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American Youths Distrust of the Government throughout History

Cameron G. Whitehurst
Glen Allen High School

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It comes as no surprise to many Americans that Congressional approval ratings have been
below 20% for six consecutive years, or that 48% of Americans identify as independents, not
fully believing in either the Republican or Democratic Party, viewing the government as a failed
institution (Newport 2014). This disapproval of the current American government is highly
concentrated in millennials of todays society: people aged roughly 18 to 29 years. This is no
surprise, as some millennials have lived to see the end of the Cold War, but also the beginning of
the age of terrorism, wars in the Middle East, the Great Recession of 2008, and the subsequent
high rates of unemployment and crippling debt, and more recently, congressional gridlock,
culminating in a government shutdown in October of 2013.
Youth distrust of the government is not something recent, nor is it something
unprecedented; in fact, this is an issue that has transcended through past generations and
presumably, more to come. The most prevalent examples of young Americans rebellion against
traditional government power, laws, and composition are the various movements of the 60s and
70s, especially Vietnam War protests in conjunction with the Kent State massacre, and the
hippie/baby-boomer counterculture movement. But it does not stop theremore recent events,
such as Occupy Wall Street and the rise of political extremists, such as Bernie Sanders, the selfproclaimed democratic socialist, who won an overwhelming 80% of youth votes in the Iowa,
New Hampshire, and Nevada primaries, also encapsulate the strife of young Americans
(Thompson 2016). Although youth involvement in the government can often have a positive
impact on the inner workings of the three branches, recent trends in voting have shown that
youth participation is droppinga scary fact, given that American millennials, all 93 million of

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them, comprise 36% of the American electorate, a percentage that will overwhelm the longreigning majority, the Baby Boomers, in the next election year (Wagner 2015).
The historical trend of youth dissatisfaction with the American government is important
for many reasons, the main one being the fact that millennials will determine the future of
America as they age and move into positions of power within the country. Millennials are also
the first of many generations to come that exhibit overwhelming diversity, and whose trends
allow insight into what the future may hold.
In order to highlight the importance of youth interaction with the American system of
government, this paper strives to determine why millennials and other young Americans
throughout history were and have become disillusioned with the government, and also to analyze
the ever-growing trend of anti-establishment. To tackle such a broad, important question, three
main topics must be considered: age & diversity, political conflicts & alignment, and voter
turnout. In an attempt to remove antiquated practices that do not represent a generation's
demographics, protests and radical leaders emerge. Youth tendencies to be anti-establishment
culminate in a lack of voter participation, thereby resulting in a lack of true change within the
Age & Diversity
Generations are quickly becoming more and more diverse, leading to a generational
disparity as each new one arises. As diversity increases, the American system of government
appears less and less representative, particularly to millennials, 43% of which are nonwhite
(Wagner 2015). However, despite this apparent upper-hand in the political arena, millennials
rarely vote. Much of this phenomenon can be attributed to the increasing diversity of young

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Americans, who do not see their diversity reflected in the governmenta historically old, white
male dominated system. There are more factors that impact recent lows in voter participation,
however; the age of millennials also impacts their political alignmentin a recent Gallup poll, a
report concluded that among 18- to 29-year-olds who are likely votersthose who say they will
definitely be voting in November51% say they prefer a Republican controlled Congress,
while 47% prefer a Democratic Congress. This qualifies the claim that young Americans tend to
lean toward the Democratic Party, because although there is a slight preference for a Republican
Congress, there is still irrefutable evidence that (a) millennials are the most politically
uneducated voting bloc, and (b) younger Americans usually align with the Democratic Party
(Newport 2014). Derek Thompsons article Millennials Political Views Dont Make Any
Sense supports a similar idea, but also the fact that many Millennials political views are
disjointed and contradictory, such as the following claims, based off of a Pew survey:
Millennials hate the political parties more than everyone else, but they have the
highest opinion of Congress. Young people are the most likely to be single parents
and the least likely to approve of single parenthood. Young people voted
overwhelmingly for Obama when he promised universal health care, but they
oppose his universal health care law as much as the rest of the countryeven
though they still pledge high support for universal health care. (Like other groups,
but more so: They seem allergic to the term Obamacare). (2014).

