The Age of Political Persuasion Is Over

To Attract the Next Generation, Politics Must Be About Advocacy, Organization, and Winning

Democratic Socialists of America, protest
Rally demanding resignation of Manhattan District Attorney, an end to "Broken Windows" petty offense cases, and an end to mass incarceration in NYC, October 30, 2017. Photo credit: Working Families Party / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Millennials are on the rise, both on the left and the right. But their trajectories have been very different.

The young left has had unquestioned triumphs, including Tuesday’s New York primary, where a 28-year-old Latina and Democratic Socialist, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, defeated a 20-year Democratic incumbent congressman and supposed heir apparent to Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). The activism of the anti-gun-violence Parkland students is another example of young people on the left being energized.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that the right has been far more successful in recruiting millennials than the left.  

This trend is discussed by this week’s Radio WhoWhatWhy guest, journalist Michael Hobbes. Hobbes is the author of a couple of compelling recent stories about these issues, including “The Right-Wing Millennial Machine,” and “Generation Screwed.” They are important touchstones for understanding today’s youth politics.

While the number of millennials who identify with the right is a small percentage of the population, the number of young people within Republican politics is disproportionately large. It’s no accident that the three youngest US senators are all Republicans and that Republican members of Congress are, on average, much younger than Democrats.

Donors on the right have been funding a resilient leadership pipeline, while the left has focused on individual causes. As Hobbes points out, the right is building a monolithic political infrastructure, while the left is busy supporting existing institutions.

Hobbes tells Jeff Schechtman that 20-something voters should not be seen as political outliers but rather as people who care about the same pocketbook issues everyone else cares about: the cost of housing, the price of education, wages, and healthcare. These are all issues that have directly impeded the social mobility of young people.

Hobbes, an important new millennial voice, shatters the myth that our debates today are a war of ideas. We are long past the point where anyone is being persuaded, he says. The right understands this, the left does not. The electorate is simply too bifurcated, and information is too siloed. Success for both sides will come from expanding their base, building organizations, and motivating and turning out voters. The endless 12-point plans laid out, for example by Hillary Clinton, no longer have value in today’s political environment. It’s not about trying to convince people, it’s about advocacy.

What the right has learned so well about recruitment is that if you grab them by the wallet, it’s a lot easier for their hearts and minds to follow.


