A Pessimistic Generation

May 1, 2013

For my generation, politics is broken. The results of the Harvard Institute of Politics spring 2013 poll of over 3,000 young Americans ages 18-29 show a generation pessimistic about politics.

Nearly half (48 percent) of young Americans don't believe their votes will make a real difference. This is a 19-point jump from a year ago. This cynicism comes as more young Americans participate in the political process. The number of young Americans registered to vote has increased 6 percent since the spring of 2012 to 71 percent.

Even more startling about this year's poll results is that among the 26 percent of young Americans who consider themselves politically engaged and active, 57 percent don't believe their vote will make a real difference. This is a 34-point jump from last spring and 9 points higher than the average young American.

In my two years of working on the poll, I have never seen a 19-point increase let alone a 34-point one. It begs the question: What is causing young people to be more pessimistic about the power of their vote? And not only that, but why are the politically engaged even more pessimistic?

After studying the poll results, I have five theories to explain this phenomenon. First, 2012 was a presidential election year. In presidential elections, more young people pay attention and vote, leading more of them to question the value of their vote.

A second explanation is the focus the Electoral College system places on swing states. With the help of Jonathan Chavez, I broke down our numbers to only what Politico and The New York Times identified as the top 10 swing states. Young people in swing states are 19 points more likely to believe their vote matters than the average young American.

My third explanation is that young Americans are losing trust in the system. Nearly half (47 percent) of young Americans believe "politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing." Additionally, every spring we ask young Americans about their trust in a variety of institutions. This spring we found a five-point decline in young Americans' trust in Congress, the Federal Government, and the Supreme Court from last spring.

While trust decreased among young Americans, it increased among politically engaged and active young Americans. Their trust of Congress increased three points, the Supreme Court increased five points, and the Federal Government increased two points from last spring. Additionally, politically engaged young people are more likely than the average young American (24 percent to 14 percent) to disagree that "politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing."

What average young people and those who consider themselves politically engaged agree upon is the need for better candidates. This is my fourth explanation. When presented three options to improve voter turnout, 47 percent of young Americans chose "better candidates." In addition, over half (56 percent) of young Americans believe that elected officials don't seem to have the same priorities they do (this number was seven points higher for politically engaged young Americans).

My fifth possible explanation is young people's lack of ability to participate beyond the voting both. Only 29 percent of young people believe they have a say in what the government does. After Citizens United there has been a significant rise in campaign spending, potentially limiting people's perceived ability to participate in politics. Our polling shows that only 11 percent of young Americans reported donating to a political campaign or cause.

These numbers demonstrate a need for concern. Young people are growing more pessimistic about the political system and specifically the candidates and elected officials that serve in it. Our elected officials should take one look at these numbers and see the need to create a more responsive system so that young people know their votes and voices matter.

Alex Wirth is an advocate for youth involvement in government, community service, and service-learning. Alex serves as Chair of the Campaign for a Presidential Youth Council aimed at increasing youth voice in government.

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post and is reprinted here with permission.

Alex Wirth