University of Pennsylvania

Millennials, Politics, and Polarization: How the Nature of Modern Youth Political Participation May Contribute to Democratic Erosion by Shravan Balaji @ University of Pennsylvania

During the last weekend of February, I took it upon myself to return to my home state of New Jersey to attend an general meeting of our county’s “Young Democrats” meeting. A friend of mine with whom I had previously worked on a campaign was one of the main coordinators, and he was able to introduce me to much of the leadership as well. Largely composed of millennials under the age of 30 who represented a variety of races, sexualities, religions, and ethnic backgrounds, the meeting reflected much of the current Democratic Party rhetoric and discourse. While an excellent political event, there were certain obvious issues seen in the discourse of the meeting as it pertained to youth participation. This meeting epitomized one of the most dangerous issues facing our country as part of democratic erosion: polarization.

While the meeting largely focused on addressing local issues and getting local millennial candidates elected, there was also a 30 minute discussion period dedicated towards furthering understanding of national issues, particularly in relation to the President. The “Local blast” featured both local candidates discussing their platforms/electoral strategies and asking for volunteers, as well as updates regarding the local state of affairs. Everything from fixing potholes to the legalization of marijuana was discussed. The group was especially energized because of the victory of governor Phil Murphy, the first Democrat to represent the state in 8 years who had promised massive policy overhauls.

The second segment of the meeting discussed national issues, which meant discussing the President and his administration. While the original goal was to discuss how local actors can make a national impact, this segment instead featured many eloquent speakers who delivered disparaging rhetoric against the current federal government. While excellent presenters, these individuals did not offer ideas for national integration as much as they were venting about their frustration with the actions of the federal government. Everything from media tabloid gossip (the First Couple’s relationship) to immediate, material concerns (whether or not there would be action taken on DACA) were voiced. And every point was echoed with applause and congratulations from the audience.

Both segments of the meeting were effective in understanding how and why the members of the organization thought the way did, and reflected modern polarization. Though I personally felt comfortable in the room as a social democrat who was brought into politics by the 2008 election, it was very easy to see why some wouldn’t. Conservatives were disparaged easily and quickly, often to laughter and applause. The President was often referred to as “45”, and sometimes even by a moniker given by Kim Jong-Un, a “dotard”.

The limited room for disagreement reflects Cass Sunstein’s work in regards to determining how liberal groups and conservative groups interact internally. This left of center group, at least on surface value, reflected almost a homogenous political ideology in action, while they may personally have held different views before being ingratiated into this political sphere. Issues as diverse as minimum wage hikes, the pro-choice movement, and environmental regulation all received near unanimous applause from the crowd. This support’s Barber and McCarty’s research that “the most anti-tax Republican legislators are generally the most pro-life, pro-gun, and anti-marriage equality”. Their research concludes the same for Democrats on the other side of each of the aforementioned issues.

Another important aspect to discuss is the self-identification as “Democrat” or “liberal” for these activists. After getting the chance to speak to many of these individuals, it was easy to see that being a Democrat was “a year-long commitment, not just a decision that was made in November”. Of the members I spoke to, only two said they would ever vote for a Republican if they were the best candidate in the race, and no one stated they had voted for a Republican in the past. An organizing member mentioned that it was easy for political operatives to portray politics as a team sport, as it would be easier for average citizens to grasp. The idea that “a sense of belonging” can affect how youth gravitate towards political ideologies have merit. Mudde notes that internal insecurity is a “micro” reason for youth in Europe to join right-wing movements, especially in the context of belonging to a greater organization. It only seems logical that this would apply to those on the left as well.

In regards to media consumption, it was clear that they had identified certain publications/outlets as friendly or problematic. On three separate occasions, individuals mentioned how they could not stand news networks like Fox, or publications like Breitbart. One person went as far to say seeing Fox News at the local gym gives them medical anxiety.

These intense feelings towards the opposite side is reflected by Mason’s research that implies that these individuals view politics as a case of “Us vs. Them”. Mason notes that anger is a potentially influential reason for polarization, and such an emotional evocative response to opposing viewpoints is indicative of the issue. Mason notes in particular that “ideologically identical people are more likely to show anger against the outgroup candidate”, which would be very applicable to this meeting.

While this meeting certainly reflected the polarization, there are two things of note that must be kept in mind. This group was segregated by one very key factor of political discourse: age.  As a result, certain elements of discussion were already skewed. For example, the phrase “old men” (with reference to those making decisions on abortion) was thrown around quite frequently, as the room did not have to worry about alienating individuals who were older. However, in a room where age was not a stratifying factor, it was likely that the disparaging rhetoric may have been worded with different diction. 

This also reflected an element of “identity politics”, where youth were able to coalesce around their own age as a unifying factor. While not necessarily a bad thing by any means, this certainly limited discourse, as seen by the above examples. The involvement of older participants may have nuanced some of the discussion. As noted by Drew DeSilver of Pew, age is an incredibly important determinant in political ideology and approach.