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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Thanks for joining us on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. 50 years ago during the last great social and political upheaval in America, young people led the way. The mantra of the day of not trusting anyone over 30 defined the generational and political divide.
Today, we face an altogether different but equally powerful social and political dislocation, except that this time we wonder where are the young people? Where are the millennials? Where is the rising generation? Perhaps it’s why the Parkland kids struck such a resident chord with David Hogg reminding us that the children will lead us. But in this current divide, both sides of Boomers and Gen Xers, red and blue, are battling for the hearts, minds, and soul of the millennial generation. The left has the natural state of liberalism in the young, but the right has the organization, the business savvy, and the money.
How this plays out may truly impact the fate of the republic, and it’s the subject of a story by my guest, Michael Hobbes, entitled “The Right Wing Millennial Machine,” that appears in the May 30th edition of HuffPost. Michael Hobbes is a senior enterprise reporter for HuffPost. He covers the economy, and he has become a kind of voice for the millennial class. It is my pleasure to welcome Michael Hobbes here to the program. Michael, thanks so much for joining us.
Michael Hobbes: Thanks for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: As you look at millennials today and their issues, their problems, and you’ve covered a lot about this, talk a little bit first about where politics, in general, fits into the equation for millennials.
Michael Hobbes: Well, I think there’s two central facts of the situation that millennials find themselves in, and the first is that the economy has changed in quantifiable ways to make it harder for us than it was for our parents. On any objective measure of security, stability, social mobility, things have gotten harder. College costs four times more. Housing costs four times more. Healthcare is much more expensive. Wages have not grown since the 1980s. All of that is measurable. It’s right in front of us in the statistics.
The second undeniable fact about the situation of millennials is that our parents are holding on to political power much longer than any previous American generation. When our parents were protesting the Vietnam War and doing all of their student activism in the ’60s, Americans under 45 outnumbered Americans over 45 two to one, so that’s why you have all these younger political candidates and kind of a movement of young people into political power.
Right now, Americans under 45 are equal to Americans over 45, so the boomer generation is really the first generation in American history to retain political power as it ages. This is why now we have the average member of Congress is 59 years old. The age structure of the country has moved older and older and, for the first time, young people really can’t politically reflect their opinions and their preferences in the structures of power, and so that’s where we see a lot of these tensions that seem like they’re individual tensions: All millennials like to play video games, whatever. Those are actually political tensions that are playing out at the individual level.
Jeff Schechtman: There’s also an aspect of it that relates to the parents of these millennials in that those parents that have been boomer parents, Gen Xer parents that have been more successful, reflect very directly on how the millennials are doing.
Michael Hobbes: I mean, I think everyone is blind to the advantages that they have. I think it’s just a human trait. The reason I worked on this article for most of last year, called “Generation Screwed,” about all of the factors that are affecting millennials, comes out of a conversation that I had with my parents where my dad was talking about how he worked his way through college. That’s true, but when I asked him for the details of how he worked his way through college, he worked 10 hours a week in the cafeteria, and that was enough for his tuition. If you look at the numbers now, working 10 hours a week won’t even get you a quarter of tuition even at a cheap state school.
It’s the same thing throughout the economy, that my father’s first home cost 18 months of his salary. I live in Seattle where the median home here would cost at least 10 years of my salary. I think that there’s this break between boomers feel like, “Well, I worked. I struggled when I was in my 20s, and I made it. Why can’t you?” I think that, as you get older, you don’t notice how the economy has changed, and it’s very easy to forget that the minimum wage hasn’t gone up since the 1990s, and healthcare, health insurance, deductibles for health insurance are huge now. A lot of people have $3,000, $4,000, $5,000 deductibles for health insurance. The economy has changed in all these ways, but a lot of those ways are actually invisible to our parents, and so that creates this sort of, “Why can’t you guys get up the ladder the way that I did?” when the ladder itself is getting more and more rickety every year.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the effects that it has, as you touched on a few moments ago, is that it has dramatically impacted social mobility.
Michael Hobbes: I mean when you think about what are the prerequisites for middle-class life, right, you need to get into a decent job, you need to have a secure place to live. Housing, healthcare, and education are all four times more expensive now than they were in the 1970s. People like to talk about how things like flat-screen TVs are cheaper and their refrigerator is cheaper, and that’s true that most consumer objects are much cheaper now than they used to be, but the things you really need, housing, healthcare, and education, are much more expensive. A lot of your listeners will know childcare is wildly expensive as well.
All of these things, the things that actually make for a meaningful existence and give you this security have gotten much harder to achieve. We hear a lot about the choices of millennials, but we don’t hear as much about their options and, really, any way you look at it, the options for young people now are much different than they were for our parents, and I think it’s time for the boomers to acknowledge that.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about how the political parties are looking at this in the attempt to recruit millennials, the different approaches that Republicans and Democrats are taking in trying to really attract millennials, and the degree to which they have any understanding at all about these issues that you’re talking about.
