Why are young people wary of politics? A student's perspective

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On the day of the 2016 election, we were incredibly nervous.  We texted other friends furiously in anxiety. The morning after the results came out, similar to half of the American population, my closest friends and I could not find enough words to express our anguish.  Expecting our other friends to agree with us and be equally as frustrated, we were met with opposition and cold shoulders. They told us they didn’t like to talk about politics and were uncomfortable to even mention the election.  We thought they weren’t being serious, so my friends and I continued to rant. But when one of my friends was shunned by our group for continuing to talk about the election in the days after, I was shocked. This was the first wakeup call for me.  As the daughter of two immigrants, I couldn’t imagine being willingly ignorant of what was happening in our country.

“Republicans are the worst,” I remember saying, among a few other angry comments, in frustration.  Considering some of my friends’ own parents and family voted for Trump, it’s understandable that these statements must have been discouraging and offensive - an example of the type of inflammatory discourse that I think force some members of our generation out of politics. This incident halted any future discussion and talk on any political issues among my friends.

Upon reflection, I realized that not only were my friends and I being insensitive, but that many Democratic voters and leaders had done the same throughout the 2016 election cycle: antagonizing the Republican base through constant criticism and blanket generalizations, even though these voters weren’t necessarily all the racist, sexist, xenophobic monsters we had construed in our minds from what we had been exposed to.  I couldn’t imagine the uncomfortable feeling my friends felt when we, albeit mistakenly, were insulting their family on account of their political views. It’s not surprising that this sentiment pushes them away from being politically active at all.

Many teenagers in my generation, contrary to popular belief, are conservative. According to a Pew Study, 33% of Millenials identify as conservative or leaning conservative. But more importantly, that same study also highlighted a widening gap between teenagers’ and their parent’s political views, which also may explain why many young people are afraid to talk politics period.  

Another anecdote: during my school’s participation in the National School Walkout on March 14th, more than ninety percent of our student body participated.  At first, it seemed incredible that these many people would support gun control and this cause. But this number was inaccurate. Many students only participated due to peer pressure and fear of being ridiculed by their friends for not supporting the cause.  

The inflated number of kids who attended by school walkout is a great example of “false activism”; however, the problem doesn’t only rest in the hands of more conservative teenagers.  With the rise of social media, being an “activist” is now only a retweet, like, or share away. Voting takes a lot more work and effort than just scrolling through a feed on social media - yet another reason millennials are seemingly very energized and active but don’t show up to the polls.

Voters aged 18-29 only turned out at a rate of 46.1% in 2016, compared to 66.6% for voters aged 45-64 and 70.9% for those over 65. And some who are motivated enough to vote are still not putting in the effort to research the very candidates they vote for.  For example, one of my friends was able to vote in the primaries this past May. She was excited to vote, but when she came back, she realized she voted for a Democratic candidate who had dogged in scandals.  She laughed it off, but to me, it showed a glaring problem in our generation’s inability to take our elections seriously.

Furthermore, among young Republicans and Democrats alike, there is a huge distrust for anyone in the government.  Before the 2016 election, almost everyone my age I talked to about the election would complain about the same problem: “I don’t like any of the candidates, but Bernie Sanders is the best of them all” and the dilemma of having to choose between the “lesser of two evils”.  The continuous idea that everyone in Washington is a crook makes teenagers wary to trust politicians and spend time promoting candidates for office.

For these reasons, millennials and especially high schoolers are incredibly discouraged from participating in politics, whether they claim to or not, creating a false wave of activism that seemed to rise after the election.  Activism is easier said than done. It takes effort and trust, two things this generation has trouble finding.