Young Americans have a deeply pessimistic view of the state of today’s politics and their own prospects, according to a new survey by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, the latest in a long-running study of political attitudes among youth.
Among the more depressing findings, just 49% of the more than 2,000 18-to-29 year olds surveyed say the American Dream is alive for them personally, while 48% say it is dead. This pessimism was especially profound among less-educated young Americans – while 58% of college graduates said the American Dream is alive for them, only 42% of high school graduates felt the same.
Young Americans also felt the same level of gloom about America’s future more broadly. A plurality – 44% – said they thought America “is on the wrong track,” while 17% said the country was headed in the “right direction,” and 37% said they were “not sure.”
The poll also found that young Americans are exceptionally cynical about the capacity of government and politics to lead the country to a better place. While 50% of young Americans approve of President Obama, that number drops to 39% for Democrats in Congress and just 19% for Republicans.
“Young people have been extremely frustrated with the lack of civility in our politics,” said the Director of Polling John Della Volpe in a press call about the survey.
Source: Harvard University Institute of Politics
The Harvard survey found that young Americans appear to be reacting to their pessimism in one of two opposing ways: apathy, on the one hand, and anger on the other.
In the first instance, the poll found increasing evidence of political disengagement by young Americans, in sharp contrast to the millennial surge that buoyed Barack Obama to the White House. While 68% of young Americans told the Harvard researchers that they are registered to vote, only 20% described themselves as “politically engaged,” 35% agreed that “voting is part of who I am,” and only 46% said they are following the 2016 political campaign with any degree of interest.
Many young Americans are also continuing to abandon their partisan identities, with 40% now identifying themselves as “independents.” Just 21% say they are Republicans (down from 25% in 2011), and 36% say they are Democrats (down from 38%).
But among another group of young Americans, the response has been one of increasing anger, accompanied by growing polarization and strong support for political candidates at the furthest extremes.
“Democrats are moving further to the left, and Republicans are moving further to the right,” said Volpe. For example, on the issue of building a wall between the United States and Mexico, 70% of young Republicans said they support such a move, while 31% of Democrats felt the same.
These trends are also playing out among young Americans’ choices for President. Among young Americans intending to vote in the Republican primary, Donald Trump and Ben Carson were the favored candidates (leading with 22% and 20% support, respectively), while Bernie Sanders led the Democratic field over Clinton, 41% to 35%. Not coincidentally, Trump and Sanders supporters were also the least likely to believe in the American Dream – just 39% of Trump supporters and 44% of Sanders voters say the American Dream is alive for them personally, compared to 54% of those supporting Hillary Clinton and 59% of supporters of Marco Rubio.
Given new data from the Pew Research Center, also out this week, on the decline of the middle class, it’s not hard to see why young Americans are so glum. According to Pew, “middle income” Americans are now in the minority nationwide, a result driven in part by massive gains in income among the wealthiest Americans and the relative stagnation of middle-class incomes. Pew finds that the share of Americans in the lowest-income tier also grew, up from 16% in 1971 to 20% today. Young Americans are right to feel that their economic futures will be bleak in comparison to the generations ahead of them.
For those concerned by the rise of destructive, nativist politics – as personified by Donald Trump in particular – this survey should set off the alarm bells anew. But it also includes some important clues for how to turn back the populist tide – in particular by renewing the ability of young Americans to believe that the America they can look forward to is better than the one they’re seeing now.