Michael Hobbes: Well, one thing that the right wing has been really good at is building a leadership pipeline, that if you look at the way that right wing, especially Koch Brothers’ money is being spent, a lot of it is kind of untied. It’s basically you’re finding young, fired-up people, and you’re supporting them in whatever they want to do. What you see on the right is you see a lot more paid internships, paid entry-level jobs. You see all these younger people getting into politics. People don’t know this, but the … I think it’s the three youngest senators are all Republican senators, and part of that is because there’s all these grassroots organizations on the right that are finding 18-to-25-year-olds and just saying, “Hey, here’s some money to go to a conference. Here’s some money for a networking event. Here’s three months of living for free in DC while you work for a think tank.”
On the left, there’s really no analog, and so what we’re seeing on the left is a lot of young people who want to stay in politics. Obviously, young people are very fired up right now. Obviously, young people tend to lean left wing, but this political action and this political anger really isn’t being tapped into in the same way that… Oftentimes, left wing donors tend to have things like tied funding where the funding has to be spent on certain projects. The funding has to be reported back to donors. The funding has a lot more bureaucracy associated with it.
I interviewed a bunch of young people around the country for this article about left versus right wing millennials, and what you find is a lot of left wing millennials are like, “Well, I want to do something, but I just can’t make it work. I can’t live on $500 a month that this internship pays me. I can’t live on $24,000 a year in DC for an entry-level job. It just doesn’t work,” and so a lot of them are choosing to go into the private sector, choosing to do other things, and we’re losing this pipeline of smart young people, whereas the right is just like, “Hey, here’s a bunch of money. Do whatever you need to do.” They have this kind of leadership army, almost, of people who are able to stay in politics as long as they have the desire to, and the left just isn’t tapping into the same thing.
Jeff Schechtman: How much of it, on the left or the right, has to do with an understanding of the predicate that you laid out earlier in terms of the problems and the challenges that millennials face today? You would think that, on the surface, the Democrats would be more inclined to understand that, and maybe they do or don’t, but they’re certainly not responding to it in an appropriate way.
Michael Hobbes: Well, so much of this comes back to what I was saying about the boomers holding on to power as they age, that if you look at the way that people like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer talk about political issues versus the way that 25-year-olds talk about political issues, it’s very different, that we’ve grown up in a period of increasing radicalization by the right. We’ve seen the right be very sophisticated in the way that it understands how power works whereas many of the boomers that are still holding on to political power came up in this time where it was much more bipartisan. It was much more compromised. There was much more overlap between the two parties, and so they’re less comfortable kind of doing the sort of warfare, frankly, that the right is engaged in. The right has gotten really radicalized over the last 20 years. It’s called asymmetric polarization. There’s all this political science literature on it.
The left has not radicalized to the same extent, so we have the right wing that’s saying, “Obama was born in Kenya, and they’re going to come and take your guns,” and all this very radical rhetoric, and then we have on the left wing saying, “Let’s work together. Let’s compromise.” When you talk to younger people, they’re not interested in compromising. They’re interested in winning, and they’re interested in delivering benefits to the people that they care about. There’s a huge cultural difference between the people that are representing us and the way that millennials talk about political issues, and we just aren’t seeing any of those opinions reflected in the people who have actual power.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the points you make is that the real culprit in all of this is the donor class.
Michael Hobbes: Yeah. I think left wing donors… If you look at the difference between the Koch Brothers and Bill Gates, it’s night and day, but I think the right wing is much more comfortable with building a movement and recruiting sort of troops for a movement, and the left wing is much more comfortable with supporting existing institutions and kind of doing these bipartisan types of bridging-the-divide types of efforts.
The left wing has really sleepwalked into this situation where there’s very little grassroots mobilization. I mean we’ve seen all the attacks on voting rights around the country, and there’s really no grassroots movement of left wing advocates there to push pack against that whereas, between the Tea Party and Americans for Prosperity, we have huge numbers of people that are working at the very local level to change laws, and to change voting procedures, and to make it harder for people to vote, and that just simply isn’t matched on the left.
I don’t think the left understands, or at least left wing donors don’t understand that the procedures of democracy are being manipulated by right wing donors, and left wing donors aren’t as comfortable manipulating them back or playing offense on things like voting rights. I mean you see the right wing is very comfortable with things like voter ID laws and trumping up this myth about voter fraud whereas, on the left, we’re much less comfortable saying DC needs to be a state or why can’t people 16-to-18 vote? Why don’t we have automatic voter registration? There isn’t the same movement on the left to say the procedures of democracy need to be changed. We just don’t do that. It’s more like the left wing think that it’s engaged in persuasion whereas the right wing seems to be engaged in just movement building and power development.
Jeff Schechtman: How much of it is that the left is a greater believer in top-down and charismatic leadership as opposed to grassroots leadership?
Michael Hobbes: I mean they haven’t nominated very many charismatic people to run for office, so if that’s the strategy, I don’t think it’s working very well. I fall into this trap. Everybody falls into this trap of thinking that we’re engaged in a war of ideas. I think that there’s a feeling among, especially older Democratic representatives who have been working in politics for a long time, this idea that people are persuadable, right? The idea that, if you had the right policies, that these Trump voters would come back to you, or that if you made the right argument on climate change that people would finally start to believe in climate change.
I think what the right has understood and the left has failed to is that we’re out of the age of persuasion, that information doesn’t get to voters in the same way that it did when we had four TV channels or when we all read the same Time and Newsweek cover stories. That simply isn’t the information environment that we’re in anymore, and so the right has understood that they’re building an information marketplace that is feeding people, oftentimes bad information about what the conditions are in the country, that immigration is not going up, crime is not going up, voter fraud is not a problem, the president was not born in Kenya, and yet you have huge swaths of the country that believe this because there’s been a deliberate effort to make them believe this.
