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Inside the minds of tomorrow’s voters

Long before they can cast a ballot, young people develop their own ways of seeing politics, Connie Flanagan finds

Andy Manis/Associated Press for The Boston Globe

This fall, American teenagers born on or before Nov. 6, 1994, will be able to cast their first-ever ballots during a presidential election year. The occasion will probably also mark a secondary milestone for the nation’s 18- and 19-year-olds: It will be the first time their political beliefs matter to anyone other than themselves.

Teens younger than that, however, will be out of luck. In a forthcoming book, “Teenage Citizens: The Political Theories of the Young,” University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Connie Flanagan argues that Americans under 18 unfairly get the “Summertime Blues” treatment from political scientists and other researchers: “I’d like to help you, son, but you’re too young to vote.”


Even if they’re too young to vote, the political predilections of minors are still important, says Flanagan, a developmental psychologist. She believes that we tend to place too much emphasis on elections, ignoring questions like how people interact with each other and their ideas about how society should be organized. In these areas, youngsters can still have direct political influence—and, in the process, develop skills that will help them become stronger leaders and voters when they eventually gain suffrage.

So how do today’s children become tomorrow’s voters? From the mid-1990s to about 2004, Flanagan’s surveys of preteens to 19-year-olds in public schools explored how young people develop opinions about core political concepts. Among other conclusions, she found that parents play a key role in how their kids interpret the meaning of democracy and freedom—even if they never discuss politics directly. For instance, children whose parents reinforced everyday “values of social responsibility” tended to think of democracy in terms of the greater common good, as opposed to simply their own rights as individuals.

Flanagan spoke to Ideas by phone from Michigan, where she was visiting her grandchildren. Her book will be published by Harvard University Press in February.


IDEAS: If parents aren’t actually talking about politics, how do they affect the way their children think about the subject?

FLANAGAN: We rarely talk with 12-year-olds about politics, but we, lots of times, talk about the kind of person they ought to be....We see them saying something mean to somebody else, or we see some other kid bullying someone, and we say, “I never want to see you doing something like that. You should stand up for other people.” So the regular ways in which we interact are not around electoral politics, but they have a lot of implications for the kind of society and the kind of values we want our society to stand for.

IDEAS: There’s a stereotype of teenagers as pie-in-the-sky liberals who haven’t had to live in the “real world.” Is that a fair assessment?

FLANAGAN: In my studies, if anything, those messages of compassion for others were not the majority opinion. So the most likely statement about what democracy means to me, or what it means to be an American, had to do with “my freedom” and “my rights.”...I would not say they were more progressive in that way. What other studies would show, though, is that young people...tend to be more tolerant on social issues and more open-minded towards gay marriage and mixed, ethnic marriages and that sort of thing than older generations are.

IDEAS: Why is there that disconnect between open-minded social views and more basic, me-first ideas about government and democracy?


FLANAGAN: Teenagers care a lot about their freedom. After all, they’re still dependents, and they’re still having adult authorities tell them a lot [about] what to do in their lives. So in that sense, freedom is a pretty salient kind of orientation: “My right to say what I have to say.” They don’t get a lot of opportunities to do that....I don’t see it as at odds, necessarily, with developing a common-good orientation.

IDEAS: How did the kids’ economic backgrounds play a role in the formation of their political ideas?

FLANAGAN: I really tried to go to a very wide range of social-class neighborhoods. So some schools were in communities where the school dropout rates were in excess of 50 percent. So they’re very, very poor communities. The surprise there, was, when you ask kids to...tell us in your own words why people are poor, tell us why people are rich, the more upper-class areas actually were more likely to give kind of structural reasons than were the poorer areas. The poorer kids were more likely [to] hold individuals accountable. So: “They probably aren’t working hard enough in school, and that’s why they’re poor.” Or: “They didn’t study hard enough, and now they’re unemployed.” Whereas [in] the wealthier school districts, it’s not that they didn’t also say individuals are responsible. [But] they also said things like, “Oh, the jobs are going overseas,” or “The government isn’t providing enough training programs.”

So more of the kinds of structural things that we would actually think about as liberal ideas tended to come from more upper-middle-class kids, and that was a surprise to me.


IDEAS: Doesn’t it also have to do with the higher quality of education in wealthier communities, or with their more active parents?

FLANAGAN: It’s all of the above. Basically, their schools were much more likely to have discussions of current events and politics. They had much more enriched opportunities for seeing different perspectives. [In] wealthier families, and better-educated families, the kids were more likely to report that they had discussions of current events and politics than did the less-educated families....But, for me, the ultimate thing was that these kids in the poor schools were not blaming their schools, or the government, or anybody. They basically were saying, “If you don’t make it in life, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough.”

IDEAS: What kind of influence can teenagers exert on the political process if they can’t vote?

FLANAGAN: There’s a lot of youth organizing and youth activist work that shows that kids have been successful at changing some of the practices in their schools, at improving conditions, at getting more recent textbooks and improving the facilities, at equalizing opportunity—even things like getting public transportation benefits for students to get to school. So there are actually successes, as it were, that are demonstrable, [in] the youth organizing world....Even if they don’t succeed, I would argue there’s an incredible amount of human capital and civic confidence that [teenagers] develop by having to analyze problems, having to think them through, having to think about power and authority, and then having to speak about it in public.


IDEAS: Are we entering a sort of golden age for teenage activism and influence because of how easily they can communicate with other people online?

FLANAGAN: [Whether] you can vote in that particular election...that’s a narrow way for us to think about politics. Politics has a lot more to do with values and speaking your mind and hearing what other people have to say. So I would completely agree that social media and every other venue through which you have a chance to speak up and take a stand, and hear other people’s perspectives, is a huge contribution to democracy.

Alex Spanko is a freelance writer who lives in Jamaica Plain. He can be reached at alexspanko@gmail.com.