A graph within the same article shows a positive correlation between the percent of people who
say the government should not reduce income gap and annual incomeas income increases, so
does the amount of people that are against redistribution of wealth. This idea both undermines
and explains youth support of Bernie Sandersyoung people who struggle to make a living feel
as if the current system has failed them, lending itself to the glorification of the redistribution of
wealth, but conversely, as more money is made, redistribution becomes less and less desirable.
Another interesting, yet haunting fact Thompson includes: 42% of millennials think socialism is

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preferable to capitalism, but only 16% could accurately define socialism in the Pew survey
(Thompson 2014). This is significant, because research has shown that only 17% of Americans
are highly informed in American politics, yet some of the 83% that are left in varying degrees of
the dark are proponents of an economic system that they cannot define (Newport et al 2015).
This may also be a preference impacted by age, as 18-29 year olds are just beginning their
entrance into the economy, not yet fully acquainted with loans, mortgages, and financial
independence. A lack of economic experience may contribute to a historical trend of leaning
left; for example, in a more recent article, Thompson details why he feels young people
historically have identified with the Democratic Party, based on prior research:
There are three compositional reasons why young people lean left. First, theyre
just plain young, and young people are typically to the left of the rest of the
country on social and economic issues. Second, the under-30 cohort is the most
diverse adult demographic in American history, and minorities have historically
been to the left of the country as well. Third, even young white men and women
are more liberal than their parents, particularly on three social issuesgay rights,
immigration, and marijuanaand generally on their willingness to accept more
government involvement in income redistribution and universal health care. (On
gun rights and abortion, interestingly, Generation Y is right in line with the rest of
the country). (2016).

Although Thompson vouches for Bernie supporters through these three reasons, many political
bigwigs are concerned with the millennial mindset, such as David Brooks, who exasperatedly
wrote: Its amazing that a large part of the millennial generation has rejected the American
consensus that free markets are the way toward individualism, achievement and flexibility.
This exclamation ties neatly into the 42% of millennials that find socialism preferable to
capitalism, yet cannot define it. A misunderstanding or lack of information on the government
may lead to the countrys economic demise if socialism were to replace capitalism, something
that many millennials are gunning for. However, Thompson attempts to explain this by

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highlighting both age and diversity as key components of the Political Revolution of the
Millennial Generation, where demographics reach an unprecedented level of diversity, while
also being huge in number (Thompson 2016).
Young Americans have not always been strictly democratic, however, as Carl Wagner
quickly points out in The GOP Is Letting Millennials Slip Away. Conversely to how many
millennials vote today, Ronald Reagan won 18-to 29-year-olds by more than 20 percentage
points in both 1980 and 1984, as did Richard Nixon in 1972, the first election for which baby
boomers were eligible to vote in significant numbers. This data analysis presents a situation
similar to the one America is experiencing this year, with the rise of the 93 million millennials
(Wagner 2015). Besides the sheer number of millennials rising to the electorate, this election is
important because millennials have the potential to make the greatest impact on the government
in modern history. With an unprecedented amount of diversity, millennials could change the face
of the government and who represents the American citizensif they were to vote. The trend of
increasing anti-establishment does not lend itself to change; protests such as those seen during
the Vietnam War and Occupy Wall Street caught the media by storm, but did not lead to any
long-term changes.
Political Conflict & Party Identification
Political conflicts that have occurred in modern history, from the Vietnam War to the
Recession of 2008 have caused a reluctance to align with either political partyboth seem
equally as unappealing to millennials. Recent political and social issues have led to
disillusionment with the traditional parties, but this anti-establishment tendency began long
before the rise of political revolutionaries like Bernie Sanders. The Vietnam War had very little
support from the general public from both parties, similarly to responses to the Great Recession

