Bernie Sanders is old. Even in a Congress where the average age of a legislator is about 60—closer to 58 in the House of Representatives and almost 62 in the Senate, this being one of the oldest congresses ever—the 76-year-old senator from Vermont is, well, up there. So it’s a bit ironic that he owes his surprisingly strong showing in the 2016 presidential primary and his enduring popularity in large part to legions of young, left-leaning supporters who can’t get enough of the fiery democratic socialist who says what he thinks. But when you actually ask young people whether they might like a chance to pull the lever for a fellow Young, the overwhelming answer—at least according to an Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research /MTV poll of people aged 15–34 out this month—is yes.
Among other things, the poll found that 79 percent of young people think their own generation would run the show better than the current crop of career politicians out there.
So why don’t more young people actually run for office and satisfy that demand? Well, they are: Hundreds of them have signed on to races large and small since 2016, with women and people of color in particular jumping into roles as candidates. But one enduring factor that stands in the way of more young politicians becoming an army of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez copycats is the thing that looms over us all: money.
The same economy that’s screwed young people for generations—burdening them with insane debt and catastrophically high costs of living that might make staying at home into their 30s seem halfway reasonable—also makes it extremely hard to try and become a politician and change all that.
Being rich has always been the easiest way to win elections in America. Even before the most recent evisceration of limits on campaign spending, in 2008, $75 million in outside money coursed through the national political system, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And that didn’t include cash spent by major party committees or actual campaigns, who shelled out hundreds of millions of dollars to support Barack Obama, John McCain, and all the other candidates for offices large and small. Political ad spending alone reached $2.6 billion that year; it topped $9 billion in 2016. These days, even if you’re running for a state legislative seat in a place like Texas, local political insiders might write you off if you don’t have—or have plans to quickly raise—hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Obviously the barrier to entry varies by jurisdiction and office—a campaign for, say, school board is not likely to draw millions in outside spending. Yet only 5 percent of state legislative seats (which are often the most appealing to young people frustrated with the mess in DC) were held by Millennials last year. Campaigning means fundraising (a.k.a. knowing rich people) and either being able to quit your job outright or take a sabbatical, things that are foreign to many millennials.
“We hear that from a lot of folks that one of things they’re concerned about is finances writ large, whether that’s student debt or the cost of running or needing to quit their job,” Amanda Litman, former email director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and co-founder of Run for Something, a group that encourages young progressives to seek office, told me. She cited a (non-scientific) survey of about 18,000 under-40 potential candidates her group carried out to support their work. (She said they had been in touch with about 1,000 or so young people on the ballot so far this cycle.)
“Money and the way systems are structured means that they can’t run because they can’t afford it,” she added.
Take Ocasio-Cortez, the upstart democratic socialist of the moment who, at just 28, beat a powerful incumbent Democrat in a New York City congressional primary earlier this month. As the New Yorker reported, she was waiting tables at a taco spot less than a year ago. But a combination of encouragement from fellow alumni of the Bernie Sanders campaign and likeminded activists—and an infusion of money and online energy outside the traditional political channels—gave her the lift she needed to go from moderately inspiring also-ran to political shockwave.
There are more obstacles to young people seeking office than money. People under 21 couldn’t even vote until the Nixon era, and for centuries the major parties’ political machines were designed explicitly to let entrenched (and often geriatric) bosses dictate who ran for what major office. It was only in the 1970s, with the emergence of something resembling the modern primary system at the national level and the loosening in recent decades of machines’ dominance in large cities, that outsiders like Ocasio-Cortez were presented with a more inviting opportunity.
The problem is that even as politics started to open up in that sense—at the primary level and in terms of young people being able to vote—an ocean of dark money moved in to make running for office more expensive than ever, an ocean that only got deeper and more imposing after the Citizens United decision in 2010. That allowed the people already in office to shape a national political debate that rarely engaged the youngest among us; according to US Census data, only about 46 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds (and 59 percent of 30-to-44-year-olds) voted in 2016. Meanwhile, 71 percent of those 65 and older reported showing up, continuing a long trend of Olds invested in the system making sure it keeps working for them.
“A lot of politics is skewed to older people—the issues are targeted to people who are going to vote more, and the big programs tend to benefit older rather than younger people,” Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton, told me. “The very reason a younger person might want to run to change that is the same reason you might be less interested—you feel there’s less at stake.”
It’s not like student debt or rent—issues important primarily to young people—were anywhere near the top of the agenda in the fall of 2016. Instead, when structural social programs to help the poor and those struggling to make it were discussed at all, they tended to be the ones that are, by design, for old people: Social Security and Medicare. (Trump diverged from Republican orthodoxy by promising not to mess with those programs.) That makes sense: Old people vote, and the major party nominees wanted their support. But it makes politics seem even more out of reach for young people, and systemic change less possible.
“The majority of millennials don’t believe politics will solve the problems they face, and less than a third of us see public service as an honorable profession,” said Steven Olikara, founder and president of Millennial Action Project, a nonpartisan group focused on engaging young people in the political world. “When you don’t believe in the system, then you don’t believe you can make change through it.”
According to the AP poll’s results, however, most younger Americans do think their own vote in the midterms gives people their age at least a whiff of influence on the government. “I haven’t voted so much in the past, but I’m paying attention this year,” Tyler Seulean, a 26-year-old left-leaning truck driver from Houston, Texas, told the AP. He’s the kind of sporadic voter who could make the midterms interesting in conservative regions of the country. Still, the overall picture is a bleak one: A June poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Atlantic reported just 28 percent of Millennials were “absolutely certain” they’d vote in the midterms—traditionally extra-old turnout elections—compared to 74 percent of seniors. (Other polls, the AP survey among them, have painted a more bullish picture of potential Millennial turnout.)
Perhaps it’d be easier to attract young people to the polls if they saw versions of themselves running for office. But attempting to get elected in a country where money is speech and corporations are people can seem hopeless and possibly even insane. It’s also nearly impossible for many: Research suggests women of color in particular might be discouraged from running by the massive cost (and amount of time one need spend fundraising) on the one hand and the prospect of facing discrimination on the other. But that seemingly rational cost-benefit analysis only goes so far—and if Ocasio Cortez’s race, where young people do, in fact, seem to have turned out at a higher-than-normal rate to help power her to victory—was any indication, this is the start of a wave, not the crest.
“The crisis that we’re in right now means they’re willing to make the sacrifice anyway, or figure it the fuck out,” Litman told me.