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How Gen Z Could Transform American Politics

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Welcome to Invisible Divides, a series exploring the profound differences in worldview between Democrats and Republicans. These beliefs about education, religion, gender and race align with partisanship — but run much deeper. Differences like these don’t just influence the ways Democrats and Republicans vote, but also how they think about their place in America. And they help explain why opposing views on important issues today seem increasingly irreconcilable.

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Julian Morein was sitting in the back room of a Hillary Clinton campaign office when he realized that Donald Trump was going to win the 2016 election. He was 17 years old, and although he was just a few months away from being able to vote, he had been spending all of his free time working to get out the vote for Clinton in his home state of Pennsylvania. “I remember everyone my age just feeling like our futures had been stolen,” he said. “The older volunteers were devastated, of course, but they weren’t as angry. For us — the younger people — we felt like the older generations had failed us. And now we were the ones who were going to have to pay.”

Six years later, Morein is out of college and working at a nonprofit in Philadelphia. He’s voted in every major election since he turned 18. He’s part of a generation of new voters who became adults in the shadow of the 2016 election. And according to an August FiveThirtyEight/PerryUndem/YouGov survey of likely voters,<a class=”espn-footnote-link” data-footnote-id=”1″ href=”https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-gen-z-could-transform-american-politics/#fn-1″ data-footnote-content=”

The survey was conducted via online panel Aug. 10-21, 2022, among 1,796 likely voters, including oversamples of Black, Latino and Asian American/Pacific Islander respondents. Likely voters included registered voters who said that they are “almost certain to” or will “probably” vote in the November midterm elections. The sample was weighted to match the general population. The poll’s margin of error is +/- 3 percentage points.

“>1 politics is especially personal for Generation Z.

The youngest generation of voters is more likely than older groups to vote for Democrats — but it also has a much more radical view of how the country should address long-standing problems. According to our survey and others, voters ages 18 to 29<a class=”espn-footnote-link” data-footnote-id=”2″ href=”https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-gen-z-could-transform-american-politics/#fn-2″ data-footnote-content=”

Other age groups included ages 30 to 44, ages 45 to 59 and ages 60 or older.

“>2 are more likely than any other cohort — even those only a decade or two older — to say that abortion should always be legal,<a class=”espn-footnote-link” data-footnote-id=”3″ href=”https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-gen-z-could-transform-american-politics/#fn-3″ data-footnote-content=”

Respondents were asked whether abortion should be “legal in all cases,” “legal in most cases,” “illegal in most cases” or “illegal in all cases.”

“>3 that racism and racial inequality are big problems in the U.S.<a class=”espn-footnote-link” data-footnote-id=”4″ href=”https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-gen-z-could-transform-american-politics/#fn-4″ data-footnote-content=”

Respondents were asked how big of a problem 11 different issues were. Other response options included “somewhat of a problem,” “small problem,” “not a problem at all” or skipping the question.

“>4 and that they favored dramatic moves to undo injustices of the past, like cash payments to descendants of enslaved people.<a class=”espn-footnote-link” data-footnote-id=”5″ href=”https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-gen-z-could-transform-american-politics/#fn-5″ data-footnote-content=”

Respondents were given two ways the U.S. government could atone for or make amends for the country’s history of slavery and discrimination. They were asked whether they favored or opposed each way. Options included “strongly” or “somewhat” favor, “strongly” or “somewhat” oppose or skipping the question.

“>5 What’s more, many young Americans have told us that they feel compelled to vote because their values and goals feel so at odds with the people controlling the levers of power.

Historic events of the past few years have defined many young voters’ worldviews, too. One such watershed moment was the May 2020 video of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling for nine minutes on the neck of a 46-year-old Black man, George Floyd, killing him. A summer of protests against racial injustice throughout the country would follow, along with Chauvin’s conviction.

Voters under 30 were most likely to view racism as a systemic problem that must be addressed. In our survey with PerryUndem and YouGov, they were the only age group with a majority (57 percent) in favor of cash payments for descendants of enslaved people. When we asked whether they agreed with the statement, “White men are the most attacked group in the country right now,” only 26 percent agreed, the least of any age group. They were also the most likely to think that people of color becoming a majority of the U.S. population would strengthen the country, with 39 percent saying so.

