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Democrats are failing to engage young people

Supporters wait for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to

Supporters wait for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to announce his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination at Brooklyn College in March 2019. Credit: EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock/Justin Lane

A couple of months ago, I wrote an op-ed for The Progressive magazine about why President Joe Biden needs to build a bridge with young Americans. The nationally syndicated piece drew hundreds of responses from strangers agreeing with my sentiments. But I heard nothing from the one place that mattered most: the White House.

So I wrote a Playbook on Youth Engagement in the White House and sent it to Biden’s staff. They encouraged me to stay in touch; there was no substantive conversation.

Young Americans like me shouldn’t feel like kids in the grocery store putting candy in the cart and having our elected officials tell us, "Put that back." Our bold policy proposals are not overly idealistic, shortsighted or naive. They’re necessary. We’re fighting for a sustainable future on an emissions-filled planet, for economic equity and a departure from systemic racism. We are demanding fundamental human rights.

President Joe Biden promised us that he would be a president for all. Am I and the rest of the nation’s 42 million young people included?

The Democratic National Commission’s website states, "Democrats will promote the rights of young people and nurture young leaders." Where are these young leaders exactly?

In April 2020, the Democratic Party had two primary candidates for President: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, 79, and former Vice President Joe Biden, 78. Four years earlier, Sanders, then 75, was squared off against an establishment Democrat, Hillary Clinton, then 69.

For two presidential elections in a row, millennials and Gen Zers had to choose contenders who were old enough to be their grandparents. Young people were looking for ... what’s the term? Oh yes, "new blood."

Sanders, it’s true, is beloved by many young progressives. They felt like a leading Democratic candidate was finally speaking about the issues that matter to them, including student debt, the Green New Deal and higher education. But in 2020 the nod went to Biden, and young people were told, "Hey, at least he’s not Trump."

The DNC Convention didn’t help. Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich might have swayed moderate Republicans to come to the Democratic side, but he didn’t excite young people. Why not invite Rep. Sharice Davids, the first Democrat elected to represent a Kansas congressional district in a decade? She was then a mere 40 years old.

Don’t tell me that my president and his staff can’t respond to everyone and that my "want" is just one thing on a billion list of things to do. Asking to implement and lead an Office of Young Americans is not asking too much. Young people are willing to do the work.

And how about creating positions that enhance youth voice and youth power?

There are no youth engagement staff housed in Biden’s Office of Public Engagement that are under 25, as many groups have urged. Hiring a director of youth engagement and youth liaisons within each department could help build relationships between young people and their government. The key to connecting with young people is creating safe spaces for conversations about the issues that impact them most.

The House and the Senate can create youth councils within their prospective offices to establish stronger bonds between young constituents and staffers.

Real youth engagement. That is what young people want. I’m not saying that I expect the age to run for office to be lowered. I’m not saying that we cannot have older politicians. I am saying that we need to do a better job at inclusivity, because democracy is for everyone.

Ashley Lynn Priore of Pittsburgh, Pa., is the founder of Youth Political Strategies. This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.

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