Democracy Works

Millennials' slow climb to political power

Episode Summary

Half of the U.S. Senate and one-third of the House of Representatives is 65 or older. What does that mean for Millennial politicians? Time magazine's Charlotte Alter joins us this week to discuss.

Episode Notes

Generational divides in American politics are nothing new, but they seem particularly striking now as the oldest Millennials turn 40 this year. This generation has different lived experiences than its predecessors, but has been sidelines from political power as Baby Boomers live longer and benefit from incumbency advantages. Charlotte Alter has spent the past four years documenting these dynamics and join us this week to discuss.

Alter is a senior correspondent at Time magazine and author of The Ones We've Been Waiting For: How a New Generation of Leaders Will Transform America. The book covers national-level politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elise Stefanik, as well as local leaders like mayors Svante Myrick (Ithaca, New York) and  Michael Tubbs (Stockton, California). 

Alter's reporting defines the class of young leaders who are remaking the nation–how grappling with 9/11 as teens, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, occupying Wall Street and protesting with Black Lives Matter, and shouldering their way into a financially rigged political system has shaped the people who will govern the future.

Additional Information

The Ones We've Been Waiting For: How a New Generation of Leaders Will Transform America

Charlotte Alter on Twitter

Thinking Is Cool podcast

Related Episodes

Will Millennials disrupt democracy?

Episode Transcription

Michael Berkman 00:03
From the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State University, I'm Michael Berkman.

Candis Watts Smith  00:09
I'm Candis Watts Smith.

Jenna Spinelle 00:09
I'm Jenna Spinelle and welcome to Democracy Works. This week we are talking about millennials specifically millennial politicians. Our guest is Charlotte alter who is a senior correspondent at Time magazine and author of the ones we've been waiting for how a new generation of leaders will transform America. We've talked about millennials on this show before we'll put in the show notes. A link to our episode was stellar Rouse from the University of Maryland that was back in the early days of this show, but Charlotte's work, I think gives us a look at what's happening on the ground in Congress and in the White House about how some of these politicians from a younger generation are grappling with power dynamics and generational dynamics and those types of things. We often talk about millennials as a younger generation, but they're really not that young, at least not that young anymore. Candace, you and I are both millennials and I know I don't feel that young. I don't know about you. 

Candis Watts Smith  01:13
I think you're exactly right. Jenna, insofar as Millennial has come to be a term to use for young people. But mostly Millennials are adults under 40. The eldest Millennial  was born in 1981, the youngest 1996, that person is old enough to buy a cocktail get the lower price at the rental car place. This is the largest living generation, they are on track to be the large proportion of the American workforce, and will eventually be the largest part of the voting bloc. This group is more diverse and more educated than previous generations. And they're also on track to have significantly less wealth than previous generations, which is a combination of the economic strife, the Great Recession COVID, all of the things that we have experienced student debt, I think I counted 17 genetic senators, one millennial, and then the rest are boomers and a couple from the silent generation. So boomers have accrued a lot of power, which is self fulfilling. And then technology is keeping them around longer medically. But this too shall pass. So I suppose it's time for us to start thinking about what the next generations are going to be doing. As they shift into those seats of power.

Michael Berkman 02:41
Let's maybe take a step back and talk a little bit about why we talk about different kinds of political generations. And Jenna mentioned Stella's work. And if I remember, Stella's work correctly, still, His focus is on the whole generation, and sort of at the ground people. And Charlotte's work is about elites, elected officials, millennial elected officials. So we're exploring this generation from both directions. And you know, when we do so because it is a way in which change happens in politics, that previous generations of people who were socialized in a very different time, who were elected to office in a different time, whose politics developed at a very different time, eventually leave. And they're replaced by people whose formative experiences are different, and they are very much a recession generation held back by the recession of 2008 2009. Looking at perhaps dimmer economic prospects, I think this is probably even more true of generations coming after them, but just having come of age, in a very different sort of economic environment. And so for all of these and some other reasons, it's important to think about who they are and how they're different then, of course, as Charlotte altra will talk about on the podcast, they're also a social media generation, much more comfortable with that technology than some of their older colleagues.

