Demystifying Millennials’ Political Disillusionment

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Millennials are rapidly overtaking the workforce, and it’s no different in politics: today’s recent poli-sci and law graduates will make their mark on the American government as they embark upon and advance their careers. In fact, they already are—just not in the way many party insiders would hope.

Though it’s clear that Millennials do care deeply about politics and the world, instead of seeing Millennials voting and running for office in droves, we’ve seen them engage in acts of dissent, or join more loosely affiliated movements. Both left- and right-leaning Millennials have vocally opposed the political establishment. They show little interest in running for office, tweet more than they vote, but are vocal about the desire for change nonetheless.

What we’re seeing is disillusionment on a mass scale, and party loyalists need to wake up and smell the covfefe.

Generational outlook is a product of culture, and when you consider the political environment most Millennials witnessed growing up, it makes sense. The politics of young adulthood play a large part in shaping you as a person. It can make or break your trust in our republic.

I grew up with Ronald Reagan as a role model, and as such was able to witness the Republican party in its prime. Reagan was famous for his bipartisan success; he worked across the aisle to pass legislation, and a number of his supporters were Democrats. He inspired me to pursue politics, and made me believe in the Republican party and its virtues. Reagan’s legacy is inspiring to this day, and I know I’m not alone in this feeling.

Now compare my experience with what Millennials have witnessed. Though Bill Clinton saw some bipartisan success, his presidency was marred by a sex scandal. George W. Bush, an appealing “everyman” president whose accomplishments were taken for granted until recently, was widely criticized for fighting an ongoing war with terror with no end in site. Barack Obama, despite charisma, was able to accomplish very little in his eight-year tenure as president.

I’d bet this is one clear reason that nearly half of Millennials choose to identify as independent rather than aligning with a party. It would also explain their disdain for politics and pessimism about the future in comparison to older adults.

Brookings can explain better than I how this anti-party partisanship looks: “In 2016, young adults were more likely to identify as liberals but were less likely to identify as Democrats,” the organization found. “Similarly, while young Trump voters were characterized by their energetic support for the Republican candidate, the growth of young people identifying as Republican has remained static. In fact, only one-third of young adults hold a favorable view of the Republican Party.”

In other words, even self-identified liberals and conservatives have found little to admire in the parties that deign to represent them.

The unprecedented support seen for outsider Bernie Sanders, as well as for Donald Trump, goes to show that it’s not just Millennials disillusioned by politics as usual. Because when “politics as usual” fails to impress or create admirable change, we seek new solutions outside the existing model—even if those solutions aren’t so great.

There are a few other reasons that Millennials may be rejecting traditional party politics. One theory, proposed by Newsweek, is that Millennials live in an age of personalization where, instead of aligning with institutions, they “curate” their beliefs because they can. Social media embodies this phenomenon, while also acting as a force for polarization and contempt. In a world where a 20-something can order groceries to their door, find an obscure film on Netflix, and run photos through custom-made filters on their phone in less than two hours, what Millennials want are options and convenience. When politics provide neither, disruption is in order. Just like everything else, the political system must innovate or face the consequences.

Will Millennials continue to mistrust the system and opt-out of party politics? One thing is for sure: if we’d like them to opt-in, they need good motivation, and preferably one other than fear or a dwindling sense of duty. They need to feel represented, serviced, and heard by existing political parties. They need options that work for them; they need options that work, period. Parties will need to earn their trust instead of resting on their laurels, or relying on lobbyists and donors to do the heavy lifting. A fresh approach to voter outreach and campaign management could make all the difference.

We will need to work both with younger generations and for them to create a brighter future and a stable political system all of us can count on. We were all young once, looking for something to believe in. The question is, can political parties illicit this belief for young people? If they want to stay relevant, they will need to dedicate all they have to make this happen. When the future is at stake, no task is impossible, and I’m confident that Millennials, Gen Z, and all that come after will find their faith in politics, when (not if) parties prove themselves worthy.