What Teenagers Have Learned From a Tumultuous Time in Politics

For American teenagers, their political coming of age has been a tumultuous one. They’ve seen the boundary-breaking candidacies of women and people of color, and the norm-shattering presidency of Donald Trump. They’ve lived through racial justice protests, a pandemic, and attacks on American democracy.

Research shows that a voting generation is typically shaped for life by what happens politically in their teen years and early 20s. What have teenagers taken away from all this? We asked 604 of them, ages 13 to 17, from around the country, in a poll by Dynata for The New York Times. A little more than half the teenagers surveyed were girls. And nearly half were Black, Hispanic, Native American or Asian-American. (We talked to more of them because Generation Z will be the first in which nearly half of the electorate is nonwhite.)

The survey revealed a generation of soon-to-be voters who felt disillusioned by government and politics, and already hardened along political lines — something political scientists said was new for people this young. But it also revealed a significant share of teenagers who felt motivated to become involved themselves, whether out of inspiration or frustration.

“Simultaneously, we have this caustic, scorched-earth politics of the Trump administration, particularly for people of color, and at the same time we see young people exercising power and influence and organizing and showing up in the marches and the election,” said Valeria Sinclair-Chapman, a political scientist at Purdue. “This is their political socialization, so we have to see how it plays out.”

The survey respondents were too young to vote, but they divided along similar partisan lines as adults, reflecting the divisive political atmosphere they’ve grown up absorbing. White teenagers were less likely than teenagers of color to support Mr. Biden. Biden supporters were more likely to say it was important to have women and other underrepresented groups serving in office. Eighty-seven percent of them said they hoped a woman would be elected president in their lifetime; 47 percent of Trump supporters hoped so.

About half of the teenagers strongly or slightly agreed that government had their interests in mind and could help meet their needs. But less than half of girls or respondents who were Black, Hispanic, Native or Asian-American agreed, and only one-third of Trump supporters did.

Their political attitudes differed significantly by gender and race. White boys were most likely to believe the government represented them. Minority girls were 21 percentage points less likely to agree that the government had their interests in mind. White boys were the only group of teenagers in which a majority could think of many people in leadership who shared their identity; just 25 percent of minority girls could.

These experiences were reflected in significant gaps in political ambition: White boys were 20 percentage points more likely to be interested in running for office than boys of color; white girls were eight points more likely than girls of color.

Yet despite being unconvinced that government was meeting their needs, the majority of the teenagers, and roughly equal shares of girls and boys, said they were interested in following and discussing what happens in politics and government. And various political events of the last four years were more likely to have inspired them to consider running for office someday than to have discouraged them.

The Trump presidency had the most polarizing effects on political ambition. It made one-third of teenagers of both genders less interested in running, with a larger effect on those of color. But it also made about half of survey respondents, and nearly three-quarters of Trump-supporting teenagers, more interested in running (the rest said it didn’t influence their interest.)

By comparison, the 2020 election made about two-thirds of teenagers more interested in running, and 15 percent less interested, and the effect was similar for supporters of the Republican and Democratic candidates and for boys and girls.

Other research has also found that for some young people who were disappointed by the Trump presidency, it awakened their interest in political involvement, according to David Campbell and Christina Wolbrecht, both political scientists at Notre Dame.

“What we found is that there was great disillusionment in democracy among adolescents, especially girls, especially those who think of themselves as Democrats,” Mr. Campbell said. “Then we found this upsurge in protest activity, so the disillusionment, rather than driving them out of politics, pushed them into political activity.”

Their research also suggests that the surge of women running has been encouraging to young people — among liberals and some conservatives as well. In 2018, adolescents who lived in female congressional candidates’ districts grew more positive about American democracy, whether or not the candidates won, the research shows.

“There’s no other way to explain their optimism than seeing these women run,” Professor Campbell said. “The effect is strongest among Democratic girls, but you find it among Democratic boys as well, and even Republican girls picked up on it. In fact, the only group that wasn’t inspired was Republican boys.”

The teenage respondents’ views of Kamala Harris, in an open-ended question about what it meant to them that she was vice president, ranged as widely as adults’ views of her, and touched on similar themes of partisanship and identity.

Several called her a socialist. Others said they felt she was picked for her identity as a woman of color, rather than for her accomplishments, and one said she was “not very likable.” Another disapproved of her policies: “Ultimately, Democrats will bankrupt the United States,” that respondent said.

Still others called her an inspiration, especially those who did not see themselves in most political leaders: “I am so happy, I am mixed-race and so is she,” one wrote. “She is totally inspiring to me and I love her.”

Another said, “She is my inspiration to know that women can rise to the top in government.” And a third wrote that her election sent this message: “Politics are changing and more things are possible.”

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