Candis Watts Smith  04:06
I just want to swing back around to generational replacement is one of the mechanisms of social change. I suppose the point that I guess maybe want to press down on is that it provides a potential for change. And I say that because I think that we tend to, as Americans be very oriented toward stories of progress. And generational change is one of those mechanisms that we think are going to assure us that better things will come. I'm not trying to downplay the contributions of my generation, I just simply want to say that good things are not inevitable. There are other ways that we can go back, we can go forward, we can stay where we are. And I think that we see that and Charlotte's work and the people that she follows and just kind of Thinking about wider American politics. There are places in points where we see millennial elites, political representatives, and just kind of regular people doing things that are going to have the chance to produce better outcomes. And then we see some of that group doing things that are just pushing back. So it actually drives me nuts. When people are like, Yeah, when the old people die, things will be better. And that is relying upon the assumption that we are endowing our young people to do better moving toward.

Michael Berkman 05:37
And I think of it more as just a statement of fact, that replacement happens. And, and in fact, often more change happens in Congress in particular than people often recognize. Because of that the reelection rate for any given incumbent and Congress is obviously very high. Their probability that they'll get reelected is approaches one in any given election. But you know, over time, through retirements and through other sorts of mechanisms through passing your way, change happens, new people come in. And sometimes they bring in a new agenda and a different way of doing that. I think it was true, the post Watergate class that came in, they turned out to fundamentally make some important changes in Congress and not all for the better.

Jenna Spinelle 06:22
All right, I think we have set the stage here. So let's go now to the interview with Charlotte alter. Charlotte alter Welcome to Democracy Works. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Charlotte Alter 06:39
Thank you so much for having me.

Jenna Spinelle 06:41
So looking forward to talking to you about your book, the ones we've been waiting for, we have talked on the show before about the politics of the millennial generation from a 10,000 foot academic level. But your book really dives into what some politicians from the millennial generation are experiencing on the ground as they come into their own with political power. I thought a good place to start might be taking a trip back to what you describe as the first wave of the millennial Vanguard. And this sort of Obama years, there was this new generation that came in and perhaps a thought that they might do things a little bit differently than the boomers and other generations had done before that things changed so quickly, and have changed so much since then. But can you sort of start there? What was the thinking like at that time as these millennial politicians entered the political arena.

Charlotte Alter 07:38
So the first wave of millennials to kind of step into elected office, we're kind of coming during the Obama years. And what's kind of interesting about this is that actually, Obama did not trigger a massive influx of new young people who wanted to run for office, he was obviously a transformational candidate for young people, and that young people really helped him get elected in terms of their organizing and their voting. But one of the things that I explore in the book is that a lot of young people after pulling off this incredible feat of helping to elect the first black president, we're kind of like, Okay, he's got it, he'll take care of it, I'm going to go to Silicon Valley, I'm going to go to do something else, like I did my part in politics, Obama can take it from here. So compared to, for example, what we saw after Trump was elected when there was this huge wave of young people getting really excited about getting involved in electoral politics. During the Obama years, it was actually relatively quiet. And most of the people who did get involved during those years, most of the young people who did get involved, were on the state and local level. And I noticed and again, it's a little bit difficult to quantify this, because they don't actually like take surveys along these lines. But the people who were sort of most inspired by Obama to try politics themselves tended to be young black men. And so in this period, there were a lot of first time millennial candidates, often young black men who were kind of stepping up to run for city council or Mayor or some state offices, you know, for example, Michael Tubbs fits in that category. Then you also had people who were kind of in the Obama mold of trying to improve the world within the realm of the possible. Obama gets accused a lot, particularly from the left of being somebody who embraces incremental change. But the young people who both ran for office at that time and also joined his administration, because there were also people like Lauren Underwood and Haley Stevens, who were working in the Obama administration. I will To put somebody like Pete Budaj edge in this category, even though he didn't work in the administration, he was very much of the Obama mold of a smart young person who was looking to kind of fulfill their ideals as best they could, within the realm of what was possible at that time.

Jenna Spinelle 10:19
Right. And that brings up this idea of fixing the system from within versus burning it all to the ground, which is another dynamic you explore in the book, how has that thinking evolved? Over the years from this sort of early Vanguard period? You mentioned to where we find ourselves today?

