By Ashleigh Clark
You see the sentiment: young people have given up on politics. They say young people addicted to dopamine hits from TikTok are failing their country with low civic engagement. Modern media paints young people as lackadaisical consumers unaware of politics.
Dr. Mark Caleb Smith, Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities, Director of the Center for Political Studies, and Professor of Political Science, explains that there are several factors that affect whether or not young people (those between 18 and 29) choose to vote.
“There’s a lot of reasons for why [18 to 29-year-olds] don’t vote,” Smith said. “They have a lot of complications in their life…[or] they’ve moved recently, which makes it harder to register. I think a lot of it is explainable with life situations.”
Fortunately, there is good news. Both the 18-29-year-old voter block and a renewed wave of Generation Z activism are growing. More is being done to encourage young people to be active in civics. According to Smith, 2020 saw a spike in voting among young people.
Smith notes that a different kind of political engagement has occurred in the latest generation. “Sometimes young people have a different definition of engagement with politics…You can talk to some young people who are active on social media and they will say they are engaged with politics even though they never vote.”
Social media politics produced a wave of “hashtag political engagement” according to Smith.
“It’s finding an issue you care about and engaging it on social media, maybe even raising awareness on the issue by funneling your followers toward places to donate or get involved,” said Smith. “For people who live their lives on social media, that counts as engagement.”
The culture Gen Z is growing up in has shaped this new style of activism. They have grown up in a world full of political turmoil, and because of this, they are more passionate about changing their communities. This passion among Gen Z may lead to a higher voter turnout.
“Perhaps Gen Z is infused with more of a righteous anger. They want to go out and do something about politics,” Smith said.
While social media is a great place to gather a group around a cause, likes and uploads do not necessarily translate into real-world action. For example, social media influencers can drum up support for a movement. However, when it comes time to put forth real-world action, it may not be able to garner the desired impact.
In addition to these factors, education also plays a significant role in how likely a student will be civically minded and positively affects one’s likeness to vote.
“The quality of education across our country is very uneven,” Smith said. “I think it’s also true in parts of our country that students have a poor knowledge of politics…We can do much better at teaching civics and American history in our educational system.”
Smith advises students to dedicate money to pay for a quality news subscription rather than relying on free outlets or social media. Not every outlet that promotes political education is genuinely helpful for those wanting to learn more and develop their opinions.
Victoria Mattern, a junior Criminal Justice major, tried to join political groups so she could explore her beliefs, but found not every organization is conducive to that.
“I was in [name redacted] for a couple of months,” said Mattern. “I was just learning to explore my own beliefs and they were really in your face about what they believed…I want to do my own research on candidates.”
In light of her experiences, Mattern encourages students to go out and get involved.
“There are a lot of people getting more and more involved in politics,” Mattern said. “If you want something to be changed, you have to be the one to go out and change it.”
Ben Walls, a sophomore Finance major, has been active in politics for a number of years. He went to two Presidential rallies for former President Donald Trump in 2019 and 2020. Additionally, he attended a March for Life without his high school.
According to Walls, young people are not interested in researching their politics.
“For our generation as a whole, it’s more about being interested in a group or staying relevant than being educated,” Walls said. Something that he believes could help would be promoting more political groups to other majors than just political science.
Mattern and Walls both agree that Christians should not shy away from politics.
“I think here, there’s still a prejudice about intertwining politics and Christianity,” Mattern said. “Even if it’s something small. There needs to be more chances to be involved that are recommended.”
“It’s important for us Christians to engage politically with the world around us,” Walls said. “We need to stay separate but not disengage.”
Ashleigh Clark is a junior Political Science major. She loves hiking and playing Catan with friends.