An Open Letter To Millennial Voters

You can change this city. But it’s not enough to just be new. You gotta think new, too

An Open Letter To Millennial Voters

You can change this city. But it’s not enough to just be new. You gotta think new, too

Dear Millennial Voters,

First, I hear ya. Over the past year and a half, I’ve talked to countless young Philadelphians and the one constant has been the eye roll shared in response to being called a “Millennial,” with its implication of a monolithic mindset. No one likes to be pigeonholed. I’d hate to be seen as somehow representative of bald, middle-aged white dudes.

So all this talk of Millennial this and Millennial that, with its big, sweeping conclusions about you—so much of it feels like media bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done my share of it; it’s part of the media job description. We reduce cultural moments and trends to simplistic storylines. It’s a trap, really: We transmogrify entire populations into narratives we’re predisposed to believe.

So, I’m going to refrain from using the ‘M’ word. My hope is that, when all is said and done and the no-doubt trite history of this moment in Philadelphia is written, you’ll be considered the generation that didn’t wait your turn. That you didn’t outsource leadership, in a town long characterized by a ruling class with a history of condescending to—if not eating—its young.

That’s my hope, but as this election season has progressed, I’ve started to wonder if you’re truly seizing the moment. You can either be a critical voice in shaping the future of this city long term, or you can concern yourself solely with the next four years. One is bold; the other is what every interest group does.

This isn’t about Jim Kenney, though he’s seemed to be the best at pandering to you. He’s doing what candidates do, attempting to buy off a group here and a group there with policy prescriptions. But you should reject the politics of what’s in it for me; you should reject being spoken to as just another interest group seeking to get its share of an ever-shrinking pie.

A lot has been written and said about the impact you can have. There are 411,000 of you between 20 and 34 in the city, 27 percent of our population. In Center City zip code 19102, you make up over 51 percent of all residents; in Manayunk, it’s 59 percent. In Kensington and Fishtown, you’re at 36 percent and rising. But, despite those statistics, and even though you volunteer more than any generation in history, you don’t vote locally. More than two-thirds of Philadelphians between 18 and 24 and over 40 percent between 25 and 34 are inactive—that is, have not voted in five years.

There’s been a lot of hand wringing about your absence at the polls, but let’s keep this real. Yes, you should turn out at the polls more than you do, but let’s not blame a subculture for ills that characterize the culture at large. Hardly anyone in Philly votes; in the 2013 citywide election, fully 11.4 percent of registered voters did so. Lest you think that was an aberration, in the last mayoral race—admittedly a coronation of incumbent Michael Nutter—just 18 percent of registered voters turned out. That meant that more than 800,000 Philadelphians—people who were already registered—didn’t bother to cast a vote for the city’s highest office. This is why we get the leadership we deserve.

That said, what’s different between this moment and past years is the vocal minority of you who are passionate about challenging Philly’s status quo, and who are unwilling to be patted on the head and obligingly wait your turn. We’ve hosted a number of events lately in which your energy for change was palpable, particularly at our Mayoral MillenniaLab, in which young people sat at the same problem-solving table as mayoral candidates—and pushed back at them. There’s new energy on our streets, in our cultural spaces, and around our politics, and Philly owes you a debt of gratitude for spreading it.

But a note of caution has dawned. At the MillenniaLab, a bunch of us lingered afterwards, drinking beer and talking leadership. The room had a decidedly pro-Jim Kenney feel to it, and I was endeavoring to find out why. Turns out, he’d been the best panderer: He’d grabbed the low-hanging progressive fruit—LGBT equality, marijuana decriminalization, bike lanes. Never mind that, like the other candidates, he’d engaged in the careful analysis of turnout math and studiously avoided discussing how to tackle our big problems—precious little mention of pension reform, poverty, how to fix (as opposed to fund) the schools, reforming taxes. All things that would piss off various constituencies.

This isn’t about Kenney or the other candidates; they’re doing what candidates do, attempting to buy off an interest group here and an interest group there with policy prescriptions designed to form a winning coalition. It’s about what you expect and demand from them. Yes, it’s great that a number of PACs have organized, flexing the collective muscle of young voters. But what they’re advocating for tends toward a narrow litany of “young person” concerns. The 5th Square supports green space and vision zero policies for reducing pedestrian and cycling deaths. Philly Set Go says it will “advocate for Millennials” in education, quality of life and entrepreneurial interests. Philly 3.0 is focused on City Council and committed to “bringing new voices into the city’s political conversation.”

I’m a big supporter of all. But to make the city what you want, your claims on the establishment ought to be about the city’s needs as a whole—rather than your own.

In that sense, I fear you’re missing a grand opportunity. You should reject the politics of what’s in it for me; you should reject being spoken to as just another interest group seeking to get its share of an ever-shrinking pie. You should, instead, take a more holistic approach to solving the problems of the city, and demand that your candidates do the same.

Last September, The Citizen brought Alex Torpey, the 27-year-old mayor of South Orange, New Jersey, to Philly. “Ask advice, not permission,” he advised a roomful of engaged young people. “It’s not enough to be a new face. You have to think new.”

