Following this year’s midterm elections, gnovis, Georgetown University’s journal of Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT), hosted a live panel discussion on the role of Millennials in elections and political engagement. The event, Millennial Politics: Platforms on #Platforms, was moderated by CCT MA Candidate, Owen Agho. The panel participants consisted of CCT Assistant Professor, Leticia Bode; Deep Root Analytic’s research analyst, David Seawright; and CCT MA Candidate Anupam Chackravarty. Throughout the hour-long discussion, panelists addressed questions and concerns regarding the Millennial generation’s role in the political process, ranging from the role of wedge issues to identity politics.
Do Millennials play any role in the political process?
To kick off the discussion, moderator Owen Agho began with the statistics of November’s midterm election turnout: only 12% of voters were under the age of 30, while 37% were over the age of 60.
So, what role did Millenials play in this past election?
The answer, according to Professor Bode, is “not much of one.” A low voter turnout among younger Americans has been a consistent trend since 1994. She suggested that political socialization among American citizens increases as they grow older and, as with previous generations, Millennials are also likely to become more politically involved with time.
Wedge (or social?) issues
A question on what is likely to encourage Millennials to participate in the election process spurred a discussion on wedge issues and their appeal to the younger generation. David Seawright speculated that political candidates, particularly from the Democratic Party, have used wedge issues such as gay marriage and birth control in the past to reach out to younger voters. Republicans, he suggested, are becoming much more creative with their use of wedge issues, and are therefore, making it more difficult for Democrats to appeal to younger voters.
Anupam Chackravarty suggested that wedge, or social issues more broadly, may have the potential to act as a “gateway” for younger people to learn about other issues or politicians on the ballot. He, however, argued that politicians can no longer run on social issues alone, agreeing with Seawright on how the Democratic party has overplayed its hand with wedge issues.
Condescending wedge issues?
Bringing the discussion back to the reason for a low voter turnout among, Bode argued that wedge issues are not anymore appealing to the younger generation than they are to other sectors of the population. She suggested that the Millennial generation is more concerned with economic issues, particularly in regards to unemployment among college graduates.
Chackravarty added that young voters feel “condescended to” when the issues they care about are not addressed by their representatives. Seawright agreed, stating that both the Republican and Democratic parties have struggled in their communication with younger voters, and are therefore perceived as condescending.
Furthermore, Bode asserted that this condescension “feeds back into and is a result of the low turnout that is demonstrated by Millennials”, illustrating a vicious cycle in Millennial political engagement.
Campaign Money and Political Disillusionment
As is the case with many of the discussions on political elections, the panel also tackled the issue of campaign funding and its impact on youth participation. Bode argued that while the amount of money spent on this year’s midterm elections is not significantly higher than that spent in 2010, the Millennial generation is particularly concerned with “outside spending.” Candidates, she explained, are spending less on their campaigns than Super Pacs or Dark Money groups (i.e., groups that are not required to report on their spending). This, she speculated, is the reason for why Millennials are “turned off” by the political process.
Chackravarty similarly attributed the Millennial generation’s political disillusionment to cynicism towards campaign funding. Here, he referenced television dramas such as Scandal and House of Cards, suggesting that they are reinforced by “our narrative of politics now”, and confirm the paranoid notion of “money running everything.” This, he said, has led to “sense of frustrating and disenfranchisement.”
While Seawright agreed that the role of campaign funding warranted serious and reasonable discussion, he also cautioned that any such discussion necessitated an understanding of context. Money in campaigns, he argued, plays a crucial role in reaching out to voters, particularly the Millennials who are “a very expensive group to reach.” Referencing his own work as a research analyst, Seawrite explained that because younger voters are less likely to use television, and use multiple devices to access media, they require more segmentation. Given their low voter turnout, candidates are less inclined to spend money on reaching out to Millennials. As a result, Seawrite suggested, if there were more campaign money, “we would be able to reach young voters more successfully.”
Millennials do things differently
In addition to political disillusionment, a challenge in reaching out to Millennial voters is in their different habits in consuming news and in political engagement. As Chackravarty indicated, Millennials obtain information through viral videos, such as John Oliver’s program. Because they are disillusioned by political institutions and the parties, Millennials prefer to engage on broader issues.
Using Lance Bennett’s model, Bode stated that Millennials fall under “actualizing citizenship”, as they are more likely to participate in other forms of political engagement such as volunteer work or boycotts, but less likely to feel compelled to vote (Dutiful citizenship model). In discussing the role of political identity, Seawright also asserted that identity politics cannot be effective with the younger generation because they associate with “a variety of different identities.”
While they disagreed on some issues, the general consensus among the panelists was that the Millennial generation has different expectations and, as a result, has a different approach to politics and political participation.