By K.R. White
Young people want nothing to do with politics.
New data from the Pew Research Center and Reason Magazine points to sustained frustration as a key issue for the demographic known as the “Millennials,” generally understood to include anyone between the ages of approximately 18 and 34.
It’s understandable that we should be exasperated; if you were born in the past 20 years or so, it’s difficult to recall a time when Americans had faith in government.
In our lifetimes, incomes have stagnated, debts have increased and war has become the norm.
Instead of lawmakers responding swiftly and professionally to national and international issues, the Millenials have seen record lows in bipartisan productivity and compromise.
Our response has been a marked loss in faith and solidarity.
For the first time since 1989, over half of voters age 18-29 identify as neither Democrats nor Republicans, the highest levels of disaffiliation for any age group.
Instead of responding to frustration with action, however, young people have simply stayed away from politics in recent years, especially during midterm election season.
Only 24 percent of registered voters in the Millenial age bracket actually cast a ballot in 2010, and the Harvard Institute of Politics has projected that even fewer Millenials will turn out to the polls this Tuesday, Nov. 4.
In theory, young people should be turning out next week in greater numbers than ever before.
Nationwide, there are 36 states choosing new governors and 33 Senate seats are up for grabs in addition to all 435 seats in the House of Representatives.
Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., voters will all be asked whether they’d like to legalize recreational marijuana use, a question 57 percent of Millennials said they’d answer with a, “Yes.”
The public education system is tearing itself apart over issues with state testing, data collection and the ever-embattled Common Core.
LGBTQ rights activists are winning battles, but their war continues, with 67 percent of Millennials supporting equality.
Immigration, voter identification, gun rights — all examples of issues that remain shrouded in controversy, particularly the last of these in the wake of the 50th school shooting of 2014.
The unemployment rate is down, but economic conditions are suspiciously reminiscent of early 2007, leaving economists and young job-seekers equally cautious and cynical.
With 18 gubernatorial races too close to call, violent conflicts escalating around the world and a steadily rising national debt — which will reach its limit in March 2015 — it could easily be argued that these midterm elections are even more important than was the 2012 election.
For college students, in particular, these next few years are critically important, determining the finer points of the world — read: job market — we’ll find ourselves thrust into after graduation.
So, what’s going on here? Are young people uninterested in political issues, or are we just working to change and shape our worlds through other means?
Some experts, like Associate Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School and at Princeton University Markus Prior, point to growing media choice as part of the reason for Millennials’ steady decline in political participation; we were, after all, the first generation to grow up with the Internet, social media and smartphones.
But our high-tech ways come with a price.
“As media choice increases,” Prior argues, “the likelihood of ‘chance encounters’ with any political content declines significantly for many people,” thereby creating a knowledge gap in the electorate and a subsequent discrepancy in political participation.
The logic goes that if you want political news, it’s easy to find, but “those who prefer nonpolitical content can more easily escape the news and therefore pick up less political information than they used to,” and political news eventually fades almost entirely from their considerations.
Other researchers, like Professor of Global Communications and Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government Matthew Baum, have found that the traditional means of reaching consumers of news content have been replaced by “consumer self-selection.”
Rather than generally “tuning in” to the mass media and simply absorbing a variety of messages about political and apolitical content, viewers are now able to select what they want to consume.
They can then filter what news they choose to consume according their personal preferences.
“The end result,” according to Baum, may be “‘cyberbalkanization,’ in which the media commons is largely replaced by the ‘Daily Me,’ in which consumers encounter only the news and information they want.”
Predictably, and perhaps most disturbingly, “most of (the news and information consumers choose) tends to confirm rather than challenge their preexisting attitudes.”
It’s easy to spot the media effects that Baum and Prior describe in our everyday lives, but is it really the whole explanation as to why so few Millennials are making it to the polls?
It’s worth noting that young people have a history of less-than-stellar voter turnout.
In 1972, the voting age had just been lowered to 18, and millions of Baby Boomers were becoming adults.
Progressives who had hoped the youth vote would help drive Nixon out of office were sorely disappointed, leaving Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson to declare that the young would rather “lie around on waterbeds and smoke that goddamn marrywanna” than cast a ballot.
There is another possible explanation to consider—young people do care about the issues of our time, but we’re just addressing them in new ways.
“(Millennials) do care very passionately about issues that matter to them,” says President of Rock the Vote Ashley Spillane.
Rock the Vote is the largest nonprofit and nonpartisan organization in the United States. The organization’s goal is to encourage American youth to get to the polls.
“They are getting involved at a local level,” says Spillane, just one voice of many who has faith in this generation.
The Millenial generation is 86 million strong and more diverse, more educated and more connected than any generation in history.
“They are creating startups. They are volunteering with local organizations. They are looking to take problems on in real time and fix them.”
Though we may be weary of ineffective and inefficient governance, I believe this generation can become the greatest we’ve ever seen.
We’ve lived through war, crisis, recession and, yes, totally unprecedented political gridlock.
But our path to the future must include political participation as well.
Whether we like it or not, our political structures still hold much of the power in our society.
We can work around the political, but if we work within government as well, we can and will truly change the world.