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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Opinion | Young Voters Aren’t Happy With Biden. But Will They Abandon Him?

OpinionOpinion | Young Voters Aren’t Happy With Biden. But Will They Abandon Him?


Are many young people distressed about the war in Gaza? Yes.

Are they unhappy with President Biden’s approach to the war? Yes.

Does this doom Biden’s re-election bid? Not necessarily.

First, a Harvard Youth Poll released in April found that the two issues frequently associated with young voters — the Israel-Hamas war and student debt relief — “may not be especially consequential ones when it comes to casting votes,” as The Harvard Gazette reports, because young voters rank them among the least important issues facing the country. Of the 16 issues the poll asked 18- to 29-year-olds about, those two were ranked last in importance, behind issues such as inflation, immigration, housing and protecting democracy. Indeed, as The Gazette noted, when it comes to the relationship between Biden and young voters, “It’s complicated.”

People watching student protests spread across college campuses in recent weeks might be surprised by that notion, but it’s important to remember that reactions to the protests can work in different ways.

I believe in students’ right to protest — peacefully — even as I acknowledge that protests are often imperfect, and the actions of some who protest are regrettable. I also understand that protesting students are only a fraction of all students, and students are only a fraction of all young voters.

It’s fair to say that protesters represent the views of more people than just themselves and that their protests affect and influence non-protesters, and it’s equally fair to say that there’s a large group of young voters who are not likely to be single-issue voters on the war in Gaza.

Second, modern protest movements have fast metabolisms. Social media allows them to organize well and grow quickly, but trending topics on social media also have a quick turnover. They condition us to have a rolling series of outrages so that no one outrage lasts long.

We are now a little under six months until Election Day. So it’s worth considering the prominence of previous protest movements six months from their beginnings or initial bursts of energy.

For instance, in 2011, Occupy Wall Street also produced encampments. But by and large, those encampments, in various places around the country, were disbanded within a few months. The movement continued for years and had lasting effects on liberal discourse and policy, but its dominance of the zeitgeist was relatively brief.

The 2020 racial justice protests after the murder of George Floyd were some of the largest in memory, but those protests lasted only for the summer. That movement also had political implications that reverberated beyond the protests, but its ability to command the nation’s attention was relatively short-lived.

Third, Republicans are probably overplaying their hand in the way they’ve opposed the protests and vilified the protesters, going beyond questions about America’s geopolitical interests and the moral considerations involved in the humanitarian crisis and toward their own agendas, stoking long-simmering, and often shopworn, culture war conceits.

According to Fox News, the House speaker, Mike Johnson, recently said: “God is going to bless the nation that blesses Israel,” adding, “We understand that that’s our role. It’s also our biblical admonition. This is something that’s an article of faith for us.” Senator Tom Cotton has called the protest encampments on college campuses “Little Gazas,” even posting his defense of the term on his Instagram page.

And when a group of mostly white male counterprotesters — crass hecklers, really — at the University of Mississippi directed racist, disgusting taunts, including gesturing like a monkey and chanting “Lock her up,” at a Black pro-Palestinian protester, Representative Mike Collins of Georgia posted a video of the incident and said this, in support, on X: “Ole Miss taking care of business.” A few days later, he posted a statement on X partly walking back the prior post, but it’s worth noting that he has been criticized before for amplifying an antisemitic, racist social media account.

Republicans are surely delighting in the divisions that have emerged among traditionally Democratic voters over the war, but in doing so, some are also grafting this foreign conflict onto their longstanding and in some cases ugly postures on other issues.

If they position these protests as just the latest manifestation of “wokeness” against which they have been crusading, it will be a reminder to all voters, including young voters, of the stark choice this country will face in November.

Do I believe that the frustration young voters have with Biden will have some impact on voter enthusiasm and voter apathy? I do. And in a tight election, that gives Biden almost no margin for error. But their frustration doesn’t have to be determinative.

The Democratic Party is very likely to see some unflattering moments ahead, depending on how Democrats respond to and engage with protesters showing up at campaign events, including, and most important, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago this summer.

But as fall comes and students return to school, and with the war, let’s hope, shifting away from a heavy combat stage — Israel this week ramped up operations in Rafah, the last refuge of Palestinians in Gaza, even as Hamas said it would agree to the terms of a cease-fire proposal from Egyptian and Qatari mediators — some of the energy and urgency is likely to be drained from the protests. Activists will continue their work, but the electorate’s attention is likely to shift.

I predict that as November draws closer, the distinctions between Biden and Donald Trump will become sharper, and the choice young Americans face will grow clearer.





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