As Americans prepare to talk politics around the Thanksgiving table this week, it is a good time to share something quite positive about the future of politics. My optimism stems from the recent political behavior of Gen Z Americans, who represent a real opportunity for the country to move forward from its years of partisan polarization. While polls regularly present the story of a politically pessimistic Gen Z view of the future, there is real cause to be sanguine.
Stories and surveys abound that describe Gen Z’s negative views toward politics and the future of the nation. A survey sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation, for instance, found numerous causes for concern. In particular, 60 percent of Gen Zers believe America is a divided country. Similarly, Gen Zers have not felt that major institutions are listening to them; just 34 percent believe their favorite brands are in touch with them, barely a quarter (24 percent) feel like global companies understand them, and just a fifth (20 percent) maintain that the government understands them.
While many of these negative statements about Gen Z’s views may be true, there is ample room for brightness. Data from the University of Texas-Austin’s nationally representative survey of college and university students today, The Future of Politics, reveals that while there was a general disdain for those running for office before the 2022 midterms, Gen Zers were quite hopeful about future political leaders. Specifically, 75 percent of students believed that the right kind of people are were running for office. However, 60 percent of students believed that better candidates will run in the future.
Even before the electoral power of Gen Z became apparent after the 2022 election, Gen Zers were quite positive about their electorate efficacy. Fifty-eight percent of Gen Z students maintained that voting does make a difference, compared to just over a quarter (28 percent) stating that voting does not make a difference and about 13 percent were unsure. After a large turnout and impact in 2022, Gen Z Americans now know that their political voice matters. They are a constituency that cannot be ignored.
Going forward, the nation and the parties should take note that Gen Z Americans are politically engaged and that they are not a monolithic bloc; they voted against January 6 denialism in 2022 but both parties are still viable in the hearts and minds of Gen Z students today. Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, for instance, found that just a third (32 percent) of college students identify as liberal, with another 19 percent claiming to be conservative. The plurality of students—48 percent—call themselves moderates.
The Future of Politics Survey uncovers a similar breakdown in party with respect to registration; 31 percent of the sample reports that they are Republican and another 33 percent Democrat—essentially an even split. The remainder—37 percent—are either unaffiliated or Independent. Gen Z looks very different from those in the Silent Generation—President Joe Biden’s and Nancy Pelosi’s generation—which has seen a decline in independent identification and a rise in Republican partisan support in 2022.
Gallup corroborates these trends and found that younger generational cohorts are more likely than their older counterparts to remain centrist and less partisan and appear to be fairly stable ideologically. Even if their politics change over time, and that may not really happen, the fact is that as of today, Gen Z students are not staunch Democrats. Nor are they supporters of the GOP; they are in the middle looking for the least messy path as three-quarters of students believed that the country was on the wrong path heading into the election and they voted for Democratic partisans who were reasonable.
Gen Z’s recent partisan and political pessimism should not be taken as a final judgment of either party or about politics in general. Rather, the state of Gen Z today represents an opportunity for America’s future, one that is far less politically extreme. America’s youngest politically active cohort has been upset with the status quo and lost faith in both parties; it votes for whichever party adopts moderate and reasonable positions. The Democrats did that in 2022 on a host of salient political positions. But, Democrats cannot afford to move too far to the left and continue to be fixated on identity politics. The Republicans need to move on from Trump and away from any statement that January 6 could possibly be justified. Gen Z is shaping up to be a practical swing generation that engages politically and socially and this tendency may help diminish our polarization and extremism as the parties take finally respond to this growing political power. This may return the nation to its focus of telling a national story and is one, in the words of Arthur Brooks, “of goodness before greatness.”
Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.