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Amy Fried is chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views are her own and do not represent those of any group with which she is affiliated.
They were cheering, blowing horns and dancing in the streets. That’s what happened after media decision desks announced that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris defeated Donald Trump and Mike Pence. It happened in Maine, in New York, in Pennsylvania, in Georgia and across the land.
After years of protests against Trump and his policies and, this summer, against systemic racism and for racial justice, the joy was palpable and oh so unusual. Celebrating election wins used to be public and loud in America, with crowds out and about, but that hasn’t been the case for many decades. Since the age of television, some gather in ballrooms for their candidates’ parties but most sit at home with friends and family.
And, as Mark Hertling, the former commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe, observed Saturday evening, he was “stationed in Germany when the wall came down. Tonight has the same vibe.” That wall — the Berlin Wall — was put up in 1961 by the authoritarian East Germany to keep their people from traveling to democratic West Germany. And it was brought down almost exactly 31 years ago with cranes and bulldozers, but also citizens who “used hammers and picks to knock away chunks of the wall.”
Many of those celebrating last weekend were young. Four women I saw interviewed by a television reporter excitedly announced this was the first time they voted. They were thrilled about the election results, enthusiastic about beating Trump and electing Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, the first woman and woman of color to become vice president.
Young voters showed up. According to estimates from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, youth turnout was up compared with 2016 and made the difference in key states. Biden appears to have remade the Electoral College map with narrow wins in Georgia and Arizona. In Georgia, voters aged 18 to 29 favored Biden over Trump 57 percent to 39 percent, contributing a net of 188,000 votes. Biden’s lead with this group was even wider in Arizona, 60 percent to 36 percent, yielding 21,000 votes, according to the center. With particularly strong support for Biden from Black and Latino youth, this pattern held in all swing states.
In not all states did young people’s votes matter as much. In Maine, only 33 percent of voters between 18 and 29 backed Trump, as voters in most age groups also rejected him. Sen. Susan Collins won a historic fifth term with about 51 percent of the vote, but her bid would have failed if young people were the only voters, as she received just 35 percent support from them.
Biden won the most votes in American history and what happened this year will reverberate into the future.
Young voters want real change. They want less costly higher education, universal health coverage and robust climate change policies. But frustration looms should Republicans continue to control the Senate, as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell already signaled he plans to block Biden’s nominees and ambitious plans.
But in the longer run, Trump’s presidency ignited a generational time bomb for Republicans.
Although people may change how they vote as they get older, political views and loyalties tend to persist from when people become politically engaged. When you grow up attracted to a popular political figure — Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan — that influences you for a long time. Same for a failed, unpopular president, which is how most Americans and certainly young people see Trump.
And the activism of this generation — in campaigns, in organizations and in marches — also shapes them for a lifetime. Once people try political activism, they learn skills, they learn to work in coalitions, they feel empowered. They come to believe they can make a difference and so pay more attention and participate more in politics.
Those dancing in the street on a warm November night to celebrate the end of Trump’s presidency marked the emergence of another wave of American voters. While our institutions tend to block rapid change, this next generation stands poised to remake American politics.