Asking If There Should Be More Millennials In Congress Misses A Much More Vital Question

by Hannah Golden
Scott Heins/Getty Images News/Getty Images

On Tuesday, June 26, the world of U.S. politics was upended when a 28-year-old Latina ousted longtime Democratic incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in New York's 14th congressional district. The win for first-time candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which came as a "shocking" victory to some, has caused the conversation to turn to whether Americans should elect more millennials to Congress. In many ways, however, that's the wrong question.

The question to be asking isn't who voters should elect on voting day — it's who should be on the ballot in the first place. Let voters decide who they want to elect. But they can't consider someone who's not running to begin with.

It would be a disservice (and grave political mistake, frankly) to generalize millennials as an entire generation, or to conflate their age with a specific viewpoint on any given issue. This is precisely why the nation needs more variety in its races: To offer voters the chance to choose among candidates with a diversity of perspectives.

Still, many people discourage young people (and otherwise untraditional candidates) from running solely due to their age, arguing that experience should be the first priority when it comes to candidates. Ocasio-Cortez, for instance, told me in early June in an interview for Elite Daily that people questioned her candidacy because of her youth. "They're going to tell you as a young person, no matter what you've done, that you're not good enough," she said.

I'm all for having qualifications, but if you take "experience" to mean traditional previous experience in public office, then the list of viable candidates will be a very short one, and a predominantly straight, white, male, and non-millennial one at that. That's because as it stands now, Congress is extremely lacking in diversity — by age, race, gender, and sexual orientation. Women are still woefully behind their population share in elected office, comprising about 20 percent of Congress, per the Center for American Women in Politics.

The same is true for millennials, who represent more than one quarter of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, yet comprise just 1.1 percent of the House, Bloomberg reports. (Candidates for the House must be 25 years old and those for the Senate must be 30 years old upon their election.) The average age in Congress is 57.8 years for House members and 61.8 for Senators, according to the Congressional Research Service, and the youngest House representative in the 115th Congress is New York's Elise Stefanik, who is currently 34.

That's not to say that issues relating to the younger generations have gone entirely unnoticed. The House's Future Forum Caucus, chaired by Rep. Eric Swalwell, is a group of 28 of the House's youngest Democrats seeking to address millennials' needs in their policymaking. But that doesn't necessarily take the place of having a new generation literally at the table.

So if people want to talk about "experience," let's talk about it. Ocasio-Cortez organized for Bernie Sanders, worked for the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, and worked in community organizing for local nonprofits. But she also has the "experience" of graduating with student loan debt that she's still paying it off, working a restaurant job to supplement her income, and seeing her family move to Florida because they can't afford New York rent.

Why does that matter? Because not all voters own houses in the Hamptons — especially not millennials, whose median incomes, as of 2016, ranged between $18,000 and $43,000.

While Ocasio-Cortez offers her own particular experience to voters, other young candidates around the country are doing the same in their own unique ways. Just look to folks like Katie Hill, a bisexual homelessness advocate running for House in California; Abdul El-Sayed, a Muslim-American doctor running for governor in Michigan; and Lauren Underwood, a woman of color and nurse running for House in Illinois. There are dozens of young people around the country at every level broadening and enriching the choices voters have at the polls.

This brings me to the heart of the matter: What is it that voters want in their legislative bodies? Do they want a Congress full of career politicians and those who know how to negotiate on the Capitol Hill? Or do they want a mix of representatives who reflect the diversity of the population?

Diversity in office matters — especially when it comes to issues that impact certain populations. Having officials in the legislative body that not just ideologically but demographically reflect their constituents can affect the outcome of policies. A case in point: None of the nearly 200 federal anti-lynching bills introduced between 1882 and 1986 were approved by Congress, as The New York Times notes. Now, three black senators are working to pass a bill denoting lynching as a federal hate crime. While having millennials at the table can't ensure that issues predominately affecting them — student loans, climate change, minimum wage, etc. — will be solved, it will almost certainly change the conversation.

Moreover, posing the question, "Should we elect more [insert label here]?" on its face seems to make underlying assumptions about what fielding nontraditional candidates means. Electing a few young people doesn't mean replacing all 535 members. With millennials — as with women, people of color, and LGBTQ candidates — there is a long way to go before they're even close to their share of the population. Let's be clear on this: America is not at risk of these under-represented groups "taking over" Congress by any stretch of the imagination. Older, straight, white men are still the robust majority, and will be for the foreseeable future.

The whole point of allowing people to choose their own representatives is that they do so at their own discretion. Some vote based on a candidate's party, platform, or even a singular issue, and not all vote based on sharing a candidate's identity (see: the 52 percent of white women who voted for Donald Trump).

However, research has also suggested that identity can trump policy when it comes to voter behavior. And if someone votes for a candidate because they feel that person embodies their identity — and can therefore better address issues affecting them — that's their prerogative. Whatever it may be, voters are allowed to vote for whomever they want, for whatever reason they want.

So why does it matter if Congress has millennials? Because, for instance, few of our representatives know, like the 37 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds with student loan debt, what it's like to choose between more hours working or more hours studying, between paying off loans and saving for their futures. And there are plenty of issues beyond student debt — affordable housing, health care, LGBTQ rights, racial issues, and climate change, to name a few — that millennial candidates can speak to that millennial voters care about.

So, does the fact that Ocasio-Cortez is young make her a more or less valid candidate, or should it factor in at all? That's up to voters to decide for themselves. But they don't have a choice if their incumbents continue to run unchallenged. That's the whole point. You can't order the steak if it isn't on the menu.

As many of the students leading the #NeverAgain movement against gun violence in schools have reminded some of the nation's most powerful leaders, they're ready to make their voices heard with their ballots. The under-30 age bracket already comprises 21 percent of eligible voters, and it won't be long until young people become the largest voting bloc in the country. They deserve candidates who don't simply conceptualize their concerns, but have lived them. Whether they choose to consider this when they fill out their ballots or not, at least they have the option.