Second, the group served as an echo chamber, where all individuals generally agreed with each other and were comfortable with that. This leads to one of the most dangerous effects of polarization: discouraging and disenchanting those in the center. To those on the outside, the firm ideological commitment made by this group can be tough to stomach, as in some cases, they “did not want to talk to anyone who shared [their] political views.” The idea of intersectionality, a term created by sociologist Kimberly Crenshaw that refers to the interconnected nature of social categorizations, was an extremely common topic of discussion among this group. While a fundamentally good idea, these individuals controversially seemed to interpret intersectionality as an ideological purity test, where individuals had to support progressive policies on each issue without exception. 

These two points of concern are those which worry me the most in the context of polarization. As a Democrat who largely supports most of the same policies as these Young Democrats, it’s essential to understand that the modern Democratic Party was built on the backs of a “big tent” philosophy. Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition featured Catholics, Jews, big city Northerners, rural Southerners (white and black), among many other groups.

While it’s refreshing and inspiring to see youth participation in politics, it must be a cause of concern that much of it is often done in ideologically pure environments that do not engage in discourse with the opposition. This contributes to political polarization and overall democratic erosion. In order to achieve electoral success and more importantly, strengthen the democratic process, it’s essential that youth participation begins to serve as a big tent – not a small one.  

8 Comments

  1. EMMA SHAHABI

    March 13, 2018 at 8:41 pm

    I appreciate that you chose this topic of a younger generation and their involvement in politics as it’s not the easiest topic to address. I am also a young liberal student (like the majority of UCLA) and I often times get swept up in the villainizing of Republicans in today’s climate, but it’s important to remember that the polarization of our two party system in America is more of a problem than a generalization of a group of people. I agree that one of the biggest problems with our political climate is that the loudest voices belong to some of the more radical right or left personas. However, I think also that that fact does not necessarily mean that moderates feel threatened to maintain their values. To clarify, the meeting you attended was most likely a group of homogenous strong voiced democrats because the people who are willing to get involved with those type of organizations at a younger age probably have stronger beliefs. Personally, though I identify with the majority of democratic principles and policies I always consider each policy at a time rather than simply adapt the entire democratic stance across the platform. All in all, I agree with your closing point that we can’t let young educated people of America grow up in bubbles of Democrats or Republicans, the conversation needs to hold both sides from the start so that we can more easily understand that there are more than two options for every topic.

  2. NEFTHALY RIVERA-ALVARADO

    March 14, 2018 at 3:49 am

    I would probably be categorized as a “young democrat” and I strongly believe that the today’s youth will change the world for the better. The internet exposes us to so much information. Things that were pushed under the rug are now finally being brought to attention. For example, the Parkland shooting. All of those kids are no older than 18, yet they seem to fully understand that they have the power to change. As for them being unable to engage in discourse with the opposition, I have to disagree. Like I said before, we have access to so much information, and the Parkland kids were able to slander Marco Rubio with facts and anecdotes that any adult politician would be jealous of. Most of the problems that we inherited were not caused by us. The economy wasnt messed up by us. We didnt choose to go to war in countless countries to “save” democracy. For that reason I feel like Young Democrats have the right to be a little bitter and uneager to engage in discourse with older people.

  3. JASHAN KASHYAP

    March 15, 2018 at 3:45 pm

    I find your argument about increased polarization for the millennial generation rather agreeable, but one point that did intrigue me was your point about the “micro” reason that youth are looking for a “sense of belonging”. I think it might be worth discussing more on whether this phenomenon is an international one and whether it is specific to the millennial generation or to all generations. If the “sense of belonging” is an international sentiment, then we could see a “sense of belonging” as a cause for polarization and the rise of authoritarianism/populism internationally. Indeed, there is a rise of extreme views in many countries such as Britain and France, and although there might be many reasons for this phenomenon, this can certainly be a contributor. Another and perhaps more interesting point to discuss might be whether this phenomenon of looking to belong is specific to the millennial generation. If it is not, then we might see waves of increased and then decreased polarization at the beginning of every new generation, around every 20 or 30 years. We can search for evidence of this by observing trends of the United States and the world 20 to 30 years ago in the 1980’s to 1990’s, and before that to the 1950’s to 1960’s. There might be evidence for increased polarization around this time, with rises of conservatism in the 1980’s and the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. Of course, it would be unclear and hard to determine that a “sense of belonging” would be the inspiring factor here as opposed to the other causes of social movements. As a result, although I find it compelling that a sense of belonging might draw youth crowds together to exclude other demographics, it can be argued that this phenomenon is rather new and widespread, so perhaps more research should be conducted before concluded on such an idea.

    1. Jacob Farris

      May 5, 2018 at 3:10 pm

      I can talk a little bit about my experience in the international context of youth and a “sense of belonging.” I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in Albania. Though my primary assignment was English Education, my secondary projects all centered around youth engagement and development. While, in my capacity as a PCV, I was not allowed to engage politically, many youth found themselves not connecting to the older generations in power. This is largely due to the fact those older generations were products of a communist regime under dictator Enver Hoxha. Most of the meetings I had with youth, specifically high school aged students, was centered around their ideas for creating a better future. For them, the polarization wasn’t political, though that did exist; the polarization was generational, pitting communist ideologies against, what they say, as the future of Albania.

