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How to Break the Cycle of Millennial Discontent in Politics

by Megan Rose Donovan

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

Young Americaís current view of government does not bode well for the future of our democracy. According to a new Harvard poll of 18-29 year-olds, these so-called millennials are becoming more polarized, more distrustful and more cynical about politics than in previous years.

The difference between the way young Democrats and Republicans view the President has never been more dramatic than in the last six months, the poll release said. The Presidentís approval rating among young Democrats is 85 percent, versus 11 percent among young Republicans. This divide has been growing in recent years, with the gap widening by 11 percentage points since last year.

Millennials also consistently rated the countryís institutions poorly. Only 22 percent would trust the federal government (as a whole) to do the right thing, and just 18 percent would trust Congress. The president and Supreme Court garnered a bit more trust (39 percent and 40 percent, respectively), with the military rated most trustworthy (54 percent said they would trust them to do the right thing).

Cynicism for the political process as a whole has increased at a rapid pace. The poll found that nearly half of millennials (48 percent) donít believe their votes will make a real difference, up from 29 percent just a year ago.

While this study does raise myriad reasons for concern and action, the picture is more complicated and less gloomy than it suggests. Millenials have high rates of volunteerism and political activism, and they are arguably masters at networking and collaboration. Some say that this combination may actually break down the partisan divide.

Still, Harvard's survey does merit a genuine discussion of ways we can keep division, distrust and cynicism from taking hold.

So how could we counteract it? Perhaps by first examining the causes we can identify some solutions and find a more favorable prognosis.

Possible Causes for Division and Discontent Among Millennials

One potential source for growing cynicism among the young may be the lack of progress when it comes to our lagging economy. The consequences of our current weak economy have been felt acutely by the young, who also face the ballooning cost of higher education, often staggering student loan debt, the reality that a degree or credential is increasingly required for employment in any field, and the ill fortune of belonging to a generation that will not be better off than their parents. While college graduates seem to have weathered the recession well, they are often underemployed or working jobs below their skill level. For young people without a college degree, the unemployment rate is much higher.

Meanwhile, these underemployed and unemployed youth watch as policymakers avoid making the important decisions necessary to setting this country on a viable economic path. No wonder this group is so frustrated by the current political system.

In general, this generation hasnít seen progress on most major reform movements in their lifetime. Peopleís political attitudes often coalesce at the beginning of their adulthood, when they enter the political process, said Trey Grayson, Harvardís director of the Institute of Politics, which means that millennials could already be conditioned to doubt and distrust.

Shortfalls in the civic education that young people received (or failed to receive) in secondary school may be a contributing factor as well. Civic education can foster pride in the democratic process, encourage active citizenship and build a constituency of inspired leaders for tomorrow. However, signs indicate that students' civic mastery is faltering, and, nationally, our education system's emphasis on civic education has dwindled.

Outside of formal schooling, young people have few opportunities to develop civic skills. In fact, we can likely attribute millennial polarization in part to the political isolation they experience socially. Only 12 percent of millennials surveyed said that their most recent significant other had different political beliefs from their own, and 72 percent reported that all or most of their friends share their politics, according to the Harvard Crimson. Birds of a feather tend to flock together, sure, but homogenization of social groups doesnít typically encourage the types of critical discussions that have to happen in order to come to terms with tough issues.

It may be the case that the Internet and other digital tools can help improve civic engagement and encourage political activities that bring people of differing politics together. As of yet, however, such technology has failed to broaden the reach of engagement beyond those who are already civically active. Furthermore, research indicates that online commenting tends to negatively affect civil discourse and reduce objectivity.

Improving the Outlook for Millennials and our Political Future

Whatever the myriad for the younger generationís increasingly polarized, distrustful and cynical attitudes toward public life, there are no clear and simple solutions. Here are some principles previously discussed in our work that we believe are likely to help:

We've also seen many instances where community leaders help citizens engage in thoughtful, civil dialogue with people diverse views. Such conversations often have a marked effect on participants, who come away understanding why others have views counter to their own, accepting that there are no easy answers, and seeing their political opponents as people instead of caricatures. Can such a model be used in the higher education classroom to instill a respect for civil dialogue in our nation's college students?

These ideas are certainly not exhaustive. Do you have any others?

Concentrating on ways to shift the political perspective of our future leaders will be a continuous process. Yet not doing so may let them succumb to deep, lifelong polarization and will be detrimental to the health of our society. Letís get a jump on them while they're young.




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