Charlotte Alter 10:41
Yeah, exactly. I mean, I think this is one of the main evolutions over the last couple of years, particularly for young people. The way I put it in the book is that there are people who are in the fix the system mold, and then there are people who are in the fuck the system mold. And the people who were kind of working inside the Obama White House or inspired by Obama to run for mayor or working in some official capacity during the Obama administration tended to be more in the fix the system mold, and many of the millennials that we see rising now to kind of govern alongside those people tend to be people who, during the Obama administration were more in the activist space. Maybe they were Occupy Wall Street, maybe they were marching with black lives matter. Maybe they were at Standing Rock as Alexandria Ocasio Cortez was and for this cohort, Trump's election really kind of solidified how broken the system was, they had already suspected that the system was really broken, given everything that had happened with the financial prices, given the persistent systemic racism.

Jenna Spinelle 11:50

So those folks who were just talking about primarily on the left, what about on the right,

Charlotte Alter 11:55
For the right, there's a whole other set of circumstances going on, the way things changed for millennial conservatives over the last, I would say decade is that, frankly, now that you asked that it does sort of mirror it in a kind of dark mirror like opposite way. What was happening during the Obama years is that a lot of the young conservatives who were entering office during the Obama years, were what we would now think of as sort of moderate conservatives in that most of them were like really aligned with other people in their generation on some issues, particularly climate change, and immigration, and to a lesser extent, things like wanting more funding for education and to reduce student debt. But the way I like to describe it is like, they're not Democrats. They're not liberals, they are conservatives. So what that kind of meant was that they agreed with other people their age on the big problems facing young people, they agreed that climate change was real. They agreed that college was not affordable for people, but they really disagreed on the solutions. So they agree that climate change was real, but they would never support something like a green New Deal. They agreed that college was not affordable, but they thought the solution to that would be more Pell Grants. So it's really important when we think about this cohort of young conservatives to understand they are conservatives. And so they were really oriented towards thinking of conservative solutions to these problems that a lot of young people were facing. And then what happened was Trump got elected. And this cohort of young conservatives, which were significantly more moderate than the kind of MAGA base, the MAGA basis, mostly old people, these conservatives, many of them work out of step with the MAGA movement. Many of these young conservatives even though they would never consider themselves to be like racial justice activists, or black lives matter, people or anything like that, the polls show that young conservatives do have a little bit more of a sophisticated understanding of race and class in America than older conservatives do. They're more likely to understand that black people are not treated fairly by police. Yes, or less politics of grievance maybe then older generations. Yes. Although one thing that really complicates that which we're seeing a lot of right now is that the debates over free speech on college campus have actually really animated these young right wingers because even though some of these young people tend to not necessarily have the same types of racial grievances that their grandparents who grew up in the 1950s and 60s might have it really rankles them when they feel like they're being silenced. And so actually free speech is actually one of the only real things that's like drawing young people into the conservative movement.

Jenna Spinelle 14:55
At one point, I feel like when as you were describing the sort of more money conservatives and this focus on solutions there was this thought that this young generation might do things differently might be able to actually get some things done to move beyond some of the divides that had existed in previous generations. I think there's groups like the millennial action project that very much embody this ethos sort of sprung up. What do you make of that work? And that sort of framing? Now, is it kind of dead in the water? given everything that you know, the splitting? Are we just seeing another version of the left, right, split but tailored to this millennial generation? Or might there still be some glimmers of hope for that work together? model?

