In an election year full of paradoxes, young people provide another: Millennials are paying close attention and care about issues, but they don’t believe their voices are being heard. As a result, we may be at risk for losing the political engagement of a generation. And we can’t afford it.
A new poll out from Tisch College’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, shows only 32 percent of millennials believe they “have a legitimate voice in the political process,” even while three-quarters report that they are paying attention to the presidential election and 60 percent believe that this election will influence everyday issues such as schools and policing.
I see this with my own students at Tufts University. They want to do well, of course, but they also want to do good — in their communities and the world. And they are not sure that our political institutions are the best way to do the most good.
Nearly all of my students plan to vote, which is perhaps entirely predictable among the set who would select my course, and also encouraging — because voting at a young age sets the stage for being a lifelong voter. But I have also seen their enthusiasm for this election tempered by their frustrations about the candidates, the media, and the voting process.
They mirror their generation in their diversity, ingenuity, and commitment to meaningful social change. Millennials are the most diverse generation in American history. And though they are very civically engaged by some measures — like volunteering and activism — they do not always see voting and political participation as an effective means to change, according to CIRCLE and others.
Who can blame them? This election cycle has seen rhetoric that has often crossed the line to vicious invective. In addition, many young people of both parties participated in the primaries only to see their preferred candidates lose. They also distrust institutions: Only 18 percent of millennials in CIRCLE’s recent polling expressed trust in major media outlets, just inching out Congress and large corporations as the least trustworthy institutions.
Both parties face this headwind of skepticism of public and institutional life, even as we know that millennials have the power to sway elections. Young voters reshaped the electorate in 2008 by voting in overwhelming numbers for President Obama. And an analysis by CIRCLE researchers found that, in 2016, young people are poised to have a disproportionately high electoral impact on key Senate races in swing states like New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
It’s unclear how this will shake out on Nov. 8 and, just as important, beyond. While millennials seem to be coalescing around Hillary Clinton, there are deep demographic differences in that support, which could portend divisions that will persist beyond the election. The racial and ethnic composition of millennial Clinton supporters resembles the projected US population demographics for 2050 (40 percent white), while millennial Trump supporters match the racial composition of the current senior citizen population, 85 percent of whom are non-Hispanic whites, according to CIRCLE’s analysis of US Census data. Whoever wins the presidency, leaders of both parties will be challenged to knit the country back together, to appeal to a changing America, and to engage diverse, young citizens across the ideological spectrum.
The potential in young voters has become apparent to me in many ways this semester. After the second presidential debate, my students were quick to point out Trump’s sniffing and interruptions or Clinton’s “shimmy,” but they also noted the instances in which the candidates did (or did not) articulate policies in their responses. One student wrote, “The candidates opted to focus on witty zingers instead of specific policy agendas, and their lines almost seemed curated to fit into a 140-character limit.” My students know what they saw and heard, but they are also acutely aware of what they didn’t. Public life is not living up to their aspirations — a sentiment they likely share with many older Americans.
These young people are distinct from most in their age group in at least one important way: attending an elite university. We know that a higher level of educational attainment corresponds with a higher likelihood to vote. In addition, efforts on campuses like Tufts are seeking to address some of the barriers to voting that young people do face, with ambitious initiatives to increase registration and political learning.
So when college students raise their hands and say they will vote, we should be glad for their participation. But we also should acknowledge the wide disparities across this generation and seek ways to encourage all young people to participate in our democracy. We need them.
David Gregory, a former moderator of “Meet the Press’’ and NBC chief White House correspondent, is a CNN political analyst and a Tisch College professor of the practice at Tufts University.