An enormous voting bloc is about to come of age.
By 2020, 27 percent of the U.S. electorate — some 54 million people — will be between the ages of 18 and 29. This group, comprising the trailing edge of millennials and the first crop of voting-age Gen Zers, represented less than 20 percent of the voting population in the 2016 election. They’re now gaining the electoral muscle to determine the course of U.S. policy for decades to come.
That future should be progressive. In poll after poll, these voters lean far left of their elders. The bulk of them have registered unaffiliated or Democrat, but regardless of their declared party, they tend toward liberal on every major issue — including immigration, the environment, and gun control, according to a 2018 study by the Institute of Politics (IOP) at Harvard University, and they overwhelmingly disapprove of President Trump.
There’s just one problem: They don’t vote. In the 2014 midterms, a miserable 12 percent of eligible 18-to-21-year-old college and university students participated in the election. In 2016, with a highly controversial presidency at stake, less than half of college undergraduates voted.
With the chance to flip the House this November, hope has bloomed that these voters — let’s call them MillZees — will finally turn out. But while some analysts expect an onslaught at the polls this fall, the reality is far less certain. In discussions with get-out-the-vote advocates, voting experts, political analysts, and MillZees themselves, I discovered a vast chasm between the vibrant voter-registration movement and the number of candidates who actually connect with younger Americans enough to inspire them to pull a lever. And I learned that while youth voters sincerely want change, they are at once cynical, overwhelmed, and remarkably ill-informed about how the government operates.
In 2014, 26 percent of eighth-graders scored “below basic” on the civics part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly called the Nation’s Report Card.
But most of all, I found this: It’s not their fault.
Instead, it’s the product of a decades-long sequence of events — some deliberately engineered to freeze out the youth vote, others the unintended consequence of well-meaning but misguided social and educational programs — which has resulted in some 54 million young American citizens forfeiting even the slightest inclination to participate in American democracy. How do we get them back? The answer is complicated.
Seen, Not Heard
The disenfranchisement of young people from U.S. politics started decades ago.
Social and political unrest in the 1960s rattled Americans’ faith in their government. That distrust spawned an educational movement that ditched basic civics classes for the more nebulous “social studies,” says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. Those old-school government lessons — the kind that taught young Americans the mechanics of their political system — were replaced by history-focused coursework.
On the left, the movement was seen as a way to start fresh by teaching a broader range of ideas and contexts. On the right, the movement seemed like a great way to remove any whiff of liberal partisanship from public schools. Whatever the goal, civics education has declined ever since — its slide accelerating when George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2002 without a mandate to test for civics knowledge. In 2014, just 22 percent of eighth-graders scored “proficient” on the civics part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly called the Nation’s Report Card. That same year, 26 percent of students scored “below basic.”
During that period, American politics have also become intensely polarized. Any political discussion in school is viewed with deep suspicion by parents, administrators, and politicians who are obsessed with stealth ideologues who might be influencing children’s political beliefs. The result is that students no longer have a moderated, safe space where they can explore political issues, and teachers are afraid to address thorny issues. Emily O’Hara, a junior at UConn Storrs, says that in her high school civics class, the teacher would change the subject when discussions got too contentious.
That comes as no surprise to Kawashima-Ginsberg. Her 2012 survey of 800 civics teachers across the country found that more than 25 percent reported they dreaded community pushback if they talked about current events in the classroom. Many of these teachers got their first taste of this new order after having their students watch President Obama’s 2008 inauguration in the classroom — only to find themselves subjected to irate phone calls and threats of lawsuits from parents who claimed that the act of witnessing the transfer of power to a Democratic president in school was partisan.
Young voters’ lack of access to information about issues and candidates keeps them from casting votes. “We don’t read,” says one.
Since then, parents across the country have become ever more adamant that their public school teachers avoid talking about current elections and political issues. Kawashima-Ginsberg says that during the 2016 election, fearing virulent backlash, civics teachers across the country reported that they avoided discussing current events entirely. “There’s a real fear in schools to talk about politics,” she says. “Teachers are disempowered, and we are not testing for civic fluency, so they have no incentive to teach it.”
Those same high school students will soon be eligible to register as voters. For the first time, they will be confronted with political choices that will directly affect them. Lacking the necessary tools to understand and debate issues, and without an even basic understanding of how government works, they’re falling hopelessly behind.