Charlotte Alter 15:44
So I definitely when I first started reporting this book, and the early stages of thinking about this, I definitely thought that there would be more kind of generational cohesion or allegiance or solidarity, basically. And so I don't think that the rise of more young people and sort of more young people getting elected is going to lead to like a big Kumbaya moment where Toumani Williams holds hands with Dan Crenshaw, and they say, We're both under 60. So we are friends like that. I don't think that's going to happen. But I do think that something that is very likely to happen is that with this new generation, increasingly coming into power, I do think that there are some ways that our politics will change, both from a policy perspective, and from a how politics is done way on the how politics is done. Clearly, social media is incredibly important to this generation on both sides, I think we're gonna see a lot more Twitter, Instagram, we're gonna see a lot more of these social media platforms playing a role in how politicians like shape themselves and present themselves and market themselves. And so I do think that AOC and Dan Crenshaw have almost nothing in common policy wise. But together, they have more in common in terms of how they've managed their political careers than, say, a Nancy Pelosi, or Mitch McConnell or Chuck Schumer. I also think that these young people both on the left and the right, they don't agree on the solutions, but they do agree on the problems. So I do think we are going to see an emphasis. And if you think about it, even in the last 10 or 15 years, think about how many things are totally not an issue that we talk about anymore. We don't talk about prayer in schools anymore. That's not like a thing that is like a big debate. You know, that used to be a huge debate, same sex marriage, marriage equality used to be a huge debate, it used to be like this pitched battle. And that's one thing where young people on both sides were like, you know, what, we accept this. We are we are for marriage equality, this battle is over. And of course, there are now new equality battles and new battles around trans acceptance and things like that, that have obviously replaced them. It's not like it's like cool a Kumbaya moment. But I do think that there will be some issues that we have been talking about for the last four or five years, that are maybe less relevant to these millennial leaders and voters that are going to kind of fall off the radar. And then there will be new issues. And I think climate change is one of them, that are going to be incredibly central to our political conversation. And that doesn't mean that everyone's going to agree on what to do. But it does mean that climate change when this generation is fully in charge, is not going to be like a sideline issue, in the way that it has been in the past.

Jenna Spinelle 18:54
How much pressure is there going to be to kind of get the boomers out of the way. That's something that we're starting to hear more and more is that there's this generation kind of waiting in the wings with the boomers won't get out of the way. How much did that come up during the course of your work on this book?

Charlotte Alter 19:10
I started thinking about this book, on the day that Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017. So on that day, I saw this 71 year old man, at that time, the oldest first term president ever elected now Biden as the oldest first term president ever elected, but I saw the 71 year old man who had been elected by old people. I knew that younger people had voted against him by double digits, standing in the Rose Garden surrounded by old people, because the 66 senators who urged Trump to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement had an average age of like 64. And I know because I googled all their birthdays and then average them. And that number is actually artificially low because Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were there and they're in their 40s They like actually brought the average age down, it's probably closer to 70. So I just saw read, I saw this group of old people elected by old people, pulling the United States out of what I perceived to be, you know, one of the most important international agreements that could address the looming climate catastrophe that was going to affect people my age, and my children and my grandchildren. And I just was like, This is such a clear example of the old eating the young. And I began to think, I don't know if you remember that paint, there's that really famous painting. And it's based off of a myth that there's that myth of Kronos and Saturn, were one of the early Greek gods, like, I think he must have been Zeus, his father, or something, ate his children so that none of them could usurp him. And that's what I felt like our government was doing. And so I kind of took it upon myself, I said, I know that there are young people out there who are trying to break through this. And I think they're not really getting a signal boost, because everybody's just totally obsessed with all the crazy stuff that Trump's doing. So I'm just gonna go try to find as many of these people as I can, and figure out what they have in common, figure out what animates their politics and write about it.

Jenna Spinelle 21:16
We talk a lot about young people not voting. And I think we've certainly seen some progress there, particularly in the 2020 election. But one thing that academics who sort of study this generation point out is that there's just general skepticism of institutions, whether that's political parties, or this thought that like my votes not going to matter. So why should I invest the time in this? I'm wondering how the people, if at all, the people you write about, Was this an issue for them? Or is it something that they grapple with when they're trying to get out the vote or to get people to run for office and join a political party? I think it's one thing for someone to kind of look at this from an academic perspective. And I'm curious how that skepticism of parties and those types of things might play out on the ground.

