November 4, 2020

Gen Z inherits a political climate impaired by polarization—but they’re ready to engage

Tomorrow's leaders are concerned about the social media bubble and eager to talk with people who have different views than their own.

Young people are increasingly engaged in the political process, and are looking to engage with friends and family on the issues—even if it means crossing partisan lines. Photo via LordHenriVoton/Getty Images

Gen Z is entering adulthood, coming into its own as a generation, and participating in the political process—and all the messiness that entails.

In its annual national poll of young Americans, The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) found that 83 percent of those surveyed say they believe young people have the power to change the country. Additionally, 62 percent said they were part of a movement that would vote to express its views—compared to just 46 percent who answered the same in CIRCLE’s 2018 poll.

The nonprofit College to Congress, which works to provide opportunities on Capitol Hill for high-achieving students who otherwise would not be able to accept such an internship, was recently awarded a 2020 Renewal Award from the Atlantic and Allstate for its work in creating a more inclusive government. The nonprofit gathered together four of its alumni on last week to discuss how Gen Z sees politics today as well as what they hope for in the political future.

Members of this generation are digital natives. According to a 2019 Business Insider poll of young people, social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter are the top way Gen Z finds out about news, with 59 percent of respondents listing it as a top news source. But while they’re social media savvy, they’re aware of the problems that social media brings—including the role it plays in widening the partisan divide.

“Facebook is dictated by algorithms that go about based on what you like, what you post and what you comment on. Therefore that makes the type of content that’s presented to you, very biased, because you will only be presented with the content that you engage with,” said Edgar Vazquez, a senior at the University of Houston and a former College to Congress intern. “Rather than getting a diversity of perspectives that contribute to the political discourse, you get the same type of content on and on and on.”

Vazquez says he’s seen first hand members of Gen Z get swept up in their social bubbles. But social media does give young people the power and opportunity to reach people.

“I do believe social media has made this landscape just a bit trickier to navigate while at the same time, potentially opening doors to more engage in conversations, if we actually allow ourselves to engage respectfully and seriously with those that may not share the same political views as us,” said Onyx Brunner, who recently graduated from Yale University.

But how do young people hope to work on reaching across the aisle? According to Business Insider, Gen Z survey respondents identified political division as one of the top issues plaguing the country right now—ranking above other key issues like the environment or gun control. That’s why College to Congress offers a Bipartisan Allies program, where participants are paired with a mentor of the opposite political party. This program proved to be inspiring to C2C participants.

“Those are the types of connections that are the most important because you get to see somebody else’s viewpoint that’s different from your own. You’re able to exchange viewpoints to understand why someone thinks the way they do and what led them to vote the way they do,” said Mychale Cooper, a recent graduate from the University of Alabama.

These lessons in bipartisanship also apply to how Gen Z navigates conversations with their parents.

“There is a conversation that needs to be had about how to have intergenerational conversations. I think approaching the conversations with family members the same way that you would approach them with friends or peers or colleagues is super important,” said Brunner. “Folks need to understand that we have political opinions and they’re well-grounded in our experiences.”

Caitlin Fairchild

Caitlin Fairchild is the Deputy Editor of The Renewal Project.