Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 24 books, including, “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Younger voters are frustrated and angry. To many of them, American politics feels broken. Elected officials are too old and out of touch. Gridlock and dysfunction have been the norm. On issue after issue, it seems crises go unaddressed.
In a recent New York Times report on the generational anger that is brewing in 2022, a voter in her 20s doubted the abilities of President Joe Biden and other Democratic leaders and asked, “How are you going to accurately lead your country if your mind is still stuck 50, 60 or 70 years ago?”
Many young Americans who were keen to vote former President Donald Trump out of office are now profoundly unhappy with Biden as well. Only 1% of 18 to 29-year-olds strongly approve of the way Biden is handling his role, according to a survey from the Times and Siena College. To make matters worse, members of this age group were most likely to say they wouldn’t vote for either Biden or Trump in a potential 2024 face off.
It is not uncommon to hear people ask what we need to do to get young people more engaged in politics. As a university professor, this is the sort of query that often comes my way. Do the schools need to include more civic education? Should there be some sort of national service program? Can foundations provide grants and fellowships for young Americans who want to devote their lives to public service?
These questions are important, but we also need to look at what our political system does wrong. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that many younger Americans look at Washington and state capitals with a sense of grave disappointment. After all, they have experienced firsthand a growing climate crisis, racial injustice, the breakdown of democratic institutions and norms, gender inequity and widespread economic insecurity – issues that have been much discussed but rarely addressed.
Many of these young people have also grown up participating in active shooter drills at school. Unlike the famous duck-and-cover drills of the 1950s meant to prepare kids for a nuclear war that never happened, this country has witnessed the persistent drumbeat of school shootings. Can we really blame young people for feeling disillusioned with the US political system that allows this to continue?
And since March 2020, these Americans have spent key moments of their youth struggling to survive a global pandemic where many of our leaders offered meager, contradictory and half-hearted policies as core institutions, including schools, shut down.
We’ve been through moments like this before. Indeed, right before what is often considered one of the most productive eras in national politics – the passage of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, a series of legislation that tackled poverty, education, social security and more – young Americans in the early 1960s were likewise frustrated with the inability of Washington to act on the great issues of the day.
The major roadblock to progress at the time was, ironically, bipartisanship. Scholars such as James McGregor Burns wrote about a “deadlock of democracy” that revolved around southern Democrats and Republicans teaming up through the congressional committee system to prevent the government from addressing racial segregation and voter disenfranchisement, inadequate health care, underfunded schools, and environmental degradation. Like today, there were ongoing complaints about the age of senior Congressional leaders.
This was part of the reason why many young people were moved when President John F. Kennedy gave a stirring inaugural address at the age of 43, proclaiming: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” But motivational rhetoric could only go so far. Kennedy, noted journalist Richard Strout in the Christian Science Monitor, developed proposals with his advisers, only to see the “wily old chairmen of semiautonomous committees take over; they have seen presidents come and go before. They may not be able to initiate legislation, but they know how to drag their feet and veto it.”
But change did come. One of the most important developments revolved around a series of elections between 1948 and 1964 that brought in waves of younger Democrats who elevated new issues, such as civil rights, by organizing on Capitol Hill to fight against the bipartisan obstruction.
Johnson won a landslide victory against the right-wing extremist Senator Barry Goldwater 1964, and new voices in Congress outflanked the committee barons, moving at a frenetic pace to pass legislation that remains part of the social fabric to this day. “Typical member of New Congress is younger than his predecessor,” proclaimed a January 1965 headline in The Washington Post. The average age fell from 52.7 to 51.9, while the average age of the committee chairmen was 66 in the Senate and 65 in the House. (The average age of the current 117th Congress in January 2021 was 59.5, and the Senate is the oldest in American history.)
Spurred by these new faces, the 89th Congress worked at a furious pace: it passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protected the right to vote; the Social Security Amendments of 1965, establishing Medicare and Medicaid; the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as well as the Higher Education Act of 1965, both of which poured federal funding into education; the Water Quality Act of 1965 and much, much, more.
But these legislative breakthroughs didn’t quell the unrest among young Americans. The movement in Washington left them wanting more and the social movements of the 1960s that dominated the political landscape often centered on younger people demanding greater action on civil rights, economic justice and social and cultural liberation. Johnson’s disastrous war in Vietnam undercut progress the new Democrats had made with younger voters and President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal ended up confirming their worst fears about abuse of power.
Despite the long-term disappointments of Watergate and the devastating war in Southeast Asia, it is important to remember that there was the moment in 1964 and 1965 when younger Americans helped usher in fresh faces in Washington to tackle some of the political and policy problems that had been mired in gridlock for over a decade. That window of legislating energized people, who saw how social and political pressure could make a difference.
And even though student protests failed to bring an end to the quagmire in Vietnam before 1973, activists shaped the national conversation by gaining support for the anti-war movement, once again proving that engagement mattered. They persuaded politicians, including Sen. Eugene McCarthy, to be responsive to their concerns. And in 1971, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. Sen. Ted Kennedy, one of the prime movers of this change, said, “To me this is the most important single principle we can pursue as a nation if we are to succeed in bringing our youth into full and lasting participation in our institutions of democratic government.”
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We need another moment like this in 2022. At the height of the pandemic, the nation witnessed the intensity with which young people gathered in the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd. But the burden should not just be on young people to remain engaged. The burden also falls on our leaders to start listening and responding to a new generation of voters who feel the political system failed them.