Torpey and a handful of young mayors across the country are doing just that. They’ve reimagined the relationship between the governed and those who govern. They’ve rejected the long-held notion that a city is nothing but a set of competing interests. With inspiring, emotionally intelligent leadership, it can actually be a community of teammates all moving in the same direction together. Torpey gamified his city’s budget, so citizens could perform exercises as though they were mayor. He incorporated into the city’s books a “Citizen Guided Budget Line:” Using an app, citizens can decide how the money in that budget line should be allocated—for a tax refund, say, or to rehab a city park. He added a public comment period before town council meetings, so elected officials hear from constituents prior to voting.

He’s not alone. Svante Myrick, the 28-year-old mayor of Ithaca, New York, rather than threaten his city’s institutions of higher learning with higher taxes (or payments in lieu of them), has recorded the lowest unemployment rate in his state by acting as a broker between his colleges and universities and the private sector, arriving at win/wins for both. He also turned the mayoral parking spot into the smallest public park in the nation, lives in a house with four roommates and takes the bus to work. Cutesy? Sure. Gimmicky? Perhaps. But it also sends an important message: We’re all in this together.

“I’m someone who cares deeply about policy that can fix our schools even though I don’t have kids, and I’m not alone,” says 29-year-old Danielle Wolfe, a Center City consultant to nonprofits and public agencies. “Many of my peers think way beyond their immediate needs when casting a vote or getting involved in the civic scene. It’s got to be about the bigger picture—building a better Philadelphia.”

I’ve been impressed by Kenney’s candidacy, but this isn’t about him or the campaign he’s running. It’s about you and how boldly you demand change citywide. Is a 23-year veteran of Council, who wouldn’t stand up to the Council president and call for a hearing to look into selling PGW, who was once an acolyte of the ultimate insider pol Vince Fumo, and whose chief supporter is that other consummate insider union leader Johnny Doc…is that change, or more of the same?

Nick Marzano, head of Young Involved Philly, is not unlike Torpey and Myrick. He’s thinking differently. For this primary, YIP is embarking on a Get Out The Vote campaign during election week, because Marzano says that should be as common a form of nonpartisan volunteerism as Philly Street Cleanup Day. In other words, Marzano believes your goal should be broader than electing one person. “We need to start, as a population, believing in government as an inherently good idea—a thing that needs big improvements but is noble and worthy of our attention and talents,” he says. “There are groups of young people imagining a more ambitious future for our city than a political machine could ever provide. We need to convince voters that, like a Kickstarter campaign, it’s worth turning out for even before you see the final product.” When my reaction to Marzano’s plan gets a little too “let’s storm the gates,” he cautions me: “I don’t think the headline is ‘Us versus Them’ or ‘Us Overturning the System.’ I think it’s ‘Us versus A Lack of a Better Vision.’”

I hate it when thirtysomethings are so much smarter than me.

“I’m someone who cares deeply about policy that can fix our schools even though I don’t have kids, and I’m not alone,” says 29-year-old Danielle Wolfe, a Center City consultant to nonprofits and public agencies. “Many of my peers think way beyond their immediate needs when casting a vote or getting involved in the civic scene. It’s got to be about the bigger picture—building a better Philadelphia.”

Wolfe might not know it, but, in voting for policies that might not benefit her directly, she’s a Communitarian. Championed by George Washington University sociologist Amitai Etzioni, the Communitarian movement flourished in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, influencing a young, ambitious governor in Arkansas who would go on to be president. In the wake of Reagan’s looking out for one particular special interest group—the rich—and the left’s reactionary emphasis on identity politics, there came a philosophy that said our call should be to serve the common good.

Etzioni’s emphasis on the importance of common things wasn’t new. It’s what Lincoln was getting at when he appealed to the “better angels of our nature.” It’s what a skinny state legislator with a funny name touched on one night in Boston back in 2004: “If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child,” some guy named Obama said then. “If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription and having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent…It is that fundamental belief—‘I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper’—that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family: ‘E pluribus unum,’ out of many, one.”

That was classic Communitarianism—the sense that to pursue the common good is really to benefit us all. It’s a politics where self-interest and empathy converge. The Greatest Generation knew this. On his death bed a year ago, my 87-year-old Dad, a World War II veteran who joked that, stationed in Seattle, he protected the Pacific Northwest from Japanese attack, wondered just when paying your taxes became so damned political. “It was something you did because you were part of a community,” he said, “and you had an obligation to the next guy.”

An obligation to the next guy. Philly could use some of that type of Communitarianism, because finding common ground just might be our greatest challenge. We’re dominated by fights: Old versus young, black versus white, business versus labor. (The only fight missing in Philly is Republican versus Democrat.)

That’s where you come in. You are uniquely positioned to say that the days of doling out policy favors based on interest group endorsements and donations are over. It’s time to think bigger and broader. Young people have always led such challenges to the status quo. In Philly, it was the army of baby-faced romantics recruited by Richardson Dilworth in the ‘50s that, for a brief time, decimated machine politics. The next decade, nationally, it was a 26-year-old preacher who started something that would come to be called the Civil Rights Movement.

I’m not saying you’re the next Martin Luther King, Jr.—get over your damn self—but I am saying you can think bigger. Don’t settle for bike lanes. Lead a movement.


Larry Platt
Bald, middle-aged white dude

The Philadelphia Citizen will only publish thoughtful, civil comments. If your post is offensive, not only will we not publish it, we'll laugh at you while hitting delete.

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