The group overall was also much more likely to support the Black Lives Matter movement, with 63 percent saying they did. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement broke down along especially partisan lines, as it was the biggest predictor of how respondents planned to vote (more than 4 in 5 of those who agreed with the statement “I support Black Lives Matter,” “definitely” or “probably” planned to vote for Democrats, and similarly, more than 4 in 5 of those who disagreed planned to vote for Republicans).

In some ways, this generation of voters is already living in the United States of the future, which may be driving their attitudes. According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, the country’s youngest voters are also its most diverse age group, in every region. They’re becoming adults in a nation that already looks more like it will in 2050 — when demographers project that non-Hispanic white Americans will be a minority — than the past. There’s also some evidence these young voters have been learning about racial inequities in and outside of school: Over half said that they had recently read books that dealt with racism.

The young voters we spoke to did not all offer unqualified support for the Black Lives Matter organization itself, but many were generally well informed about the movement’s mission and goals. Matthew Messina, a 20-year-old college student from New Jersey, agreed with most of the group’s values relating to racial equity and social justice, but disagreed with some of their advocacy on specific issues, like defunding police departments. “I think [reforming policing should mean] more of funding social programs, increasing access to counselors for people in mental health crises, like that kind of thing,” he said.

Sergio Mata, a 30-year-old artist from San Antonio, said his support of the Black Lives Matter movement had cooled since he’d heard about New York Magazine reporting that raised questions about how the organization was spending its donations. But he still believed in its ideals and sees racism in his everyday life. Mata, who is Latino, said San Antonio still feels like a very segregated city. “They say the white people live on the north side, Black people live on the east side, and then the Mexicans live on the west side,” he said. “And even to this day, you could still feel that mentality here.” Despite that, he still feels that his home city is a more liberal island in a conservative state. He feels uncomfortable traveling elsewhere in Texas, like when he visits his boyfriend’s family near Waco.

For Mata, legalizing marijuana would be a big step toward erasing racial disparities in the justice system. “I don’t want any people I know sitting in prison over something that’s fully legalized in other states,” he said. “That still really upsets me.”

Kelly Jacobs, a 26-year-old graduate student who lives in Delaware, wants politicians to start at a more fundamental level. “I want them to publicly acknowledge that racism still exists, and it’s still a huge problem,” she said of the people she voted to elect. “Systematically, we need change.”

The Dobbs ruling that overturned the constitutional right to an abortion was another turning point for some young voters — evidence to them that the country was going backwards, not just on abortion rights but on a wide range of connected issues. As abortion bans started being implemented in states around the country, Jacobs realized that it was closing opportunities for her. “There will be certain states where I can’t take a job now because I know I won’t have a right to an abortion if I need one,” Jacobs said.

The conservative court’s ruling was particularly at odds with the views of young Americans, who have become much more supportive of abortion rights over the past twenty years. According to Gallup, which has conducted regular surveys of Americans’ attitudes toward abortion for decades, nearly half (47 percent) of 18- to 34-year olds in 2022 said they supported abortion rights under any circumstances, up from 28 percent in 2001.

And as with race, many young voters don’t see abortion as a discrete issue, affecting only the people who want to end a pregnancy. A separate PerryUndem survey (not conducted in partnership with FiveThirtyEight) conducted after the Dobbs ruling found that young adults (ages 18-29) were more likely than older age groups to say that it made them think about how abortion relates to other issues like sexism and racism, losing access to birth control and the potential for LGBTQ people to lose the right to marry.

Joshua Martinez, a 21-year-old who identifies as an independent but voted for several Republican candidates in the midterms, told us that he thought the justices were right to let the states set their own agendas on abortion. But he was concerned that the Dobbs ruling might signal the court’s willingness to roll back other protections, like gay marriage. “That could impact people I care about,” he said.

These major news events may reshape the electorate. The PerryUndem survey found that young adults were more likely than any other age group to say that the Dobbs decision made them want to vote in the midterms and would have a long-term impact on who they vote for. But even if younger Americans simply followed the typical pattern for all voters and vote more frequently as they grow older, the experiences that could shape their political evolution are happening now — which could in turn shape the future of the country.