      I must note that Albania is a very homogenous country. This must skew how a “sense of belonging” plays a role here, compared to the diversity seen in the United States and Britain, because the conversations shift from those of racial inclusion and intersectionality to how the youth can create an environment in which they feel a part of. This connects to the OP’s argument about creating echo chambers. The echo chamber that was created by the youth I worked with in Albania was not about political ideologies but more so just trying to get their voices heard in a system that did not allow them to speak out. It would be interesting to use your hypothesis about generational differences and trends of polarization and compare post-Communist and/or authoritarian countries with established democracies.

  4. DELANEY GOODMAN

    March 15, 2018 at 7:33 pm

    Hello, a great post and I appreciate how you brought us millenials into the topic of conversation. However I do not think that creating a culture where we repress political participation based on age and environments would be a smart way to go about this issue. The younger generations must be provided the entire picture, not biased slander in the media. There is no avoiding the issue of environments that harvest bias. Like minded people tend to get along and so then they form communities that cultivate ideas together. So it is no wonder that children are being raised as part of their nurture and environment. However children are not just products of their environment, and to put an age restriction as mark for ones intelligence is insulting. I know I for one would go out in search of different viewpoint before believing what the popular choice was at school or from what my parents said. I think that individuals especially in this day and age are more than capable of providing themselves with a voice and information at a very young age and with that we are capable of formulating our own opinions. I think that events such as the meeting of young socialist democrats you were describing are very important because although they may be bias they get the topic of conversation rolling. The fact of the reality is is that it does feel like an us versus them problem in the eyes of millenials. It does feel like older people are making decisions for us and we have no say in the matter. So I think it is in our right to have the anger become a little bit polarized. Like all things populism can be used for both good and bad means . I do agree with your point that we need to begin playing in the big tent not the small one at the end but I also believe that young social democrats need these populist social movements in order to ennable social change.

  5. ORAN REED FARKAS

    March 15, 2018 at 7:40 pm

    This post is a great explanation of how the millennial generation seeks environments full of only agreement. To add on to that, as a millennial myself, it is clear that millennials also want “now solutions”. This has led to an extreme increase in the amount of protests and rallies. While some issues (e.g. gun control, DACA, etc.) need “now solutions”, this reliance and expectation for immediate and perfect solutions for all issues shows a very clear lack of respect for the democratic process. This does not mean that millennials hate democracy but rather shows that millennials don’t like the time and (sometimes too stable) policy stability often found in democracies, especially those with two party systems like the US and UK. One of the major tenants of democracy, as stated, is the need for citizens to believe that democracy works, and unfortunately more and more millennials are treating democracy as something that works, but not fast enough.

  6. Ian Henson

    May 7, 2019 at 3:38 pm

    I agree that young Democrats need to adopt the idea of a big tent, rather than a small tent mentality. By opening engaging with others that disagree, American civic discourse is strengthened and as a society, we stand a better chance of reaching consensus or at least understanding of others’ positions on certain issues that we would like to change. In addition, I would like to point out that polarization and self-reinforcement of shared ideas among young people are not unique to millennials today. For example, those who are identified as the “baby boomer” generation actively protested against the Vietnam War and nuclear proliferation during the 1960s and 1970s. Having beliefs and participating in civic discourse to share these beliefs is essential to any well-functioning democracy. Today, millennial participation in American civic discourse and the democratic process positively contributes to the health of American democracy. However, it is important that millennials respect democracy and realize that there are other interests involved that must be accounted for in order to function as a democracy. Therefore, strong millennial participation and civic interest should be viewed as a good thing, but millennials must commit to not only advancing their ideas but also respecting the process that will allow their voices to be heard and through which positive change can be enacted.

  7. Ryan Fleishman

    May 8, 2019 at 8:29 am

    While I generally agree with your point that polarization is accelerating in the United States and the youth in particular exhibit this most apparently, I don’t know if Youth Groups are the problem here. First off these gatherings are already extremely self selecting – I personally cannot attest to anybody who would go to a Young Dems or College Republicans meeting that are not already deeply involved with politics and favoring a political side. So, how much of this situation is just self-selection of the most politically charged and biased individuals? While openness to alternative ideas and pitching a big tent is obviously a virtue, I believe one can expect homogeneous views in such a specific segment of the population. If I went to the Hockey club one would reasonably expect I like and/or play hockey, no? If the group rejected people who are interested in checking Young Dems out and learning and they were rejected and/or exiled I would tally that one to increased polarization, but this gathering was not put to the test of an outsider as far as I can tell.
    I believe that everyone has a right to be biased in their private life and in close, defined circles. After all, bias is an inherit part of life. What is important is that people make an even keeled, unbiased decision when it counts. If these young democrats acted as they do in these meetings in a wider circle, and I’m sure they do, that would attest to polarization more. It’s absurd to say that only millennials, only the new generation seek like-minded individuals and ignore dissenters. Every community and religion seeks to associate with those who agree and exile those who are different. Instead of getting stoned or driven off, though, people now are able to angrily type about how college is brainwashing children into their forums at home.

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