Don’t Victim Blame Millennials

Appelbaum’s Youth Vote Shaming is Shameful

Binyamin Appelbaum — New York Times Editorial Board/bread price critic.

Twitter is full of all manner of bad takes from people of all types, but there are a few that need to be addressed in more than 140 characters. New York Times Editorial board member Binyamin Appelbaum sent off a choice tweet on the afternoon of April 13th, that was worth unpacking. Let’s take a look at the tweet.

This was a response to an article from the Atlantic that discussed how Millennials have been uniquely screwed by the economy. The financial crisis came just as they were graduating high school and university, meaning their first encounter with the job market was shaky and halting. Now that they have finally found our footing, the coronavirus crisis has come to knock them over again.

So, Mr. Appelbaum’s response to this analysis is to imply this is partly the fault of Millennials. Not entirely of course, but maybe if they just voted more, none of this would have happened! This notion is a common trope where older folks shake their cane at the youths and tell them “If you really care, do something about it!” In this particular case, it is worth looking at the facts. Are Millennials to blame for their unfortunate position in history? Should they just be voting more? Would that solve all their problems?

Millennials Vote at a Similar Rate to Other Generations

The evidence is pretty clear — Millennials vote about as much as every other generation when they were the same age. Young folks don’t vote much, and there are a lot of reasons for that. They may be busy with other things, don’t have the proper transportation, don’t understand the process of voting, can’t get the time off work, or just don’t feel like it! This has been consistently true across the developed world for as long we have data, so there is nothing special about the voting behavior of Millennials.

To see this effect in the US, it is best to look at youth voting over time. Below can be found a graph for years with a presidential election and a graph for midterm elections. They are separated to make the trends more obvious.

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The data varies slightly over time, but it is more-or-less flat. For those curious, “Millennial” is defined as anyone born between 1981–1996. In the year 2000 the oldest of this generation just began voting, and only in 2014 was the entire cohort above the age of 18. If anything, Millennials seem to be voting at a higher level than Gen X. In fact, Appelbaum himself shared a graph that seemed to show just that!

In addition, Millennials show a much stronger preference for the Democratic party, meaning that they have a larger directional impact on elections than previous generations.

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“Sure, Millennials vote at the same rate as other generations, but they should be voting more! If you have it so tough, why don’t you vote like you want to fix things?” This is clearly a double standard. Why should they have to vote at historically high numbers just to have a functioning political and economic system? No other generation had to do that! Secondly, there are plenty of problems that Millennial voting really can’t solve…

How Exactly Were Millennials Supposed to Stop the Financial Crisis?

I may not be an editor at a fancy publication like the New York Times, but I have a few simple talents. For example, I can calculate that in 2004 you needed to be born before 1987 in order to vote. I can also recall that the financial crash started in 2008. This means that the vast majority of Millennials never had an opportunity to vote in the elections that led up to the great recession.

So my question is, how exactly were Millennials supposed to stop the financial crisis? By the time we came of voting age the economy was already on the precipice of collapse. While the economic downturn that comes from the coronavirus pandemic is likely to be more severe than the financial crisis, the 2008 crash is what set them up to be vulnerable now. “Voting more” only works when we actually had a chance to vote.

It Is Not Millennials Fault That the Elections are Broken

Democracy in America is dysfunctional. Hillary Clinton won by millions of votes, but lost the electoral college. This is to say nothing of gerrymandering. Or the Supreme Court. Or the structure of the Senate. Or Citizens United. Even when the youth do vote, those votes don’t seem to matter. There is an entire system of injustice and broken institutions designed to disenfranchise. Perhaps it is worth pointing at these inequalities rather than asking Millennials to just “vote more”.

This is Victim Blaming

“Victim blaming” is the practice of pointing the finger at the individual(s) hurt by some abusive or unjust act, accusing them of bringing on their own mistreatment. There is no such thing as a perfect victim; everyone lives a multifaceted life. If you want to find an angle to blame someone, you usually can. By doing this, you absolve the wrongdoer, and shift blame to the victim that made the mistake of being vulnerable, gullible, or weak.

Who was responsible for the financial crisis? Politicians, economists, bankers… certainly not high school students and college freshmen. They were the victims of the greed of investors, and the carelessness of the government. The pandemic is no one’s fault, but the anemic response of the Trump White House has allowing this disease to take over the country. Their incompetence is responsible for the state of the economy. By blaming Millennials for not voting enough you are forgetting who is really at fault here. Rather than giving a snide remark, perhaps it is more appropriate to express sympathy for the tragedy of the situation, or point criticism at those who are truly responsible?

Have Some Self-Reflection

It is deeply ironic to receive blame from someone like Appelbaum for the crises that have rocked my generation. This is a man who is an editor at the New York Times. Instead of blaming the victims, maybe it is worth considering your own role? You have an incredible sway on the events in politics. I understand that Appelbaum was not an editor at the time of the 2016 election, but we should always remember what the Times did four years ago. Yes, it is true that increases in Millennial turnout in a few key states could have changed the course of history. But, perhaps, it is more useful to talk about the impact your paper has on the lives of real people? High visibility news organizations — and the people who staff them — need to take their role and responsibility seriously.

Appelbaum’s comments seems to suggest he is not ready for that.

Other work by Jesse Harris.

Scientist / Writer / Environmentalist ~ I would love to work with you. Learn more about me: https://jesse-harris.ca/

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