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Inside the News: Millennial Views

Posted on Wednesday, January 15, 2014

As events develop around the globe, Hobart and William Smith Colleges will share the insight of faculty experts through a series of interviews conducted by Andrew Wickenden ’09.

The Atlantic and the National Journal recently reported that President Obama's approval ratings are down among the country's youngest voting demographic, Millennials. According to the results of a Harvard University Institute of Policy (IOP) survey, the President's decrease in popularity is due to a variety of causes: the confusion and false-starts of the Affordable Care Act (and concerns about higher costs for poorer care); Edward Snowden's revelations about governmental surveillance (and concerns over personal information security); the struggling economy and student debt; and the perceived ineptitude of governmental leadership in general. As the IOP's poll analysis reported, "Young Americans hold the president, Congress and the federal government in less esteem almost by the day, and the level of engagement they are having in politics [is] also on the decline. Millennials are losing touch with government and its programs because they believe government is losing touch with them."

For a nuanced look at this polling data, we turned to Associate Professor of Political Science and Associate Dean of Faculty DeWayne Lucas.

 

How might President Obama's drop in popularity among Millennials influence his policy decisions during the remainder of his second term?

It depends on how he views these results. If this is a short-term problem, he'll have to do a better job of marketing and explaining his actions, Obamacare, etc., to appeal to his base. He hasn't done a good job selling his decisions, so there is the perception that his policies have let down Millennials; he needs to do more to connect with Millennials and reassure them of their faith in him. If this is a long-term problem, he may need to start proposing and enacting policies that motivated Millennials in 2012. The priorities of the 2012 elections -- student debt, immigration, gay rights -- haven't even gotten on the table and these were major issues to the younger generation.

One other thing to keep in mind with polling: it matters who's being polled. The IOP's poll was done online, so I'm curious about whether there is a selection bias. Who are the online respondents? Are they fully representative of Millennials? More affluent Millennials are more likely to complete surveys online; just as college students are more likely than non-college students. Could we be looking at the more informed, more engaged young people? I trust this is a reliable poll in that regard. I just wasn't able to read that in the reported and online material.

 

The IOP survey finds that America's Millennials are worried about the country's future, "disillusioned with the U.S. political system, strongly opposed to the government's domestic surveillance apparatus, and drifting away from both major parties....The results blow a gaping hole in the belief among many Democrats that Obama's two elections signaled a durable grip on the youth vote." What might this disillusionment mean for midterm congressional and senatorial elections next year, particularly for Republicans? For the 2016 Presidential elections?

I think we'll see both parties being more focused in reaching out to Millennials, trying to bring them back to politics. Millennials are connected to the idea of cooperation and compromise and from what they see in politics, fewer and fewer politicians are willing to do that. The Democrats have a historical advantage with Millennials -- and young voters in generals -- but it's declining here. One of the problems of our political system is that we have politicians who are less willing to compromise because they're focused on their ideological issues and constituents. Non-Millennial liberals and conservatives are one-party members: that's the approach that has worked for them. Millennials are saying, we want you to work together; compromise to make the system better. Millennials are not going to accept the status quo. Both parties will try to show how they've been trying to work together. The question is, will either party persuade Millennials to give them another shot in 2014 and 2016?

 

The IOP report cautioned that their analysis "is not to say that young Americans are rejecting politics, the role of government and the promise of America more generally. They are sending a message to those in power that for them to re-engage in government and politics, the political process must be open, collaborative and have the opportunity for impact -- and not one that simply perpetuates well-worn single issue agendas." What kinds of shifts in legislation, policy, and attitude might it take for these ideals to be realized? What does this poll point to farther in our political future?

Part of problem is imbedded in the system, in the way we talk and think about politics, in how we select candidates. Historically, congressional districts tried to mirror political leanings of community. Today, more of our Congressional districts are drawn with an ideological bent, which leads to communities fighting for ideological candidates, who will just appeal to the interests that elected him or her. Instead of seeking compromise, the candidates seek ideological preferences. That pursuit is what's driving the current polarization in our political system.

But American voters can choose representatives who are more focused on compromise rather than ideological interests. We can ensure the electoral process encourages moderate and compromising candidates, rather than ideologically polarizing. It's not something that's going to happen in the next two years, but in another decade or two decades, as Millennials have a bigger voice and become a bigger part of the political process and engage in the political system, I think they'll start pushing for more and more compromise.

 


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