They are connected to one another like never before. And they are as disconnected from American politics as ever.
They’re avid volunteers for community causes, yet most hardly seem to care about government or campaigns. They see a government that’s not deserving of their trust, resistant to change and barely caring about their needs. They don’t think their vote counts.
They are the young. Old enough to vote, numerous enough to pick a president or a Congress. And they don’t seem to care.
“I don’t pay taxes. I don’t pay for my health insurance,” said Emilia Pascarella, a sophomore at Penn State. “I don’t feel I’m being affected.”
“I don’t think about government that much,” added Grace Nissi, a junior at Penn State.
Their comments are typical of nearly 80 young people interviewed in central Pennsylvania, a diverse cross-section of blue- and white-collar, black, white, Hispanic and Asian-American, students majoring in physics, health administration, advertising, electrical engineering and more — from Penn State and the Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology.
And they explain why candidates for president are failing to tap the kind of youthful surge that helped Barack Obama win the White House.
Democrat Bernie Sanders draws big college audiences and gets good marks from many students. But his presidential bid remains a long shot. Hillary Clinton could be the first woman president, but young women don’t feel the pull of gender history. Marco Rubio promotes himself as the leader of a new generation, but few are familiar with him.
They are not passive.
They’re energetic volunteers and hard workers for community causes. They just see little self-interest in politics. By one measure, just 1 in 5 were politically engaged, according to a recent survey by the Harvard University Institute of Politics.
They see no need to be so. Most are confident they’ll find jobs. They don’t have to worry about compulsory military service. They can stay on their parents’ health care polices for several more years. The high cost of college is a big concern, but few see the government making things easier.
Rarely do young people cite the forces that seem to jar the rest of the civilized world, such as recent mass shootings or acts of terrorism. Those seem too difficult to resolve. On the three days of interviews, the news was dominated by the mass shootings in San Bernardino, Calif.
Virtually no one brought up the incident.
Driving this disconnect, ironically, is their connectivity.
Protest rallies and marches, favorite tactics of their parents’ generation, are yesterday’s strategies. Organizing via social media, where people almost spontaneously group and promote a cause but rarely see or talk to one another, is the new form of mass expression. But it’s rarely directed at the political process.
They see prodding the government as futile.
“Not much has really made a difference,” said Evelyn Van Horn, studying to be an auto body technician at CPI.
They came of age viewing Washington as incapable and unwilling to ease the sort of tensions that could have consequences in their lives. The oldest of their generation were entering second grade as Bill Clinton was becoming president. That means that in their lifetime, government has been a relentless object of scorn, if not ridicule.
The only presidents they’ve known, Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have all been ongoing targets for not only critics but comedians. To the young, Washington is a leaden, bloated bureaucracy managed by confrontation-prone, self-absorbed lawmakers unwilling to bend.
Asked to name something government has done correctly, not a single young person volunteered anything at first.
At CPI, Jeremiah Bowers, a welding student, eventually mentioned highways. At Penn State, three finally spoke up. One mentioned support for gun rights, another help for disabled people and a third said she was pleased some Syrian refugees can enter this country.
More common was the attitude of Alexa Pane, a Penn State junior. She sat for six hours in an emergency room this summer waiting for her insurer to approve an X-ray of the freshly broken bones in her ankle. She blames the Affordable Care Act, saying it’s made the health system even more unresponsive.
Not even political promises to ease the cost of attending college douse this skepticism, even though it’s tough to find someone without a mountain of debt or a complaint about the cost of college.
Hillary Clinton is pushing a detailed college affordability plan, and Sanders would offer everyone free tuition at public colleges and universities. But few young people believe any program can win congressional approval, and if it does, it won’t be in effect in time to affect them.
If anything, such promises reinforce the idea that politicians pander but won’t deliver and seem to provide little comfort.
“By the time any such bill passed, I’d be long out of college,” said Michelle Mehallow, a Penn State junior.
There were pockets of what Jillian Susi, a Penn State senior, called “specialized self-interest.”
Black Lives Matter is of particular concern to young African-Americans concerned about police brutality. Kristina Sosa, a Penn State junior whose father in Mexican, is outraged by Donald Trump’s disparaging remarks about Mexican immigrants. David D’Imperio’s roommate is Syrian; that piques the Penn State junior’s interest about the refugee dispute.
Unless there’s a specific incident to incite an uprising, such as the recent furor over the University of Missouri’s handling of racial incidents, these concerns rarely evolve into lasting political movements, at least not at the moment.
If there is to be political organizing, it will come in a different form than the country has known. The rapid acceptance of same-sex marriage illustrated the generation’s potential clout. That movement came not from a classic lobbying effort or top-down organizing, but from a social media-directed groundswell.
Those efforts worked because same-sex marriage is an issue that not only affected people younger than 30, but also offered positive change. “Gay marriage is equality. It’s hope,” explained Brooke Gejoff, a Penn State senior.
That sort of self-interest, though, has otherwise proven elusive. Parents may tell tales of protesting against the Vietnam War, finally prodding the United States to leave. Or how they got involved in the conservative movement that helped elect three Republican presidents and redefine the role and reach of the federal government.
There’s little talk of such mass action today. Big news stories just come and go, having little lasting impact.
Millennials follow the news on tweets, Facebook and messages, or read theSkimm.com, a quick summary of the day’s news. If a story breaks, they go to their cellphones and find whichever source seems most up to date, but often the events seem remote.
“If I see something on Facebook I may try to learn more, but usually I stay out of things,” said Stephen Howell, studying to be a diesel technician at CPI.
They also feel there’s little they can do, and the connected world fuels that notion. Before they go to sleep, they listen to the comedians. Mehallow recalled watching Stephen Colbert’s Comedy Central show with her father, as the comedian spoofed politicians nightly. “It made me more skeptical about government and politicians,” she said.
But not about volunteer efforts.
Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, a philanthropic effort affiliated with the university, commonly known as Thon, boasts 15,000 student volunteers who helped raise $13 million last year to help fight childhood cancer. Unlike voting in an election, students can see the results of their work, since all of the money goes to Four Diamonds at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital, which provides direct support to some 600 children with cancer each year.
Yes, government has Obama, elected seven years ago as the hope of this new generation. Today, thanks to that saturation media coverage and the Twitterverse, he’s dragged down by memories of a frustrated president dogged by endless bickering over budgets, health care and almost everything else Washington is involved with.
“Obama sounds like a broken record,” said Joey Niedziejko, a Penn State sophomore. He hasn’t fixed the broken system. He hasn’t made their lives better in obvious ways.
What has made a difference is self-reliance and generous parents, which many are convinced will get them a secure future. “If you do your best you can worry less,” Susi said. “It’s like taking a test. You study hard for it, and you do well.”
Government? It just doesn’t matter that much.
Findings from a nationwide survey of 18- to 29-year-olds by the Harvard Institute of Politics:
▪ 20 percent consider themselves “politically engaged and active”
▪ 52 percent are following the presidential campaign not very much or not at all
▪ 49 percent say the American dream is alive for them; 48 percent say it’s dead
▪ Among Republicans, 22 percent prefer Trump, 20 percent favor Carson
▪ Among Democrats, Sanders has a 41-35 percent lead over Clinton
Data collected from more than 2,000 young adults between Oct. 30 and Nov. 9.