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Politicians are blowing chances to connect with young voters like me

Gen Z is eager for more than just surface-level engagement and photo ops.

Supporters of former Vice President Joe Biden at a campaign event in Los Angeles on Super Tuesday, March 3.
Supporters of former Vice President Joe Biden at a campaign event in Los Angeles on Super Tuesday, March 3.JOSH HANER/NYT

When I was 16, there was nothing I wanted to do more than vote. It felt like the greatest injustice in the world that I was just two years too young to have a say. Now 20 and voting in a presidential election for the first time, I wish I could get back the excitement I had in 2016.

Donald Trump announced his candidacy during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school. At 14, I was just beginning to understand politics and form my own opinions. My parents were moderate Democrats, so I was a moderate Democrat.

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I became fixated on the election, and I loved Hillary Clinton. I put all of my teenage energy into getting her elected, donating the money I made from babysitting and my allowance to Clinton’s campaign. I wore T-shirts that said “I’m With Her” and “Nasty Woman” on them. I was quoted in a Washington Post article about Americans who couldn’t vote.

On Nov. 8, 2016, I came into the polling booth with my mom and watched her vote for Hillary. She hugged me, and I beamed. By 2 a.m. that night, my mom was hugging me again, but this time tears were falling down both of our faces. The unthinkable had happened, and I was absolutely crushed.

I was late to school the next day because I was too depressed to leave my bed. By 2018, I was numb. I couldn’t follow the news cycle. I felt myself becoming ignorant — something I swore would never happen.

College reinvigorated my interest in political news, but my spark for advocacy never came back. Although my politics have changed and I probably would not be a big fan of Hillary Clinton today, I miss my teenage self, with her wide-eyed optimism and dreams of a female president.

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This election, I’m voting for Joe Biden, but I’m not excited to do it. He wasn’t my top candidate, and the slogan “Settle for Biden” resonates with me.

As a Gen Z journalist reporting on college students and youth activism, it’s becoming clear to me that I’m not the only Gen Z voter who has become discouraged. Young people are more engaged in politics than ever before, but they’re becoming increasingly disillusioned with a system that they feel talks at them instead of with them. Gen Z voters make up 10 percent of the country’s electorate, but only 4 percent of likely voters, according to Morning Consult.

If something doesn’t change, an entire generation will be lost.

Gen Z, the people born after 1996, have grown up hearing that they will be the ones to save the country and lead America into the future. This is a burden that none of us asked for, and we weren’t given a choice of whether to accept it.

Adults love to fetishize the activism of Parkland teens, or Greta Thunberg, or Claudia Conway, holding them up as resistance heroes and a sign that “the kids are alright.” But all these teens want is for the adults already in charge to start taking responsibility.

Gen Z is being told that their voices matter and are important, but politicians aren’t following through by actually listening to them and working with them. To put it frankly, the kids can’t save you if you won’t let them.

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Surface-level engagement isn’t enough. Connecting with Gen Z requires more than using a diverse crop of teens for optics. It means hiring young people to be something other than unpaid interns. It means paying attention to what young people are saying on social media, where so many movements find their roots, and showing up at youth-led marches and rallies. It means hosting town halls and forums just for young people and hearing out children when they tell you what’s important to them instead of immediately becoming defensive. It means enacting the policies a majority of young people care about, like the Green New Deal.

Politicians should be paying attention to the methods young people use to organize and propose ideas — namely, social media and the Instagram “social justice slideshows” that have taken over the feeds of Gen Z users. Young people are using social media not only to share information but to propose new ideas for alternatives to policing. One account, @whocanicall, with over 13,000 followers, creates shareable graphics with alternatives to the police in individual American cities.

Some politicians are taking steps in the right direction. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, with her video game live streams and Instagram Q&As, is beloved by Gen Z, partly because she’s approachable. Senator Ed Markey’s primary election campaign was staffed by hundreds of young campaign fellows (albeit unpaid), leading to unique projects like the Markey Map, an interactive map that shows what the senator has accomplished for every town in the state and bolstering the organic support that won him the primary. Jaime Harrison, in his Senate race against Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, held a town hall in August just for young voters.

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Young people can have political impact when they’re given the opportunity. Movements like the push to lower the voting age to 16 or increase the formal representation of young people in politics — by electing more representatives in their 20s and lowering minimum ages for holding representative seats — are aiming to do just that.

Gen Z is the most progressive generation yet and is proving it at the polls — most Gen Z voters supported Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic primary. But while the Democratic platform includes a lot of Gen Z’s priorities, it’s not to the level most of them desire. For example, polling shows that over half of Gen Z supports the movement to defund the police, but the official Democratic platform is against defunding. If Gen Z feels like its voices don’t matter, the Democratic Party is in danger of losing us when it needs us the most.

My young adulthood has been defined by disenchantment, but the same thing doesn’t have to happen to today’s teenagers. Politicians can win back Gen Z — if they put in the work.

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Deanna Schwartz is a student at Northeastern University and a freelance journalist.