Charlotte Alter 22:07
So one of the things that I think is interesting that I think the far left has to grapple with, is that the Obama approach falls short in many ways that I probably don't need to explain to you just in terms of ability to address systemic racism, ability to address systemic climate catastrophe. Like, you know, obviously, there are things that this incremental approach can't fix. But the mindset is actually a much more sustainable sort of political argument than the fuck the system mindset. And one of the things that I think the left has come up against in the last five years really, since the 2016, election, with a handful of exceptions, which of course, people always point to. But overall, what has tended to happen is that this kind of rising progressive tide will say, Oh, you know, this is a revolution, like we are going to elect, I guess I'll use Bernie Sanders 2020, as the example of this, like, this is a revolution, we are going to elect Bernie in 2020. And he is going to win. And here's all the evidence we have that he's going to win. And he's the only candidate that can possibly address these issues. And he's our guy, and this is a revolution. And then when it doesn't work out, I think Sanders himself, frankly, deserves a ton of credit for his efforts in 2020. To transfer that enthusiasm to Biden, I think he did a fantastic job. I think that their partnership was like one of the most important stories of last year. But you see, in all these other elections, what happens like no down ballot, we even saw this, frankly, in the New York City mayor's race recently, where there will be like a big progressive search for a candidate. And then that candidate more often than not loses, unless we're talking about like a very small city council race or a school board race. I mean, the DSA, the democratic socialists of America, have actually elected a lot more people in the last couple years, and they have over the course of their history. But we're not talking about like governors, Senators, even members of Congress, there's like two or something. We're talking about really low level, local offices that are super important. But it's hard to look at that and be like, Oh, yeah, there's a revolution happening, because you've got one school board member or something. And I think that that contributes to this sense of, well, our vote doesn't matter, or why vote for somebody who isn't perfect, or we're just going to get screwed anyway. Because here's unfortunately, one of the things that I've learned in covering politics for a while now, which a lot of people disagree with me on and I would be definitely curious to get your take but I basically think That only winning is winning. And that often activists, particularly on the left, have developed a framework for presenting, losing as winning. And they say, you know, we ran a great race, we changed the conversation, we elevated this issue, we empowered our base, all those things are true, somebody won. And they did. And so I do think that that kind of thing contributes a lot to this sense of not trusting institutions, to this sense of not feeling represented in the process, because young people have been sort of sold this idea that only the most pure candidates can possibly deliver anything for them. And so then when those really pure candidates don't win, as they very often don't, there's this perception that whoever is in charge must be totally awful. Because they only aligned with me on seven out of 10 issues and not on 10 out of 10.

Jenna Spinelle 25:59
Yeah, I mean, no, it's funny, you talking about the losing is winning, that made me think of another sort of millennial trope, which is everybody gets a participation trophy. I wonder if that is connected here, maybe either subtly or overtly?

Charlotte Alter 26:15
I definitely think there is something there, there is something about the way millennials think about winning and losing where you didn't lose, you also won, everybody won. You might not have gotten in the first place trophy, but you put up a great shot. And that's also good. And frankly, that is great. When you're six, and you're playing soccer. I'm not one of those people who think that participation trophies are the world's greatest evil, like, sure, fine, you want to make an eight year old feel good, great. But when you're talking about building a sustainable political movement, that often involves doing some hard thinking about what voters actually want. And when you have really repeated examples of the candidates who represent a lot of these issues, that young people care a lot about failing to expand their base of support beyond those really, really passionate young people who already really believe in them. I think it's worth doing some hard thinking of like, why is that? How does this movement have to change to reach out to some of these older, more moderate people who like actually decide who wins elections in this country? And that, frankly, is one of the things I really tried to argue in the book is that one of the ways that boomers have sort of misrepresented political power in this country, is to make people think that it's all about who's the president, you know what I mean? It's actually not all about who's the president, it's about who has a broad representation within our government. And so I think right now, the boomers still have a ton of influence. I think Millennials are increasing but more slowly than I would like. And frankly, people always ask like, well, what can you do about it? I think the thing people need to do is to really focus on the state legislators, because state legislatures are where young people can really get a toehold in electoral politics, and really start to make a name for themselves and really start to make the connections they need in order to get to national politics. And it's just like super unsexy for most people, most people who want to talk about politics want to talk about like Trump did this Biden did this. And they don't even know who their state representative is. So that is kind of one way that I would really recommend people try to like reorient their thinking. One of the other things I noticed, which was alarming is that it used to be that to run for, let's say, a state legislature office. It didn't cost that much. I mean, it was expensive, obviously. But it wasn't like hundreds and hundreds of 1000s of dollars. Now it can cost a million dollars to run for Congress. It can cost hundreds and hundreds of 1000s of dollars to run for a state position. And it was this very unfortunate. I don't I mean, I think it was a coincidence. But it was a very unfortunate Confluence where it got incredibly expensive to run for office, just at the exact same time that the rising generation of voters and potential candidates was sort of entering adulthood with a huge amount of debt. So for example, when Joe Biden first ran for city council, he wasn't carrying $100,000 of student debt, and the City Council so he was running for didn't cost $300,000 to run for like it was something that was a financial proposition that could work for him because he was on more solid financial ground. And it wasn't like such a crazy expensive thing to do.

