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By now, it’s become a topic of widespread chatter. Will Gen Z save America? From Trumpism, one way to put it, or in the broader sense—preserve it’s democracy? I enjoyed this little op-ed on it, for example.
Let’s think about it together. Gen Z’s a very interesting cohort, “attitudinally” to put it in a nerdy way. It’s not just liberal, it’s profoundly anti-consumerist, fairly openly contemptuous of capitalism, collectivist over individualistic, open and tolerant, and prizes the soft stuff over the hard stuff—meaning, purpose, truth, selfhood, fulfillment.
All of those add up to a generation that’s diametrically opposed to the values of demagogic movements like Trumpism—hierarchy, materialism, power, force, coercion over consent, purity, the strongman’s classical game of seduction. Gen Z, on paper, looks like Trumpism’s Kryptonite.
And yet the story, I think, is more complex still. Even among Gen Z, oddly, Trump still retains support. I won’t quote polls, because they’re notoriously unreliable in situations like this, as we’ll discuss, but for what they’re worth, they suggest not a complete blowout for Trump. Why is that? How can that be?
What about Biden, then? Biden’s support among Gen Z…should be stronger. It’s dampened by a number of things. His handling of Gaza’s alienated plenty of young voters. Beyond that, the Democrat’s sadly weak “messaging”—can we just call it marketing?—is totally unsuited to reaching young voters, energizing them, and engaging them.
As we should all know, American politics now are…strange. If Gen Z and Millennials turned out to the fullest, America would be a completely different country sociopolitically within half a decade. The GOP would be eviscerated. Democrats would have the 60 seat majority in the Senate they need to enact structural reform. America could have a modern social contract, like every other rich nation. And yet the challenge remains: young people in America don’t vote at the scale necessary to transform it.
Biden, in that context, is a reflection of a larger disconnect. An aging President, not that age should count against anyone—still, though, his hidebound, traditional campaign is failing to impress, let alone catalyze, younger voters. Age isn’t a sin, but when you’re trying to connect with the youngest voters, perhaps, an extra effort is necessary, to just…get with the times. The Democrats, for their part, barely use TikTok, and orient policies towards older voters. Can you blame young people for feeling frustrated and disillusioned?
There’s a deeper problem here, though, than all this pretty bog-standard political analysis. At least if you ask me. That’s the way that young people feel. I often quote the APA’s latest report—“Stress in America.” To me, it reveals a nation in profound emotional crisis. And no generation exemplifies that more than young people.
What does the report say about them? More than half of young people feel “completely overwhelmed,” “numb,” and say they “can’t function anymore.” Chilling stuff, damning findings. They carry many implications, and explain a great deal—if you felt that way, too, you’d be a lot like Gen Z: anticonsumerist, skeptical of capitalism, collectivist, focused on meaning and emotions over material acquisitions.
The statistics, in other words, portray a traumatized generation. And the problem is that when you’re feeling that way—“completely overwhelmed,” “numb,” “can’t function anymore,”—it’s that much harder to vote. I don’t mean that in a subjective or judgmental way. I mean simply that these are classic signs of freezing up, of emotional paralysis. And to get people in that state catalyzed, moved, engaged—it’s all the harder, when frozen is the baseline state.
I think that figures like these explain a great deal when it comes to America’s relatively low youth voter turnout. I mean that absolutely, not comparatively. It’s true that youth turnout increased—for example, in the recent midterms, it was the second highest for decades. And yet in absolute terms, the number was still low: 27%.
Especially when a nation faces an existential crisis like America is now—a number of them, really—turnout should be higher. These aren’t normal times, and we shouldn’t evaluate any statistic, really, as though they are. To look at turnout of 27% and say that historically that’s pretty good doesn’t say a whole lot when democracy itself is on the line. The better way to evaluate such figures is normatively, I think, in terms of “shoulds”—in a moment like this, if the other 73% of young people voted, America would be a completely different country. One whose democracy wasn’t at risk.
It’s hard for me not to feel that there’s a link here, between trauma rippling through and ripping down the generations—and turnout being depressed, compared to what it should be. Perhaps “learned helplessness” is a frame through which to think about it—we all know what that is. Or maybe that’s a touch too harsh—what I think is all but certain though, is that there’s an effect here. It’s hard to see such statistics—the majority of young people basically feel perpetually traumatized—and not conclude that there’s a political consequence, which, of course, accrues to the benefit of regressive forces.
There’s a larger global and historic context here, too. The world is aging now. And even as it’s aging, young people aren’t taking control of their polities, really, the way that they should be—voting their voices, preferences, attitudes, en masse. If they were, this would be an entirely different political era.
This is an age where democracy is at profound, serious risk. Not enough know the figures, so let me quote them again. In the 21st century, the proportion of the world that’s democratic has decline from more than 40% to 20%. In other words, it’s more than halved. That’s a rate of decline of 10% a decade, which puts the twilight of democracy within living sight.
It’s in this context that the disconnect between young people and politics—especially in an aging world—is so striking. If young people participated with a vengeance, this wouldn’t be an age of rapid, startling democratic decline. They lean strongly pro-democratic, pro-rights, pro-equality, justice, truth, every democratic value, really, and against regress, injustice, inequality, and so on. But we do live in an era where democracy’s in dire peril—precisely because young people haven’t seized the reins of political power.
What stops them? Why don’t they? America’s probably one of the best examples that we have. Trauma freezes up the mind and body. A sense of fatalism creeps in, when polities are captured by insiders and special interests. The feeling is that nothing much can change.
Let me put that in a sharper way. Young people are having their political, social, and moral agency taken away. By failing systems and institutions, which are weighed heavily towards benefiting those much older, wealthier, and more powerful than them. This is one reason the world is growing so unequal, so anti-democratic, and so authoritarian.
It’d be unfair to say something like: “it’s up to young people to fix all this.” Too glib, too easy—too exculpatory of leadership and institutions. The truth is that coalitions have to be formed to win political contests. In America’s case, Biden’s going to have find a way to inspire, catalyze, and motivate young people, frozen in despair, looking on with horror at a world going haywire. That’s true around the globe, too. Politics—the politics of sanity and democracy—must realize its future lies with young people, in an aging globe. It must make room for them, learn how to reach them, understand what freezes them, and form partnerships with them.
So can Gen Z save America? Now you know the big picture—and maybe how it’s the wrong question. A better one might be: when is the politics of democracy going to realize its future, in an aging world, where broken, decrepit institutions are now going haywire, lies with the young, again, and makes them feel like it really means it?
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