs dismantled, all while a gilded few accrue levels of wealth unseen since before the democratic age.

They’ve seen presidents, Democratic and Republican alike, preside over destructive, unpopular wars and the would-be guardians of objectivity regurgitate the lies used to justify them. They’ve seen civil liberties eroded and stable employment transformed into a luxury few can expect to experience. They’ve come to know the political class as something pathologically resistant to change, and political institutions as something distant, alien, and disproportionately occupied by people decades older whose bank balances tend to resemble the GDP of a minor Balkan republic.

Though a left-wing narrative might speak to these sentiments in the broadest sense, there is no particular reason they can’t be channeled toward reactionary ends just as easily. In both 2016 and 2020, a credible figure was present to articulate the concerns of young people and champion them in the form of a popular program. In the absence of one, amid yet another election cycle in which there is no mainstream political option offering any real alternative to the barren cruelties and ambient despondency of the present, is it any wonder so many people born since the 1990s today feel cynicism rather than hope?

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