Op-eds, Opinions

Pandit ’20: Generation Z and the future of American politics

Op-Ed Contributor
Thursday, November 9, 2017

“Trump is a relationship builder. It’s what he does well.”

That was the answer I received from Mercedes Schlapp, a Fox News contributor, when I asked her at a panel discussion earlier this year why I should support Trump. I was hoping for an answer that would restore my confidence in the president and the future of our nation. Suffice it to say, I was disappointed. My five-year-old cousin is a good relationship builder, too — and he really shouldn’t be president.

Though discomforting, Schlapp’s reply was notable because it elicited distinct reactions from the students and adults in the room. The students seemed dissatisfied with Schlapp’s remark, while the adults seemed more receptive. This dichotomy perfectly illustrated the differences in political opinion between generations — a topic I wrote about in my book, “We Are Generation Z: How Identity, Attitudes, and Perspectives Are Shaping Our Future.” 

My generation, Generation Z, was born between the mid-1990s and 2010. It is the generation that comprises most college and high school students — an important constituency for politicians. As many Gen Z’ers become eligible to vote, they will play an increasing role in defining American politics. Specifically, Generation Z views politics through a unique prism, one that emphasizes inclusion, economic justice and other progressive ideals. Politicians on both sides of the aisle would do well to pay attention. However, officeholders have generally failed to recognize and address Generation Z’s political perspectives. Trump won the 2016 election with only 36 percent of the younger generation’s vote — a figure that suggests he won’t fare well amongst the next generation of voters.

Generation Z’s political inclinations have been shaped by their exposure to technology, the ubiquity of which has led to an increasing awareness of the diverse cultures, viewpoints and beliefs around our country and the world. This, in turn, has led to arguably the most tolerant generation in history. We can expect to see current trends amongst millennials only further strengthened in Generation Z. For example, a 2010 Pew survey found that respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 were three times more likely than those above the age of 65 to support interracial marriages and the raising of children by gay and lesbian couples.

This tolerance also manifests itself in Generation Z’s views on civil liberties and terrorism. Many Gen Z’ers are too young to meaningfully remember 9/11. As such, we do not see the “War on Terror” with the same sense of urgency and insecurity that older Americans do. In fact, between 2010 and 2013, the proportion of young people aged 18-29 who believed that American anti-terror policies have gone too far in restricting civil liberties increased by 50 percent. Furthermore, 72 percent of young people — compared with 49 percent of Baby Boomers and 46 percent of those in Generation X, born before the early 1980s — said that civil liberties do not need to be infringed to curb terrorism.

Economic justice, with respect to higher education and big business, is also important to Generation Z. The exponential growth in college tuition disproportionately affects young people, 35 percent of whom have trouble buying daily necessities and 55 percent of whom say they must defer home and car ownership because of student loans. In fact, student loans weigh so heavily in the lives of young people that nearly half would forfeit the right to vote in the next two presidential elections to have them forgiven.

Gen Z’ers are also concerned about the larger economy since we came of age during the latest economic recession in 2008. Business deregulation, bank bailouts and widening inequality in the recession’s aftermath made us feel uncertain about our own futures. Gen Z’ers are far more likely than older Americans to say that businesses enjoy more control over our lives than government and that government should take more action to combat economic injustice.

How our society comes to terms with Generation Z’s new brand of politics — and its associated nuances — has serious consequences, both for politicians seeking office and for our democracy at large. First, as more Gen Z’ers reach adulthood, they will begin to solidify their political leanings. To resonate with young people and encourage them to be lifelong supporters, Democrats and Republicans must address youth voters’ interests now. That means talking about college affordability more forcefully — instead of making vague policy proposals about tuition like Trump did — and combatting inequality more aggressively — instead of relying on mega-donors, like Hillary Clinton did.

But more importantly, politicians need to answer the concerns of young people if they want to properly train the next generation of citizens. Youth engagement now will increase civic participation down the line. This is extremely important for the future of our democracy. We need to educate voters so that they feel comfortable wrestling with tough political issues and setting high expectations for candidates. After all, as the past year has shown, ordinary people who are organized and politically active can make a difference in our political system. And if we don’t reach out to young people, respond to their needs and encourage them to care about politics now, they won’t be ready to stand up for our democracy and for our values later.

Vivek Pandit ’20 can be reached at vivek_pandit@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.