In the face of all of this disinformation, we still have politicians saying, “Well, you know, if we just tell them our plan to slightly increase the minimum wage, they’ll come over to our side,” but those voters aren’t receiving that information. What the right has understood is that you’re building a movement of people. You’re not convincing people. The right has really not engaged in any kind of persuasion. They did very little work to persuade Americans that cutting taxes on the rich was a really good idea. They weren’t out doing advocacy on that, really. They just got power, and then they did it.
The left is very uncomfortable doing that because it feels authoritarian to us or just, culturally, it’s not something we’re used to, but there’s not going to be a message about climate change that’s going to convince people that it exists. There just isn’t one. What you have to do is you have to get power, and you have to pass policies. The left and the right are just playing different games and playing on different fields. The reason why the right is winning is because it devotes energy to amassing power. The reason why the left is losing is because it’s not as interested in amassing power.
Jeff Schechtman: Can we identify, in your opinion, an inflection point when the right really began to understand this, to make this shift, to get exactly what you’re saying?
Michael Hobbes: I think, I mean, most people trace it back to a combination of kind of Reagan and Gingrich, that they started to use the information mechanism or the information flow of the country to create an information ecosystem that was designed for right wing people. Meanwhile, the left hasn’t really done the same thing, that we rely on existing institutions. We’re engaged now in this asinine debate over calling for civility when one side of the political debate has been wildly uncivil for years now, that we’re now criticizing each other for not being civil enough.
The old saying is that a liberal is someone who isn’t comfortable taking his own position in an argument, and I think we see that a lot on the left, that we’re just not as comfortable creating these parallel institutions as the right is. I think younger people are a little bit more, people want to say radical, but we’re just a little bit farther to the left on this, that it’s time to actually start delivering benefits for the country. It’s time to actually make the country better, and if that means less compromise, if that means calling a spade a spade, then we’re comfortable doing that, but the people that are representing us aren’t as comfortable doing that, and that makes us really disaffected and really frustrated that the way that we understand politics to be and the politics that we’ve grown up with is only one-sided right now, that we need to start actually winning stuff, and the people that are representing us don’t seem that interested in winning.
Jeff Schechtman: Is the net effect of that, if the Democrats, if the left got better at it, is the net effect an even wider and more irreparable divide in the country?
Michael Hobbes: We’re already there. Nobody wants us to descend into some sort of civil war situation, but for 35 years now as the right has radicalized, the left has always said exactly the same thing, “We don’t want to be like them. When they go low, we go high,” and it hasn’t worked. Both Clinton and Obama tried really hard to appeal to right wing voters, right?
Jeff Schechtman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Michael Hobbes: Clinton balanced the budget. Obama did all these deportations thinking, “I’ll gain some good faith and then, with that good faith, I’ll do reform of immigration,” and it never comes. You can’t build goodwill with people who are watching Fox News and hearing that you’re a radical socialist Muslim all the time. These brokering relationships of “we’ll build some goodwill and then we’ll cash in that goodwill,” that simply isn’t the politics that we have anymore, and so the country keeps getting pulled rightward because the left isn’t comfortable saying, “The horse is out of the barn. We need to just get things through. We need to get this Supreme Court justice onto the Court however we can,” right? The Republicans are very comfortable manipulating rules to get their outcomes out, and the left is not similarly comfortable with that, and so we lose, and we lose, and we lose.
What people are saying is not that we want the country to descend into rank partisanship, but that it already has, and so if we’re living in this country where half of the people in it are morally deciduous, where they change their moral principles every four years depending on who is in office, you need to start getting comfortable with just winning stuff and delivering benefits to your constituents or else it’s just going to get worse. We can’t rely on politics of respectability right now. We need to actually start making things better for people in this country who are really suffering right now, and we need to put them front and center.
Jeff Schechtman: Of course, essential to that is to create, bringing this back around to what we started talking about, is creating an appropriate talent pipeline, really finding and recruiting where these young people are going to come from that are going to be more comfortable with this that are going to be able to make these changes.
Michael Hobbes: I think we’re in a country now, and I think where it’s slowly dawning on us that a lot of these Trump voters you’re just not going to get back, and we need to internalize the fact that there’s a lot of young people, I know a lot of them, who don’t vote because they think that all politicians are the same, and politicians make promises, and they don’t keep them, and what’s the difference between the two parties, really? We need to reach out to those people because reaching out to right wing voters who are watching Fox News all the time, we’re just not going get those people back, and so the only option for moving forward is to get all those people who do have the same values as us, but it’s harder for them to vote, or they feel disenfranchised, or they don’t see themselves being represented.
We’ve seen in Virginia, we’ve seen in Alabama, we’ve seen around the country that when you make a concerted effort to reach out to these folks, they do come and vote for you, but what they want is somebody who reflects their values and somebody who doesn’t want to compromise with someone who wants to boot them out of the country and take their children away or who wants to give Jeff Bezos a tax cut but wants to raise my taxes. I’m not interested in somebody who wants to compromise with that. I want to defeat that ideology and reverse it, and so I want somebody that actually reflects those politics, and huge parts of the country are crying out for politicians who will actually reflect the way that we talk and the way that we think about things. The boomers got this. When they were in their 30s and 40s, they got people that reflected their political beliefs, and we’re still waiting.