Jenna Spinelle 29:49
You write in the book about capitalism having this sort of product problem and this branding problem and as I was reading that it brought to mind a lot of similar claims have been made about them democracy; young people don't have as much faith in democracy, they're sort of more skeptical about why it's something that we should even care about, or might be more open to considering alternate systems of government or alternative ways of organizing ourselves. Did any of those types of dynamics or those things come up at all, as you were working on this, this book sort of this higher level question about democracy itself?

Charlotte Alter 30:25
One of the things that I've kind of noticed in covering this is that, obviously, a huge distinction in American politics is the left and the right, and the left of the center and the right in the center. But I also think that another huge distinction is between people who care about politics and people who don't. And the people who care about politics a lot and think about politics a lot, are constantly thinking about the meaning of democracy, and the system. And frankly, they tend to be often more highly educated people, they tend to be in a higher socioeconomic class, they tend to be often like more comfortable in their life, they have time to think about theoretical frameworks for politics. And a lot of the people that I meet, when I'm out reporting are just like, I don't like that guy. I'm voting against him, or, and like, this is the one thing I really care about. And that's what I'm voting on. And I don't care about anything else. Or my sister says, to vote for Trump. So I'm voting for him. And it's like, the vast majority of people are not thinking about this in as rigorous away as I think you are. And so one of the things that I think that is really important for restoring faith and democracy, which I think Joe Biden is very conscious of, is to deliver tangible results to the people who aren't paying attention to him. And that's why I think he's been so aggressive about doing these stimulus checks, where you get a check, and you say, Oh, I got a check from the government. Wow, the government's doing something for me, or these child tax credits that are coming this week, people open their bank account, they see money, and they're like, Whoa, cool. I think that that's one of these really, really important things. And it gets back to this notion of only winning is winning, you can only deliver those things if you are in a position of power. And also you have enough other people who agree with you, who are also in that position of power to do that, because most people in America are not reading these kind of analyses of systemic oppression that, frankly, people who think a lot about politics are spending their time on.

Jenna Spinelle 32:40

Yeah, that's a great reminder to our listeners to get out of their own bubbles, so to speak, and to Yeah, think about people in their lives who might not think about these issues in the same way that they do. So this has been great. Thank you so much for joining us today,

Candis Watts Smith  32:58"
So one of the things that came to my mind as I was listening to Charlotte, and Jenna, is this piece by Jane Mansbridge that I asked my students to read called should blacks represent blacks and women represent women? And I asked them, okay, well, if different kinds of people should be represented, what are those kinds of people? We talk about race, and we talk about gender, we talk about LGBT, and we talk about veteran status or if you have disability or something like that, but then I also sometimes ask them about their own generation. And they'll usually say, yeah, we should have someone, maybe a millennial, for example, to be a representative, because millennials have very particular experiences that shaped their outlook, that boomers, for example, can't relate to, for example, what we talked about earlier, the great recession or climate change, or racial injustice, I really appreciate Charlotte pursuing this project, because it does highlight the ways in which millennial status informs and the experiences that this particular cohort has had, and forms their politics, even if they're across the ideological spectrum. But they do have a perspective that's shaped by a common set of experiences.

Michael Berkman 34:26
Yeah, we, at the mood of the nation poll, we've done some polling, and I looked at responses by generation to see what we could discern about political attitudes across generations. And I understand where they're coming from, because they do talk about and emphasize some different issues and then older Americans. So for example, when you ask people what is the most important problem facing your generation, baby boomers and Millennials are going to get very different responses to that baby boomers. The first thing that they mentioned is healthcare. And the second thing that they mentioned is social media. Hooray, now both are fully understandable, given their station in life.

