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Perspective: How ‘transformational’ politics is hurting Gen Z’s mental health

College students need political norms and values to remain stable. Politicians are giving them the opposite of that

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Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

Over the past decade, the mental health of Generation Z college students around the nation has precipitously declined. Countless scholars and practitioners have weighed in on the potential causes of this instability, from omnipresent social media to low religiosity and, of course, a pandemic.

My experience teaching college students suggests another source of distress — the repeated calls among electoral candidates for sociopolitical transformation.

Compared to years prior, when politics was more likely to be pluralistic and consensus driven, Gen Z came of age at a time when candidates habitually call for the complete reordering of American politics and society. Now, one election has the potential to drastically alter the nation’s norms, practices, institutions, values and laws — and Americans don’t even get to recover from one election cycle until the next one begins. This political instability has created deep confusion and anxiety among young adults.

Gen Z students entered their teenage years around the time of former President Barack Obama’s rise and his repeated calls for a transformational agenda. Since then, as David Greenberg wrote for Politico, candidates at all levels have tried to create platforms and promote messaging that focuses on bringing citizens “aboard a moral or spiritual project, revising in some fundamental sense who they are.” Candidates do so by advocating policies and agendas that radically change our “underlying attitudes and commitments,” Greenberg posited.

While many young Gen Zers were captured by Obama’s transformational rhetoric, they were subsequently let down by the administration’s under-deliverance. However, since Obama left office, transformational oratory has become the norm in our politics.

We saw this in rhetoric of the 2022 midterm races. Beto O’Rourke, along with other Democratic political leaders in Texas, tried to lay the foundation for a political transformation. In New York, Republican candidate Lee Zeldin failed to topple incumbent Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul, but proposed transformational changes in how the state manages crime, inflation and immigration. In doing so, he may have helped flip quite a few House seats and unseated the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

With most midterm races now decided, there is little reason to think that Gen Z’s anxiety will subside. Former President Donald Trump has been a major actor in the past four elections and just announced another run for the White House in 2024. Moderate and compromise-inclined candidates lost in many races. The Democrats are still deeply divided and have no clear plan for the White House, and the nation is entering yet another round of divided government.

This year has settled very little politically.

It should be no wonder, then, why so many Gen Z students are anxious and unsettled; every two years, the issue set changes dramatically, giving way to the perception that “the stakes have never been higher” and 2022 did nothing to change this dynamic.

The next two years will be incredibly messy, and the pattern which has emerged is one where each election increases the chances of life-altering change — rather than pragmatic coalition building and gradual change. Add into the mix the fact that executive orders are on the rise at all levels of government; what is legal and what is possible can change wildly at state and local levels based solely on one election.

Gen Z students are unhappy with this political reality, and the Future of Politics survey of more than 1,500 currently enrolled students at 91 colleges and universities reveals the depth of their frustration. 

The survey found that when students are asked, for instance, what they consider to be the most urgent threat to our nation’s future, it is not Russia or China or gun violence or racism, but polarization and government dysfunction. Moreover, when asked if they believe that America’s political system can still address the nation’s problems, only 22% say that the nation’s institutions can do this while 66% maintain that the nation is too divided politically to solve its problems.

Three-quarters of students think that the U.S. is on the wrong track with just 8% thinking that it is on the right track. And a majority of students today (52%) hold that the current political world represents a serious threat to our democracy with another 28% maintain that there is a threat to our democracy, but it is not serious.

This pessimistic outlook among Gen Z students is likely a direct result of the tone of our politics. Certainly, polarization is high and ideological sorting is pronounced, but the transformational campaign rhetoric and governance style in our era of unstable majorities makes any sense of continuity and sociopolitical stability hard to find.

College students have enough trouble figuring out who they are. Amid all the other stresses in their life, they need political norms and values to remain stable. Regrettably, politicians and parties are giving them the opposite of what they need.

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.