In their 2004 chart-topping album American Idiot, Green Day sings that “another protester has crossed the line to find the money’s on the other side.” Fast forward to 2022, and we find that many young politicians posing as threats to the establishment are singing the same tune. Top millennials in Washington may brand themselves as rebels, but their votes often end up indistinguishable from the elder establishment they so revile.
In a recent campaign ad, South Carolina Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joe Cunningham declared that both his state and America are being run by a geriatric oligarchy. “Some of these people have been clinging onto power for 30, 40, even 50 years,” Cunningham said. “The same people who are running our country and state are the same people who’d ask you to reset their router.”
Cunningham strikes a nerve. The past two presidents have been the oldest elected commanders-in-chief in American history. With the median age of both chambers of Congress around 60 years old, the legislative branch’s approval ratings sit at 16 percent. These elder elites repeatedly show they are out of touch: Rudy Giuliani had no idea what the price of milk was and Hillary Clinton expected us to believe she keeps hot sauce in her purse at all times.
But age, rhetoric and personal brand aside, it’s the recorded votes that determine a politician’s integrity. And when you peek behind the curtain and actually look at how they vote, too many young counterculturalists are actually oligarchs in rebel clothing.
Cunningham is perhaps best remembered for cracking open a can of beer on the House floor in his farewell speech in 2021. It was a stunt calling for bipartisanship — albeit after blasting his colleagues for being liars and panderers. In a gubernatorial ad, he framed the fight as “new ideas versus no ideas,” implying he can bring something fresh to the table. His track record in Congress, however, shows he voted for some of the most destructive ideas ever brought to DC via the same geriatric oligarchy he rails against.
For example, Cunningham voted in favor of re-authorizing the Foreign Intelligence Service Act (FISA). A civil liberties nightmare, this program authorizes warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, and gives sweeping power to the NSA and FBI to monitor our private communications. Additionally, Cunningham never met a crony Covid “relief” bill he didn’t like. Whereas the trillions of dollars DC printed went to the politically connected, the American people got crumbs.
Adding insult to injury, Cunningham also voted to renew the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which not only funnels billions of dollars into endless warfare, but also gives dangerous powers to the government, like indefinite military detention without charge or trial. Do these votes serve the best interests of the American people? Or do they serve the oligarchy Cunningham claims to abhor?
Cunningham is not the only one who has branded himself as a rebel only to go serve the empire. In a recent social media video, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez declared that the United States is an “oligarchy that has its democratic moments.” Elected at 29 as the youngest-ever woman in Congress, AOC has branded herself as a working-class millennial deeply in touch with the needs of the younger generation, and has long decried the corruption, influence of lobbyists and lack of courage in the Capitol. She bolsters these talking points almost daily through selfie videos and posts to her combined 23.5 million followers across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
If you look past her rhetoric, though, many of her votes on the House floor prove she’s part and parcel of the corrupt system she denounces. One of her very first votes in Congress was to back Nancy Pelosi for House speaker. While making economic inequality a core theme of her brand, she backed a pay raise for Congress, despite her $174,000 salary putting her in the 94th income percentile of all Americans and 97th in her age bracket. Last month, alongside every other representative backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, she voted for $40 billion in aid to Ukraine, despite a strongly worded statement on her website posturing her in favor of “diplomacy and humanitarian engagement over military intervention and war.”
The blatant hypocrisy is not limited to the left. Before AOC, Elise Stefanik made history as the youngest woman ever elected to Congress at 30 years old. Stefanik invoked similar rhetoric to Cunningham: “Millennials bring a sense of bipartisanship, and really rolling up our sleeves and getting things done,” she told the New York Times in 2018. But just because Congress “gets things done” doesn’t mean it’s serving the people. Not only did Stefanik vote in lockstep with Cunningham for FISA, the NDAA and the crony Covid relief bill, she also voted with AOC to send $40 billion to Ukraine.
A day later, Stefanik shamelessly declared at a press conference that she was “Ultra-MAGA, and proud of it.” Between rising inflation and weariness over endless wars, is sending billions of dollars to Eastern Europe truly putting America First? Or does it prioritize the interests of the oligarchy?
With considerable influence and power available to those who seek it in our nation’s capital, we shouldn’t be surprised to see revolutionaries-in-name-only bowing to the regime. Rather than look to D.C. for anti-establishment role models, young people should look to state legislators as the true beacons of principle.
Legislators like Jeff Shipley in Iowa who at just 30 years old held his own as the lone “no” vote on a crony tax increase spun to the public as essential education funding. Or Matt Gurtler in Georgia (now chief of staff to Congressman Massie) who held his own at age 29 as the only Republican no vote against a Republican governor’s budget, drawing the ire of the “good ole boys” club of the GOP. Or Mallerie Stromswold in Montana who, elected at just 19 years old as the youngest female legislator in America, pushed the GOP establishment in Montana to pass a bill requiring warrants for searches in consumer DNA databases. Or Melissa Blasek in New Hampshire who, at just 32 years old, has made a name for herself by calling to strip the bloated Covid emergency powers of her GOP governor.
As a rule of thumb, we should always challenge politicians to match their votes to their rhetoric. In the Republican Party, anyway, there’s far too few in Washington who do.
Sean Themea serves as chief of staff for Young Americans for Liberty. A recovering progressive, Sean has been published in the Federalist and the American Spectator, and has appeared on Fox Business, Newsmax, The First TV and OAN. He is a writer and commentator for Young Voices.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.