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of 2008. The recession, one of the countrys worst economic periods since the Great Depression
of the 1930s, impacted millennials more than other age groups, as they still struggle today with
student loans and house payments. With all the recent political conflicts, who can blame
millennials for not trusting either party? Thompson encapsulates this idea best, as he notes that
The Great Recession and several key events during the Obama administration
have arguably pushed young Americans even further to the left. Young people
were uniquely punished by the recession and are rightfully angry. They suffered
higher unemployment than any other group during the downturn, and their wages
fell more than any other group after it concluded. This is the most educated
generation in American history by both total degrees and share of college
graduates. But whereas education once seemed to promise an inviolable social
contracta degree produced a job, and the job procured a good middle-class life
or betterthe rising cost of school has combined with a chilly labor market to
create a perfect storm: Low youth wages that make it hard to pay off record-high
student debt. (2016).

With the addition of a statistic that wages have grown 60% more slowly for millennials than
those of the general population, Thompson effectively relays why millennials may, for example,
side with Bernie Sanders on the issue of the redistribution of wealth, as why they also may not
trust the government, as it has failed them and tanked their finances (Thompson 2016). However,
young Sanders supporters are the most fervent, but also the least involved in government. An
appealing platform may lead to high verbal support, but millennials have become notorious for
their lack of government involvement, as discussed further in the following section. Furthermore,
modern Supreme Court rulings, such as the legalization of gay marriage, and societal issues,
such as abortion, legalization of marijuana, and LGBTQ+ rights, have led to an extremely
polarized government, one that forces many millennials to the left. In a recent Pew study, it was
found that:
Young voters continue to identify with the Democratic Party at relatively high
levels and express more liberal attitudes on a range of issues from gay marriage

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to the role of the federal government than do older voters. In fact, voters under
30 were as likely to identify as Democrats in the 2012 exit poll as they had been
in 2008 (44% now, 45% then). And they are the only age group in which a
majority said that the government should do more to solve problems (Young
Voters 2012).

The stagnant results from these polls may be a result of a lack of substantial change during
President Obamas first termthe introduction of ObamaCare, Dodd Frank, and the Lily
Ledbetter Act in 2008 may have rallied Democrats behind the president without driving any
away. The main political conflict during Obamas two terms was the recession of 2008,
something that had been building for years prior to his taking office. Rather than greatly
impacting the Democratic Party, Republicans took the hit, which may attest to the reason why
Democrats were just as appealing four years later.
Another similar bout of statistics in a Gallup poll analysis by Jeffery M. Jones shows the
repercussions of such political conflicts: the main reason Americans want political change is
because of the appearance of an inefficient government due to government shutdowns, gridlock,
and constant argument. Because of the rise of political independents, the Democratic Party is
gaining steamwhen it comes to voting, last year, in addition to the 29% of Americans who
identified as Democrats, another 16% of independents leaned toward the Democratic Party, for a
combined total of 45% alignment with the Democratic Party. Although third parties allow for the
spread of new ideas in politics, they do a poor job of jiving with the traditional two-party system
already in play. The recent increased in independents is not all bad, especially because as a party
they lean to the left, meaning they will likely support at least one major presidential candidate in
elections, but this creates a positive feedback loopone that does little but increase the problem.
Millennials traditionally lean left (for aforementioned reasons such as age, diversity, and
economics) and a large percentage identify as independents, disillusioned by both parties.

