The Democratic Party’s Privileged College-Kid Issue

The Democratic Party's Privileged College-Kid Issue

Anyone who has worked in Democratic politics in the last decade will recognise a certain type of young person: bright-eyed, old enough to drive but not old enough to rent a car without paying insurance fees, perhaps taking a gap year before starting college or else filling a period of post-graduation, pre-employment idleness.

The Democratic Party’s Privileged College-Kid Issue

They most likely majored or are majoring in political science, public policy, or whatever their school’s equivalent field of study is. They’ve probably spent a summer or two sweating it out in Washington, D.C., cranking out esoteric policy memos for a junior member’s assistant deputy legislative director, or else doing research for a grizzled senior fellow at an upper-Massachusetts Avenue think tank, fed a steady diet of West Wing optimism mixed with a healthy dose of Veep pessimism. They might have a faded presidential campaign button dangling from their Fjällräven bag — perhaps for Bernie, but more likely for Pete. These are, of course, the permanent reserve army of the Democratic Party, members of the class of aspiring politicians who work in the party’s national and local offices, fill campaign staffs, and populate the broader network of consultants and strategists that churns to life during major election cycles. Democratic candidates praise these young people as a key political asset on the campaign road, citing them as evidence of the party’s rising base of support among the next generation of leaders and voters.

A thriving network of student-run organisations on college campuses around the country guarantees that the quad-to-campaign pipelines continue to pump out a regular flow of passionate young party staffers. But what if these young folks, beneath their laptop stickers and campaign totes, are a real political threat to Democrats? And what if, contrary to popular belief, the power that these young people possess within the Democratic Party is hurting rather than aiding the party’s chances at the polls? That, according to David Shor, one of the Democratic Party’s most prized and divisive data experts, is exactly what is happening. Shor understands the influence these young, hyper-educated workers carry in Democratic politics in certain ways because he once wielded it — and to tremendous effect. Shor joined Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012, at the age of 20, to build and run its election forecasting system, a complex statistical modelling system that assisted campaign workers in determining how and when to spend money to maximise support in specific locations. Shor was fired from the progressive data business Civis Analytics in 2020, during the height of that summer’s racial justice marches, for tweeting out an academic paper claiming that riots have traditionally harmed Democrats in important election years. However, Shor’s power within the party has not diminished as a result of his dismissal, and he is said to have the ear of both Obama and senior Biden administration officials.

Ezra Klein, who seemed impressed by Shor’s pessimism about the Democrats’ chances of holding the Senate, but more split on his suggestions for how to repair it, gave Shor’s theory of the electorate a long, sceptical but sympathetic scrub this week. Shor, on the other hand, has a hypothesis about the Democratic Party itself, which he sees as a mirror for his own party and which may be equally disagreeable to its insiders and even his friends. Shor’s theory goes something like this: despite the fact that young people as a whole vote at a lesser rate than the entire population, the aforementioned type of young person is overrepresented inside the Democratic Party’s infrastructure. The issue with this permanent class of young employees, according to Shor, is that they tend to hold views that are both more liberal and more ideologically motivated than the coveted median voter, yet they wield enormous power over the party’s messaging and policy decisions. As a result, Democrats end up devoting a lot of time to topics that are important to college-educated liberals but not to the multiracial bloc of moderate voters that the party needs to gain governing majorities in Washington.

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