These young Kansas Citians say politicians don't really care about them. They still plan to vote
Polls show millennial and Gen Z voters will continue the trend of the last two elections and turn out in high numbers, even though they are disillusioned with divisive political rhetoric and inauthenticity among politicians.
“Inflation, school, coronavirus.” That’s what 18-year-old Sye Chatam said when he was asked to describe the country today in three words. “All of it worries us young people.”
Chatman, in track shorts and a clean white hoodie, was about to get on an escalator at Ward Parkway Center in Kansas City, Missouri. He stopped to answer questions for a KCUR reporter after a recent poll from the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School suggested people in Chatman’s age group will have an increasing impact on elections in 2024.
His comments reflected the feelings of many Americans in the 18-to-29-year-old slice of the electorate: They’re voting, but they’re uncertain their voice matters.
Chatman, who just graduated from Central High School in Kansas City, Missouri, is working at a Walmart and said he would soon take a job as a customer service representative at a bank. He played football at Central but spent three of his four high school years in the pandemic, unclear each fall how many games there would be in the season.
Among his concerns were the high costs of gas and food. He said he worries about the young families in his community and how he will achieve his ultimate goal of becoming a firefighter.
But his parents always vote, he said, and so will he.
“I voted already this year and I’m going to vote in November,” he said. “I mean, I’ll vote whenever I need to vote. Does my vote really matter? Everybody says (it) does, so I do vote.”
This, despite three more words he had for the country's political climate: “Corrupt, secretive and very difficult.”
This sentiment also tracks with what pollsters are saying about other young voters, who turned out in record numbers for the last two elections but are not happy about the state of the world.
They’re disillusioned by the partisan bickering, a lack of empathy and concern that politicians don’t care about issues that matter to them. Authors of the Harvard study say young voters will continue to be engaged, and to vote, but “their contempt for a system that favors the elite and is overwhelmingly partisan is clear.”
Washburn University political scientist Bob Beatty said there’s an old adage that speaks to this issue.
“There’s a reason you don’t mess with Social Security: because you won’t win elections. But you don’t have to raise the minimum wage,” he said.
Beatty has been studying electoral politics for more than 25 years. Historically, he said, the youth vote is unreliable. They may turn out in record numbers for one election and stay home the next. They’re often difficult to organize.
“But these are definitions of youth,” Beatty said with a chuckle. “And because of these things, there can be this vicious cycle where elected officials don’t pay much attention to their concerns because there is no electoral incentive to do so.”
Intolerance for inauthenticity
Elijah Adams, a 22-year-old business major from Topeka, was at Kansas City, Kansas Community College checking out course offerings.
Dressed in a snappy blue suit and tie, the self-described Independent said he is committed to participating in elections but won’t vote for someone he doesn’t believe in.
He didn’t vote in 2020, he said, because he didn’t like presidential candidates Biden or Trump. Since Biden’s election, Adams said, he sees no evidence the president has addressed the toxic partisan rhetoric or economic disparities he promised he’d work on during the campaign.
His elected officials don’t show up in the communities they represent, Adams said, “except to give a little speech, then leave.” They don’t see the impact of inflation, the lack of affordable housing and social services on low-income families, he added.
“They don’t have a lot of experience or face-to-face knowledge of what we’re dealing with on a daily basis,” Adams said. “It’s like having a boss that never worked there before trying to tell you what to do. “
If he finds candidates he can believe in, who “uplift their communities,” he said he plans to vote in November.
Anna Ringel, 19, and Evin Berry, 18, were walking hand-in-hand on a sidewalk outside one of the college buildings.
Their three words to the current political climate: “Out of hand,” said Ringel. “Greedy, selfish, manipulative,” Berry said.
Ringel and Berry both said they don’t talk about politics in their group of friends because conversations can quickly turn nasty.
“We’re divided but defensive, too,” Berry said. “Confirmation bias is a thing. We don’t talk about politics because it starts arguments. It’s taboo.”
The two said they try to stay informed on the issues, but it’s difficult to know what to believe when it’s so hard to have informed conversations.
Like most young people,they consume most of their news online and on social media. Ringel said not enough politicians share information on platforms where young people hang out, so she finds it hard to educate herself on where they stand.
“For me, there are a lot of things I don’t know about,” she said. “So how am I supposed to vote if I don’t know what’s happening, what the truth is?
Pockets of optimism
The first word that popped into Manny Jaime’s head was “progressive.”
“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” said the 19-year-old from Kansas City, Missouri, who was heading to work out at a gym in south Kansas City’s Red Bridge Shopping Center. “But we have a new generation of people in a progressive mindset.”
In baggy track pants and a heavily worn 2008 Final Four T-Shirt, Jaime, a Latino who typically votes for Democrats, said he avoids the vitriol on the news and social media. He tries to set an example by engaging in civil conversation.
“If somebody comes up to me and starts talking to me about their Republican views, I’ll hear them out,” he said. “I’m not gonna completely shut them out just because I have my values. I can take stuff in from both sides.”
Young people might be skeptical and distrust the current political system, but Jaime said when he turned 18 and started to think about voting, he realized the stuff he was hearing on the news – student loan forgiveness, immigration restrictions – would directly affect his life.
“I’ve seen how important it is,” he said. “So next election, yeah, definitely I’ll vote.”