There’s Some Good News on Young People and Democracy

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Lindsay Lloyd

Some give Millennials and Generation Z a bad rap for being self-absorbed and disinterested in public life. The reality is quite different. Recent campus dialogues about democracy and the increased election turnout indicate young people are eager to be engaged.

Over the past three weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to speak about democracy with students on four college campuses:  the University of Pennsylvania, Arizona State University, Florida International University, and SMU. At a time when so many of our democratic traditions and norms seem to be in question, if not under assault, there’s some good news about young people and democracy.

These conversations were an outgrowth of The Democracy Project, an initiative launched this spring by Freedom House, the George W. Bush Institute, and the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.  In a national survey and a series of focus groups, we explored Americans’ views on the health of our democracy and whether America had a role in supporting democracy and human rights abroad.

The research delivered a mixed verdict.  On one hand, large majorities strongly believed in our democracy, but large numbers felt it was weak and getting weaker.  The corrosive role of money in politics and persistent racism and discrimination were identified as the most important challenges to our democracy.  But we also found strong support for American engagement in the world and for stepping up efforts on civic education and engagement.

Our survey also revealed a significant gap between Americans under 30 and the general population on a number of questions.  Younger people were more skeptical overall that democracy was delivering for them.  For that reason, we wanted to probe more deeply and convened a series of conversations with college students in four states ahead of the midterm elections.

Granted, these students may not be representative of all young Americans, but they were a diverse group – ethnically, geographically, and politically. They were passionate, informed, thoughtful – and, wait for it – civil and respectful.

I spoke with young people who were engaged.  All of them were looking forward to Election Day – in some cases they were first-time voters – and many had voted early.  A majority of them said they had been engaged in other ways – contacting or speaking with an elected official, volunteering for a cause or candidate, attending marches or rallies, or posting about political issues on social media.  This was not the angry PC caricature we often see in the media.  The students I spoke with understood their role in our democracy and were eager to play a part.

And indeed, exit polls show that there was an uptick in younger people voting in the midterms. CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) at Tufts University’s exit poll found that 31 percent of 18 to 29 year olds voted in the midterms.  While that may not sound like a number worth celebrating, in the 2014 midterms, youth turnout was just 21 percent.  In fact, CIRCLE says that 2018 youth participation was at the highest rate in at least 25 years.

As we found in the survey, younger Americans, regardless of race, believe strongly in the importance of equality and combating discrimination and racism.  By and large, they have grown up in a very different America than their parents.  For most young people, discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation is a nonstarter. 

“There’s been a trend where we see that there is a decrease in the norms of tolerance,” commented a Florida International University student.  “I believe that is very corrosive to the democratic process and democratic institutions.”

In each of the four campus discussions, students I spoke with placed a higher value on protecting minority and individual rights than majority rule.

The other top issue in our survey and the university discussions was the role of money in politics.  An SMU student stated, “In order for young people to turn out, there needs to be evidence that our participation in the system will change it.  For that to happen, we have to get big money out of politics.”

Many expressed skepticism that politicians would entertain their views, absent a campaign contribution.

Our survey showed widespread support for increasing efforts on civic education and the students overwhelmingly agreed.  What I found particularly interesting is that while much of the national conversation on this issue focuses on K – 12 students, the university students we spoke with suggested there’s a real need to reach out to young people after they graduate high school.

One discussion participant at Arizona State said, “We need to get back to instilling, especially among young voters, that their vote does count and that it will make a difference – because if they don’t believe that it will, then I think our democracy will start to fall apart.” 

Similarly, a student at Florida International University commented on the need for civic education on campuses, saying, “Politics is complicated.  I still don’t understand everything that’s going on.  But just giving people a basic understanding of politics and actually giving them more incentive to care about what’s going on.  Education is the thing that would help with civic engagement.”

Some give Millennials and Generation Z a bad rap for being self-absorbed and disinterested in public life.  The reality is quite different.  These campus dialogues and the increased election turnout indicate young people are eager to be engaged. 

The challenge is meeting them on their own terms: addressing their concerns, speaking with them (and not at them), making them feel their opinions have weight, and communicating in ways they respond to.  There’s a lot of work to be done, but the good news is we can start from a receptive base.