Why Should Youth Care About Politics?


Zahra Fadoo, Staff Writer

With all of the controversy surrounding the White House and the Trump administration, it is an interesting time we are living in.  An informed populace is essential, however the unfortunate reality is that today we see a largely polarized nation rigid in their beliefs.  The pressing question is how our youth fit into this equation and how they can contribute to civic life.  What is the importance of having youth involved in politics?  What should be our role in promoting social change?


Voter turnout in young people is very low in the United States.  However, many do not attribute this to the youth being apathetic.  On the contrary, young people have both historically and contemporaneously engaged in great numbers in activist movements, including the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ rights protests, the civil rights movement, Occupy Wall Street, and others.  The youth demographic has been the spark that ignited the flame in many of these movements.  Without the involvement of the younger generation, our world would be a very different place indeed.


So why do the data show that young people are politically disengaged today?  According to the United States Census Bureau, only 36% of eligible voters aged 18-29 actually voted in the 2018 elections (https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2019/04/behind-2018-united-states-midterm-election-turnout.html).  I would posit that there are two key explanations for this.  The first is an overarching cynicism with our political process and the sense that the system is broken enough for individual votes to matter.  The second, I believe, is more serious and has to do with how young people receive and process information (consider the amount of time that young people spend engaged in consuming content via social media relative to other age groups).  Let’s examine each of these separately.


On the first point, it’s easy to become cynical when you witness systemic bickering on both sides of the aisle, the role of money in politics and how buying elections or lobbying power often trumps individual votes, and how corruption in politics has become normal.  Young people are sensitive to the perceived lack of justice and fairness in how laws get made, in how they are enforced, and how they are interpreted.  Young people also are not necessarily well represented in government and many of the issues that are covered in national politics often relate to matters affecting other demographics (social security, tax laws, Medicare) and not so much issues that many youth care about (the environment, student loans, racial equity, LGBTQ rights).  The political gridlock our elected officials have contributed to in these areas reinforces the cynicism we are already predisposed to.


On the second point of information consumption, I think highly curated social media content is a contributor to narrowing our awareness of material issues affecting our world.  When the only information we receive is based on algorithms created by savvy engineers working for social media companies that are aimed at reinforcing beliefs we already hold, we potentially miss out on novel sources of information.  This can be true even outside of social media.  Those that watch cable news tend to watch a particular network with a particular political bias.  It’s well-known that Fox News is a conservative news outlet and that MSNBC is a bastion of liberalism.  Watching one network habitually and ignoring the others reinforces a political worldview to which we already subscribe.  I think young people receiving their news via their social media feeds exacerbates the problem of political illiteracy and potentially exposes them to disinformation and partial truths.


So what can be done to address these two root causes?  To combat cynicism, we can become more politically engaged on a local scale where impact can be felt more tangibly.  This can include attending school board meetings, community services district meetings, city council meetings, and county board of supervisor meetings.  Young people can also participate in movements that are important to them, taking part in community service projects, and others.  These acts of civic engagement can reinforce our notions that our work matters and that we can make a difference in our local communities.


To address the issue of information sourcing, it’s recommended that individuals receive their information from multiple modalities and multiple sources.  News can be consumed in print, via television and radio, and via online channels.  It’s best to avoid content which has been highly curated or sorted based on your previous habits.  It’s also good to be mindful of what articles you share with others in your network and that appropriate fact-checking has been performed so as to avoid spreading misinformation.  If you do consume content from sources that reflect one political worldview over another, it’s also worth tuning in to the opposition sources to try to understand all sides of an issue.


An easy way to regard why our youth should be informed, or should care about political events occurring today, is that young people form the basis for the next generation of leaders in our nation.  Generation Z is the future.   Even though the political system can seem dry, we must acknowledge that it is important.  By remaining informed, young people are capable of creating change within the system, and having their voices heard.  If the next generation does not know enough about the system, the easiest choice is to do nothing. We should be focused on discussion and debate.  Having some idea of current politics can help youth develop their own opinions and values based on what is happening.  It can be overwhelming to dive into the world of politics right away, so starting slowly can help.  Focusing on local, community issues can interest students and guide them until they are able to comprehend issues on a larger scale.  We are not necessarily creating future politicians, but rather well-rounded and educated citizens.  An informed citizenry forms the basis of a thriving democracy.