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Millennials also do not make a habit of high voter turnout, meaning that both a large percentage
of independents and Democrats are not represented in the government, thereby weakening the
party system.
In an attempt to rally troops behind the idea of strengthening the government, Jones also
reveals that the Democratic Party has been on the rise for quite some time, with its high being in
2008, when Former President Bush was highly unpopular due to involvement in the Middle East.
But once again, although the Democratic Party is gaining strength, a large portion of its
supporters are millennialsmillennials that do not vote, thereby limiting the amount of power
the party can have. Jones argues that the lack of political alignment may change depending on
the messages of the presidential candidates, but the data solidifies the anti-establishment
tendencies of young voting adults (Jones 2016).
Frank Newport, in another Gallup poll analysis, determined that in a post-election
assessment of the most important problems facing the country, people view the biggest issues as
1) the economy, 2) dysfunctional government and 3) immigration with healthcare, the deficit,
education, terrorism and poverty coming in behind those (Newport 2014). Disillusionment with
the governments response to the Recession of 2008 is not limited to millennialsmany
communities of all ages are still attempting to recover from that major setback, partially
explaining why the economy tends to be the basis of every political candidates platform. One
candidate in particular, Ted Cruz, also plays into the dysfunctional government issuenot only
are the gears of the government grinding more slowly than ever, but Cruz was single-handedly
responsible for the government shutdown of 2013, pushing millennials further to the left on
matters of government efficiency (Lizza 2016). Immigration is another extremely polarizing
issue that could now be considered a political conflict, explaining why it ranks third for the

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biggest problems facing the nation. These extremely polarizing issues are doing little but hurting
the governments appearance, as Americans tend to perceive the government as not doing its job
when it cannot reach a consensus on a particular issue, especially the most daunting ones.
All of the aforementioned political conflicts, as outlined by Newport, led to the
despairingly small number of 28% voter turnout in Indiana (Newport 2014). This small turnout is
disheartening, especially given that Americans are more critical of the government than ever
before. Congressional approval ratings have stayed below 20% for six consecutive years,
recently slipping from 16% to 11% in 2015, and President Obama has not been able to top a 50%
approval rating (Newport et al 2015). These approval ratings are dismal, and reflect more than
just millennials exasperation with the government. However, millennials have the opportunity to
turn the direction of the government around, with the power of becoming the largest voting bloc,
voter participation may lead to the changes necessary in the legislative and executive branches.
As inefficiency in the government continues, dissatisfaction will increase, meaning that it will be
more important than ever to have optimal participation in order to improve the condition of the
country through the peoples will.
Voter Turnout
Through information from a variety of sources, it is apparent that both of the above
subtopics have led to low voter turnout, most notably amongst millennials. Despite numerous
examples throughout history, such as the Vietnam War protests and Occupy Wall Street, young
Americans appear to be involved in the government, but in reality, have knocked voter
participation rates down to a historic low. This decrease in voter turnout leads to a decrease in the
likelihood of real change in the government. Baby boomers have finally resigned their spot as the
reigning champions of the largest age group in the electorate, but still remain the group that most

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consistently votes. Millennials are the most diverse generation, but governmental decisions
continue to be made by 65 and older Americans, who, historically, have been white and
This lack of participation is not something that should be taken lightlyGeneration Y
millennials are the largest generation in American history, and arguably one of the most liberal
generations, as Thompson argues in The Political Revolution of the Millennial Generation. In
Between 1964 and 2012, youth voter turnout in presidential elections has fallen
below 50 percent, and Baby Boomers now outvote their children's generation by a
stunning 30 percentage points. Millennials might make a lot of noise between
presidential elections, but in November, politicians remember what young people
are: All throat and no vote. (2016).

Thompson continues to argue that because youth participation is so low, a political revolutionist
such as Bernie Sanders can never be successful; in order to change his fate of imminent failure,
young voters need to learn to vote like old people (Thompson 2016). What this means is that
millennials need to become more civically engaged and take their issues to the polls; without the
voice of the youth being heard, their diversity will not be reflected in the government. If
millennials are all throat and no vote, politicians are less likely to cater towards young people;
many may be less likely to tailor their agenda to young voters, who show little support in the
general election, and talk up platform issues that draw in older voters, who do show support in
the polls. Because of this, the government will continue to neglect the increasing diversity of
Generation Y, which is quickly becoming the infamous Generation Wh(y) Dont They Vote?
Political candidates would not be wrong in catering towards older voters, because a 2014
US Census Bureau report signified that Americans 65 and older have historically had higher