Jeff Schechtman: How much of it requires a broader understanding? This goes to other things that you’ve written about, a broader understanding of what the millennial issues are today. What are the issues that are important to millennials, not to boomers?
Michael Hobbes: Well, I mean there’s a tendency to think that millennials are these special creatures and that there’s some key to unlocking support from millennials, but first of all, millennials are 75 million people, so of course there’s a huge range of the types of people and what they’re interested in within 75 million people. Really, it’s the same issues that drive boomers, that’s we want secure work, and we want housing that we can afford, and we want college not to make us broke and to make us spend $500 a month for student loan payments until we’re in our 40s. I mean a lot of this stuff is basic.
We just want the things that our parents wanted, and so one of the things that millennials really dislike is when politicians have this idea that they have to pander to us or that we’re in some way different, that, ooh, tell us about avocados or make jokes about Pokemon Go or these things when, really, when you actually talk to millennials, they want higher wages. They want their rent not to go up every single year. They want public transit that goes to their house and comes at reasonable times of the day. They want a functioning democracy where they don’t have to wait five hours in line to vote.
I don’t think that there’s any special brand of politics. I think we know what the issues facing millennials are, and they’re the same issues facing the rest of America. It’s insecure work. Prices are rising. The healthcare system is completely broken. We just want people that are interested in fixing those things. I don’t think we’re going to get out of this through memes or pandering.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things you point out in this respect is, even today, the age difference just in Congress and the House and in the Senate, that there are so many younger Republicans.
Michael Hobbes: Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean when you look at the demographics, so few young Republicans exist and yet they’re in power. The power that they wield is disproportionate. We have newspapers across the country that are going out of business, the Alt Weekly. The Stranger in Seattle where I live is down to one news reporter now. I think what the left is not as comfortable doing is just saying, “We’re just going to hire five news reporters for every Alt Weekly in the country.” That would actually be really good for the country that we have some alternative voices that are putting out information, and we’re going to train people in how to run for office, and we’re just going to have interns that make decent wages.
We don’t necessarily need outcomes from these folks immediately, but we just need a pipeline so that those people can stay in politics because, right now, we’re losing them. I think one of the projects that the left really needs to do is to create a separate structure of think tanks and training institutes and just understanding the way that power works and keeping young people in power or at least on the pipeline to power and just… right now, we’re just losing them.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there a danger, if the left has success because of an extreme reaction to Trump and the current administration, that it’s going to think that’s the answer when, in fact, it’s not doing the things that you’re talking about?
Michael Hobbes: Well, I think there’s a tendency among left wing people to blame the left for everything because it feels to us, or we’ve grown up in a world where the right is so intransigent and so impossible to convince of anything that we always think that the left has the wrong message, the left has the wrong tactics, the left is radicalizing, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. We need to be really careful not to fall into this trap. I think if radicalization consists of every American gets free healthcare or every American is automatically registered to vote, that’s the kind of radicalization I’m completely fine with. We don’t see genuine trends on the left toward things that would be bad for the country. We see things on the left toward projects that people say we can’t afford them or that we’re not thinking them through. Fine, but we’re not seeing anti-democratic impulses on the left. We’re not seeing taking rights away from people on the left.
When we worry about radicalization of the left, I really think that if the left got into power and got all of its wildest dreams came true, the country would look like Denmark. That’s really what we’re talking about whereas, if the right got into power, they’ve said that they want to get rid of due process for immigrants. They don’t want transgender people in the military. We know what the outcomes of a right wing radicalization are, but a left wing radicalization actually sounds pretty good, so I’m not all that worried about left wing radicalization.
Jeff Schechtman: Are you optimistic about the left finally beginning to understand this at some point?
Michael Hobbes: I mean I think young people already do. It’s just a matter of whether we’re going to be able to reflect that in power. Are there going to be younger political candidates? We’re seeing this now. I mean the tiny sliver of a silver lining of this administration is that we have millennials flooding into political office and trying to run for things and feeling comfortable saying what needs to actually happen and describing the radicalization that’s happening on the right. That’s one semi-good thing that’s happening, so I think it already happening. It’s just a matter of will we be able to vote? Will we be able to see those people actually come into power?
A lot of that does come down to this procedural stuff. The New York primary is today, and I forget the actual rules, but it’s something like you have to register a year before the primary to actually vote in the primary. There’s no reason why a democratic state should have these types of rules. We need to start changing these rules immediately to make sure that young people can vote. There’s this myth that young voters don’t care about democracy, but it’s a lot harder for us to vote in a lot of places than it was for our parents’ generation, and so there is some youthful defection going on, but there’s also a deliberate attempt to keep millennials, especially millennials of color, from voting, and we need to start reversing that and getting our needs reflected in power the same way that our parents got theirs.
Jeff Schechtman: Michael Hobbes. You can hear a lot more from Michael about a whole host of subjects on his podcast You’re Wrong About …, which you can pick up anywhere you get your podcasts from. Michael, thanks so much for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Michael Hobbes: Thanks, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. Thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.

