To say that young people have little faith in politics would be a gross understatement.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 34% of non-voters are under the age of 30, while only 10% of likely voters are under the age of 30. Joshua Miller at The Boston Globe wrote that “members of the millennial generation are cynical about the political process, increasingly distrustful of the institutions of American government, concerned about economic inequality in the United States, and exhibit low interest in voting in the midterm elections.”
There is no doubt that young people are less than enthused when it comes to the American political process, so what, if anything, can be done about this?
Some political observers see little danger in this supposed millennial political apathy. Vox Magazine’s Abby Johnston wrote last October that “low voting rates for young adults is not a new trend. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people between the ages of 18 and 24 have voted in presidential elections at consistently lower percentages than any other age group.”
Perhaps this should come as no surprise, especially when considering that, as Chilton wrote, “Voting is all too often viewed as an ineffective form of expression by millennials.” If historically, young people in America have had low turnouts at elections, and if millennials see voting itself as almost a waste of time, it would then follow that this political apathy is not a serious source of concern, and instead just a normal phase of civic development.
This apparent lack of interest in the voting booth shouldbe a source of great concern. If the majority of millennials choose not to even exercise their basic right to vote, what will happen in a few decades when this generation of American citizens becomes the well from which we must draw a new class of political leaders? Citing a 2011 Harvard poll, Businessweek’s Natalie Kitroeff wrote that “just over a third of young people think running for office is an ‘honorable thing to do.’” That’s not a promising statistic for our future politicians.
This mentality is the byproduct of a general disappointment among millennials with both state and national politics. Last year, John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, wrote for CNN.com that “young voters are sadly becoming more disillusioned and distrustful of all things Washington.” Millenials believe that politicians always have ulterior motives. Earlier in 2014, The Boston Globe’s Joshua Miller pointed to a survey that showed 62% of 18- to 29-year-olds believing that “elected officials seem to be motivated by selfish reasons.”
It would make sense that, seeing little integrity in Washington, millennials would have hardly any interest in participation as voters, and especially as candidates. In a world where, as Kitroeff argues, “young people see the future – theirs and the country’s – as only loosely tied to the whims of politicians,” should the slim prospect of millennials as future candidates be cause for alarm?
The U.S. cannot afford to allow its youngest generation of voters to simply “check out” of the political process. Millennials should also realize that more, not less, political engagement may lead to the changes they desire. Abby Johnston wrote that “for a group that represents nearly one-third of the population, the potential of the millennial vote holds immense, untapped power in shaping the country.”
One would be hard-pressed to argue that millennials do not want to see their society improve. In an earlier-mentioned poll cited by Miller, 52% of people ages 18 to 29 believe that elected officials do not share their priorities. Millennials would turn out to vote in droves if they believed that government was a tool for positive change, not an obstacle to it.
So, when it comes to helping non-voters re-envision government in this way, where should we start?
Over the next month, I’ll be exploring this question with three articles about politics and the millennial experience. I’ll discuss how young Americans have a distinct political ideology, how the modern Republican Party has struggled to reach out to millennial voters in the past, and I’ll highlight two contemporary political figures working to reach out to young voters. We may not necessarily emerge with an answer to the question, but we will definitely have a better understanding of the issues involved.