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voting rates than any other age group. This age groups lead in the polls is accentuated by the fact
that the census also found a trend in young voters becoming less engaged over time: voting rates
have dropped from 50.9% in 1964 to 38% in 2012. An alarming drop in just 48 years, but one
that can be attributed to, above all, political conflicts.
The Vietnam War kicked into high gear in 1964, with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
taking place on August 4, 1964. As America became more and more invested in a war that had
little to no support, Americans, especially those aged 18-29, seen protesting on college
campuses, became disillusioned with a government that does not reflect its beliefs. Political
conflicts have occurred throughout that time period, such as the Kent State massacre of 1970, the
terrorist attack on 9/11, and the 2008 recession, which led to Occupy Wall Street. More recently,
government inefficiency and gridlock serve as political conflicts, thereby continuing the trend of
disinterest in the existing party system. This distaste for the government is important because the
trend of decreasing voter engagement is projected to expand into the future, the same future that
will be impacted by decisions made now. If millennials want a favorable economy and equal
protection for all groups under the law, their opinions need to be reflected in the 2016 election, as
well as throughout the rest of their lives. Diversity in America will only grow, and it is the duty
of the most diverse generation to shape a government that protects the rights of each and every
The analysis of this data attributes the drop to more than just eligible voters not
participating: there is an undisputable growth of the noncitizen population, who do not have the
right to vote, and also comprises a huge majority of the Millennial population (US Census
Bureau 2014). This trend of lacking participation in millennials but high participation in older
Americans is explained through the diversity of the two groups:

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The racial and ethnic composition of young voters has shifted dramatically over
the last four presidential elections. Just 58% of voters age 18-29 identified as
white non-Hispanics, while 18% were Hispanic, 17% were African American and
7% identified as mixed-race or some other race. The share of young voters who
are white has declined 16 points since 2000, when 74% of voters under 30
identified as white and 26% identified as nonwhite (including 12% who were
African American and 10% Hispanic). This stands in sharp contrast to older
voters. Fully 76% of voters 30 and older were white, down only six points from
2000. Only 24% of voters 30 and older were nonwhite, including 12% who
identified as black and 8% as Hispanic. (2012).

A look at the decline in youth support for Obama between the 2008 and 2012 elections, just four
years, epitomizes the decline in youth participation in the government, a problem that will grow
increasingly more serious as millennials continue to grow in size (Young Voters 2012). Another
important trend noted in the above statistics is the breakdown of voters of differently
nationalities. Because 43% of diversity lies within Americans aged 18-29, it can be inferred that
many of the minority groups that lacked high participation are part of the diverse, young
generation. Diversity is a strength, not a weakness, of the millennial generation, but only when
portrayed in the polls.
Given the above research, as generations experience growth in diversity, views on the
government change. The vicious cycle that occurs here follows these steps: young Americans
feel as if the government has failed them, so they decide to boycott civic duties, such as voting,
to make a statement, which in turn leads to no change, and goes back to the perception of a
corrupt government. The most diverse generation in American history could make a huge change
in the current system of government, but only if they vote. The diversity in both race and arising
social issues, such as abortion, legalization of marijuana, and high unemployment rates among

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young Americans, lead to a disrespect and disillusionment with the countrys current means of
Although individual votes cannot make the change that one may wish to see in the
government, groups of voters can make a difference. What better group to make a change than
the 93 million millennials rising to 36% of the electorate (Wagner 2015)? People say that there is
strength in numbers, a strength that millennials certainly do not lack. Millennials are also in a
prime position to become a political force to be reckoned with because of their agemost
involved in college or graduate school, young Americans have a great opportunity to expand
their political knowledge. Millennials can not only become the 17% of Americans that are highly
informed, but achieve more: in a perfect world, millennials will reverse the statistic, and 83% of
Americans will be highly informed (Newport et al 2015). But at the end of the day, the most
important thing for millennials to do: vote like old people.


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Thompson, D. (2014, Jul. 15). Millennials' Political Views Dont Make Any Sense. The Atlantic.
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