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Where Apathy Meets Activism

This semester the biannual Harvard Public Opinion Project asked millennials the same questions about their voting habits it has asked for nearly two decades, yielding familiar results: A substantial proportion of millennials praise the importance of voting, don’t vote, and then don’t tell the truth about it when asked. According to the most recent survey conducted by the Harvard Institute of Politics, 74 percent of surveyed Americans aged 18 to 29 rank voting as the best method for producing change, yet they turn out to vote in only mediocre numbers.

This year, 65 percent report they voted, but, according to Brookings, only half of eligible Millennial voters actually did. How can a demographic that self-reports as politically conscious, advocates for change, and lauds the power of the ballot be counted on to vote only half the time? Welcome to the Harvard Public Opinion Project, where we analyze the land of peculiar politics where apathy meets activism.

Yesterday, April 25, marked the release of the 32nd Harvard Political Survey of Young Americans. The survey polled over 2,000 18- to 29-year-olds to investigate their political attitudes. The survey is supervised by Harvard IOP Polling Director John Della Volpe and staffed by a team of undergraduates, of which I was a member. At the beginning of the semester, we drafted questions to gauge Millennials’ attitudes about everything from the specifics of President Donald Trump’s policies to the reputability of political media. Since then, we’ve been analyzing the results.

Beyond the horserace numbers (Trump’s favorability rating stands at 32 percent among young Americans, for example), the poll captures an odd mixture of apathy and activism, a worrying but remediable trend among my generation.

Let’s start with the positives. Presumably spooked by the rise of Trump and excited by Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid, millennials report that politics is more relevant than ever. In fact, only 16 percent agree with the statement “Politics is not relevant to my life right now.” Moreover, only 22 percent agree that political involvement rarely has any tangible results.

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Internet media has made politics more accessible than ever. The survey reports that the percentage of people who have used Facebook to “like” and follow a political candidate has nearly doubled since 2012 (34 percent to 65 percent). More millennials also report using Facebook and Twitter to advocate for a political position. It makes sense that the politically conscious would follow public officials and important causes on Facebook.

But political advocacy has a “slacktivism” problem. It seems that this focus on online armchair activism is comfortable, not cogent. So much of our discourse online reverberates in liberal or conservative echo chambers. If you have a bunch of liberal friends, you’re going to see a lot of liberal content. Often, expressing support for a candidate is just preaching to the choir. This kind of online activism, which sometimes passes as “raising awareness,” will achieve very little if, as the survey reports, millennials estimate that 50 percent of their Facebook News Feed is fake news.

Armchair activism explains the survey’s seemingly paradox: that a renewed interest in politics is being paired with an aversion to engaging with it. More and more people find the prospect of working in public service unappealing. Going outside the political system by protesting does not seem to have much appeal either. Millennials rank attending a protest the lowest among six ways of producing change in America. It came behind voting, talking about important issues, volunteering for community service, calling their political representatives, and running for office.

This apathy likely stems from an erosion of trust in our public institutions. The survey reports declining trust in the U.S. military, the president, Congress, and the federal government. They are falling to even lower levels of support from already mediocre 2012 highs. A measly 24 percent of young Americans trust the President to do the right thing. More than half of millennials believe that “elected officials don’t share my same priorities” and 43 percent agree with the statement “Politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing.”

These results should be a wake-up call. The desire to change is out there. It is encouraging that young Americans want to advocate for political change.

So what concrete changes can average politically conscious citizens make? They could sign up to canvass for a favorite candidate or donate to an up-and-coming campaign. They could attend town hall meetings with local representatives and vote in local elections. Here at Harvard, they could sign up for Harvard College Democrats or Republicans and work to support an agenda with like-minded students. They could volunteer at the IOP or even help with the next edition of the survey. None of these steps on their own is going to solve our apathy problem, but at least they will address the root causes and not bemoan the symptoms of our disengagement.

The results of the survey suggest that there is still time for millennials to become a political generation. To be effective, we have to get off our keyboards and do the things we claim to hold in such high esteem.

Christopher M. Vassallo ’20, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Matthews Hall.

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