As we approach the midterm elections, the role of Generation Z and the importance of engaging young people is front and center for many candidates. And the question I get asked most often is “Why are young people so down on democracy?”
For me, the answer to the question is simple.
Most people my age have grown up in a democracy that appears to be struggling at best and rapidly declining at worst. Conservative or liberal, my generation’s lived experience has been characterized by extreme polarization, economic pain and division.
Take me, for example. Now 23, I was born two years before 9/11, went to middle school during the Great Recession, entered college during the 2016 election campaign and graduated from college during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To top it off, 2021 began with one of the darkest days in our democracy, the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. To put it charitably: My generation’s lived experience does not reflect a thriving democracy.
Unfortunately, the upcoming midterm elections are only compounding the problem. Many of the most covered Senate and House races feature candidates who represent the most conservative and liberal wings of their respective parties. Earlier this year, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics found that 52% of young people believe our democracy is in trouble or has failed. Similarly, Pew Research found that just 25% of young adults say they trust our government and 34% say they trust our elected officials.
The problem is that young people only know a struggling democracy as the norm. Given the litany of challenges that our country faces, it is difficult for many to believe in the hard work of democracy and invest time in a status quo of politics that seems to only reward the loudest and most extreme voices.
Fortunately, the solution to this seemingly intractable crisis of trust within young people is not complex. Through my work with BridgeUSA, a student-led nonprofit that works to engage young people in constructive conversations, I have had the privilege of working with thousands of young people and closely listening to a diverse array of Gen Z voices. Like any other generation, these young people aspire for politics that are focused on solutions, electing leaders that put country over party and building a future that is more prosperous.
Simply put, we want problem-solvers instead of flamethrowers to lead our democracy.
Therefore, the first step in restoring trust and driving youth engagement in our democracy begins with the candidates and leaders asking for our vote. In addition to supporting a new generation of members of Congress, senators and local officials, we need to be elevating leaders who represent a new brand of politics, one focused on building diverse ideological coalitions and fighting back against the divisive and anti-democratic politics of the status quo. Leadership matters, and young people’s perspective on democracy will continue to be shaped by who is in charge.
Furthermore, we need candidates that look forward, not backward.
My generation will inherit the many challenges facing our democracy today, and we need leaders who craft ambitious and innovative narratives about our democracy. Most people care about issues and do not want culture wars dominating the news cycle. People need hope and a belief that they can fight for their ideas within the confines of a democracy. Rather than bickering over click-bait issues that often have no direct impact on peoples’ lives, candidates should be discussing how the 21st century can be the best century that America has yet seen.
And with America’s 250th anniversary coming up in 2026, candidates should be having bold discussions about how we are not at the end of the American story, but the beginning. Then we can put aside our partisan differences to focus on pressing issues that affect all Americans.
Finally, the midterms and the 2024 elections offer an opportunity for us to reset the conversation around civic engagement. We need to emphasize that while voting is an important part of democracy, it represents only one part of our civic muscle. The hard work of strengthening our democracy and building healthy civic infrastructure requires civic education, constructive dialogues across differences, volunteerism and service. Democracy is only as strong as what we put into it, and young people need to be offered accessible and nonpartisan avenues that help us be the best citizens we can be.
As the midterms approach, we must recognize that young people are paying attention. My generation is energized and is looking for leaders that want to solve problems. Regardless of our politics, we all want our country and our democracy to be strong and forward-thinking. This is not an ideological aspiration — it’s an American aspiration. We live in the most ambitious democratic experiment in the history of humanity. We the people deserve better. And we can do better if our young people are engaged and involved.
Manu Meel is the CEO of BridgeUSA.