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2 responses to “The Age of Political Persuasion Is Over”

  1. Tirawa says:

    Talking about power alone is a Marxist strategy. Yes that matters, but Logic also matters. Feelings do not, in the end, matter so much. Tribal identity struggles result in genocide. Even chimps do this effectively.
    Even though the younger generation has been indoctrinated in school that socialist policies are a good idea, all we must do is witness the hollowing out of European/American prosperity and perfidious rule of Liberal law to understand that is a fallacy and a failing experiment in actual practice.
    But by all means, trust the government to fix the world’s problems.
    TRUST YOUR GOVERNMENT!
    (Bigger cages, longer chains, plz)

    • Jeff Clyburn says:

      You mean like failing Scandinavian countries? Nice try…. Tirawa, you’re confusing correlation with causation, and skipping right to “liberalism causes everything bad!”… Your argument that we must keep cultures apart or genocide happens is especially rich. But announcing “all we must do is…” and then citing one vague example (correlation does not equal causation) doesn’t do a whole lot for your empty argument. Yes, you hate the idea of providing a baseline level of protections for the poorest among us, we get it. It’s standard conservative dearth of empathy. …. But, curious, why is corporate socialism A-OK with Ayn Rand cultists? How is the energy sector, for example, a “free market” when we pour trillions in subsidy into one particular industry source?