Candis Watts Smith  35:04
And also because Millennials know we're not getting Social Security, but the one.

Michael Berkman 35:08
That's right, they're not even worried about it, they just figure it's gone. Millennials when you ask them, I mean, I think probably predictably, from the discussion we've been having talked about economic issues, jobs in particular. And they talk about climate change and the environment as the most pressing problems facing their generation. When you go a little younger, when you go, say to Gen Z, you find that climate change becomes even more of a most important problem for them. And that you're seeing more and more the emergence of climate change, hopefully not too late, is an issue that's going to have a primary place in the political agenda. You know, younger generations, millennials, when they think about democracy across both parties, Democrats and Republicans, they tend to think about democracy, in terms of popular rule, in terms of majority rule, in terms of voting and voting rights. This is not the same as baby boomers and silent generation, who tend to think of democracy more in terms of freedom, perhaps understandable for people that came of political age, during the Cold War, when you know, democracy and freedom versus the opposite, were high on the agenda. And we were all hiding under our desks because of potential nuclear attack, right? It's a very different kind of time. But I think that that might speak to some of the battles we're seeing over voting rights and where those might be going and you're sick of again, if it's not simply going to be too late.

Candis Watts Smith  36:36
One of the things that stood out to me about what Charlotte said is like winning is winning. And so it made me think about, well, how do we get these issues on the ballot and get representatives that are going to speak to these issues? When Indeed, we find that Congress is increasingly older, because older generations are sticking around longer? And you know, maybe winning isn't winning, maybe there's more to it, maybe we should think about agenda setting and changing the narrative. Yeah, on the one hand, you need people to be elected to get those things at the front of the agenda. On the other hand, maybe part of how democracy works, is that we have to change the agenda from the outside and just try to get the conversation changed. I don't know what did you get out of that?

Michael Berkman 37:31
Right, which says to me that you could win by losing to over the long term, that building political movements, building support for issues can take years and years and years of work, and years of losing, but making very slow but incremental progress in building a party building a social movement, getting an issue on the agenda. You know, I look at Bernie Sanders, and I am and I think he said it was enormous success in terms of influencing a democratic agenda by always losing.

Candis Watts Smith  38:08
Yeah, it's true. I mean, like he did a really good job. And Charlotte also noted this right of him getting his supporters to swing to Biden, who then was he has a black woman, Vice President, and his cabinet is the most diverse racially and gender wise than any president, including Obama. And, you know, we're having kind of whole conversations about racial justice, and equity matters, too. But on the other hand, I guess, is that enough? Is that enough to change policy for what is the largest generation who aren't represented by members of their generation?

Michael Berkman 38:49
Yes, and who I think might be sort of missing the very fundamental changes that are occurring in the States right now because of the constant focus on Congress. And I mean, to Charlotte's great credit, I think she's not focusing on Congress. For example, the mayor of Ithaca, who she talks about, as an important new millennial probably put into place the most, how do I put this transformative? Yeah, thank you the most transformative change to police departments that we've seen anywhere, even going so far as I have in the police department remade into something like the Department of community involvement and public safety or something along those lines.

Candis Watts Smith  39:36
Yeah, I mean, I think though, what this tells us is that young leaders, leaders under 40 have like a magazine or the chance to do something different, but they have to contend with the power structures at hand. And those structures are ones that favor older incumbents, right and the way wealthy it costs a lot of money to run even at state level positions in politics and I love to see the kind of stories that Charlotte is telling us about because I do think that they provide inspiration is not the word that I'm looking for, but that it can be done. Right. JOHN also have at a Georgia is now the youngest senator, he's 34 years old. For a while AOC was the youngest representative, we always have to keep in mind the kind of larger structural issues that impede the possibility for change and impede the possibility for new generations to have a say in our democracy. With that said, I would like to thank Jenna for another amazing interview, this time with Charlotte alter, and to thank Charlotte also for joining us on democracy works. I'm Candace Watts Smith.

Michael Berkman 40:57
And I'm Michael Berkman. Thank you for joining us.