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.