Opinion

Young Voters Are Frustrated. They’re Staying Engaged ‘Out of Sheer Self-Defense.’

A Pew Research Center report released this week called Americans’ views of our politics “dismal.”

That might be too kind a word.

On metric after metric, the report ticked through markers of our persistent pessimism. In 1994, it says, “just 6 percent” of Americans viewed both political parties negatively. That number has now more than quadrupled to 28 percent. The percentage who believe our political system is working “extremely or very well”: just 4 percent.

And on many measures, younger people are the most frustrated, and supportive of disruptive change as a remedy.

Younger voters recognize that our political system is broken, and they have little nostalgia about a less broken time. They have almost no memory of an era when government was less partisan and less gridlocked. Their instincts are to fix the system they’ve inherited, not to wind back the clock to a yesteryear.

According to Pew, among American adults under 30, 70 percent favor having a national popular vote for president, 58 percent favor expansion of the Supreme Court, 44 percent favor expansion of the House of Representatives, and 45 percent favor amending the Constitution to change the way representation in the Senate is apportioned — numbers higher than their older counterparts, particularly those over 50.

But the American political system wasn’t built to make radical change easy. Yes, our political system needs a major overhaul, but such an overhaul is almost inconceivable given current political constraints.

This can be a bracing reality when youthful idealism crashes into it.

The knot that the country finds itself in may be one reason Pew found that younger voters are the least likely to believe that voting can have at least some effect on the country’s future direction.

And yet, according to a poll this spring of 18- to 29-year-olds by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School, they’re still engaged. As John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the institute and the author of “Fight: How Gen Z is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America,” put it, “From the midterms through the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court election, we are seeing young Americans increasingly motivated to engage in politics out of sheer self-defense and a responsibility to fight for those even more vulnerable than themselves.”

This defensive posture is understandable when you think about the political era in which these younger voters came of age: a dizzying period of dysfunction, calamity and activism.

Among voters 30 to 49, the oldest were in their 20s on Sept. 11, 2001. The events of that day would roll into America’s longest war — 20 years in Afghanistan. Those voters would see the hopefulness around the election of Barack Obama as president, but also the extreme backlash to his election that would culminate in the election of Donald Trump, Obama’s intellectual and moral antithesis.

Voters 18 to 29 ranged from their preteen years to their early 20s when Trump was elected in 2016. Only the oldest of them were eligible to vote at the time. The Trump years saw a president who has been accused of sexual assault, was openly hostile to minorities and disdainful of civil rights protests, and lied incessantly as those supporting him repeatedly excused or covered for him.

The oldest of this group were in their late teens when Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, so they lived the birth and rise of Black Lives Matter and are now living the backlash to it.

The Trump years exposed the inability — the ineptitude — of our system to hold leaders accountable and ended with an attempt to overturn an election and a storming of the Capitol.

Those years also saw a surge in mass shootings and warnings about the effects of climate change growing more dire, two issues that have become important to young voters. The overturning of Roe v. Wade was the clincher.

It’s no wonder that younger voters are so frustrated and so thirsty for change, and they spare no one in pursuing it.

While younger voters are more likely to have a favorable view of Democrats than of Republicans, they’re also more likely than older generations to have unfavorable views of both parties. More than half of Americans under 30 said it is usually the case that none of candidates running for political office in recent years represent their views well.

This all hints at a profound frustration with a lack of results, the professionalization of politics, and incrementalism and intransigence.

And yet this frustrated army of voters could still have a major impact in 2024. The Brookings Institution did the math on how important this voting bloc will be:

In recent elections, younger voters have been voting nearly two to one for Democrats. And the Republican Party may be pushing more of that group in that direction as the party digs in its heels on social positions unpopular with them.

But it’s a sad state of affairs that our current political system starves young people of hope and optimism, and instead forces them to cast their ballots as if under existential threat, regardless of which party benefits.

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