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American Youth Know Democracy is Failing

By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Democracy has failed. A second civil war is on the way. State secession is on the horizon. Well, maybe. At least a surprisingly sizable share of young Americans think so, according to the Institute of Politics Harvard Public Opinion Project’s Youth Poll. A staggering 52 percent of participants believe that the United States’ democracy has failed or is in trouble and, as bizarre as it is concerning, respondents on average report a 35 and 25 percent chance, respectively, that they will see a second civil war or a state secede in their lifetime. This lack of faith in our democracy and its stability among young adults is warranted; however, it is imperative that this vote of no confidence inspires even more engagement and activism, rather than despondency and disengagement.

Like many of the young adults who participated in this poll, we too have little to no faith in the U.S. democracy at large — not only because the U.S. was technically never a true democracy to begin with, but also due to the fact that our government is not truly representative and was not built to be. For one, our election system is structured such that the electoral college trumps the popular vote. Five times now, the popular vote has been denied by the electoral college: Many of us have seen this twice in our lifetimes. Not only is the popular vote devalued, but many populations have been, and continue to be, pushed and excluded from it. For more than a century of our nation’s rocky history, women and people of color were denied the vote. While amendments marked by varying degrees of success have been made in the past hundred years, the fact remains that we have inherited a broken system; one which was never designed, or even intended, to hear and represent all people — and the inflammatory residues of this marginalization are very much alive and blazing today.

America’s young adults see this, engendering the rightful deterioration of American exceptionalism among us and other young people; less than one-third of respondents believe that America is the greatest country in the world. Admittedly, we do take respondents’ anticipation of a looming civil war and state secession to be a bit extreme. But while we may not expect that a state will secede from the nation in our lifetimes, we are seriously concerned about how our politics will continue to function as polarization deepens and parties continue to operate on completely different sets of facts, moral values, and political understandings.

The good news, however, as leaders of the HPOP have mentioned, is that this lack of faith coincides with record rates of voter turnout and political activism among American youth. In the 2020 presidential election, 50 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 — the same demographic sampled in this survey — headed to the polls (or the post office) for nearly a 30 percent increase from the 2016 election.

This trend is heartening, as these failings in our democracy should inspire more activism and political engagement among American youth, not less. As we have recently opined, the role of youth and student activism is paramount to a functioning democracy, especially in periods of political turmoil. As young people who believe our democracy is in danger, we must not become disengaged, but rather raise our voices even louder. Diagnosing the problem is the easy part; finding solutions is not.

Having a reliable and consistent temperature gauge to measure young Americans’ political opinions is imperative to this project of fixing our democracy: To that end, we thank those involved in the IOP’s Youth Poll, especially the students, for their efforts in helping to achieve this end. Providing information on young people’s opinions to policymakers, researchers, and the general public is a first step to making sure that they are heard. Even beyond that, we also value the thoughtful nature of the decisions made throughout the HPOP’s entire process: The choice to have the survey interviews conducted in English and Spanish, for example, is emblematic of the group’s particularly sensitive and careful approach.

Rather than guessing which state will be the first to secede, we must read the Youth Poll’s finding that young Americans share our lack of faith in the current U.S. democracy as a call to action.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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