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Parliament returns — with a lot of ‘unfinished business’ on its plate

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When I spoke to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in December, he said “there’s a lot of unfinished business.” He was speaking about his decision to stay on as leader of the Liberal Party. But that statement also describes the parliamentary year that begins on Monday when MPs convene for the first time in 2023.

Last year was a reasonably productive one for Parliament. But those 12 months also left behind a sizeable pile of work that remains to be completed. And while the Liberal government has much left to do if it hopes to be re-elected, the major opposition parties can’t quite claim yet that they’ve done all they can to make their own pitches to voters.

For those reasons, an election in 2023 seems unlikely. But it should still be a consequential year — and it will start with the legislation that was still in progress when MPs and senators broke for the holidays.

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What’s old is new again

Before the break, the government’s newest firearms legislation (C-21) was stuck at the public safety committee as critics accused it of overreach. In the face of that criticism, Liberals said they were willing to consider feedback; it remains to be seen what kind of changes will be necessary to move the bill forward.

Bill C-11, the government’s contested attempt to bring major Internet platforms under Canadian broadcast regulations, was still in the Senate in December. The upper chamber seems poised to send it back to the House with amendments — the Senate committee that studied the bill recommended a dozen changes.

Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez prepares to appear before the Senate committee on transport and communications to discuss Bill C-11 on Nov. 22, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

If senators agree to some or all of those amendments, C-11 would become the 24th government bill the Senate has amended since Justin Trudeau began appointing independent members to the chamber in 2016.

Legislation to create a new disability benefit, meanwhile, is nearly through the House and there are three other pieces of government legislation before House committees — bills that would enact new environmental protections, reform the Official Languages Act and create a new public complaints and review commission to oversee the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency.

The Senate, meanwhile, is in possession of bills to create a new national council on reconciliation (which would report to Parliament on Canada’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples) and establish the Online News Act, which would facilitate payments from major Internet platforms for the use of content from Canadian media outlets.

What’s new is significant

Another dozen government bills are at second reading in the House — but perhaps the most interesting of those items was only just tabled in December.

Bill C-35 sets out how and under what conditions the federal government would fund child care and early learning programs at the provincial level. In effect, it would put into law what the Liberal government started when it negotiated a series of bilateral child-care funding agreements with each province. If C-35 passes Parliament, it will make it much harder for some future government to abandon the program.

But if C-35 isn’t the most closely watched legislation of the spring, it will be because of what Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson is expected to table in the next several weeks: the government’s “just transition” (or “sustainable jobs”) legislation.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaks behind a lectern bearing the provincial logo.
The phrase ‘just transition’ signals that the Trudeau government intends to phase out oil and gas jobs, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith claimed in a Jan. 10 news conference. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Nothing the Trudeau government does on the question of energy and the future of the oil and gas industry in Canada is ever allowed to pass quietly. Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has tried to start a fight with the federal government already over the mere name of the bill. But beyond the partisan politics, Wilkinson’s bill should serve as a jumping-off point for a very real discussion about where the Canadian and global economies are headed and how Canada will get there.

The opposition agenda

With each of these bills, the Liberals will be putting some pressure on Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre to either support the government’s agenda or explain what he would do differently. But the Conservatives will have their own moves to make, particularly at various House committees.

The government operations committee was already investigating the creation of the government’s ArriveCan app and it will begin hearings Monday on the federal government’s use of private contractors and consultants like McKinsey. Conservative members of the ethics committee are also pushing for hearings into Trade Minister Mary Ng’s breach of conflict-of-interest rules.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh needs to demonstrate that his party got something out of its deal with the Trudeau Liberals. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The NDP has shown little, if any, reluctance to go along with such investigations — and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has rivalled Poilievre lately in his willingness to denounce the Liberal government. But the New Democrats also have other things to play for lately — namely, that confidence-and-supply agreement with the Liberals.

Singh surely wants to be seen holding the government to account. He also no doubt wants to show that the NDP was able to achieve something with that deal. And he may need at least another year to do that.

The new dental benefit the government promised the NDP is still a work in progress and New Democrats have given the government until the end of this year to table pharmacare legislation, which would at least set out broad parameters for what eventually could be a national program.

Beyond Parliament Hill

And then there is merely everything else on the agenda.

Justice Paul Rouleau has until February 6 to present cabinet with a final report from the public commission probing the government’s use of the Emergencies Act to end the convoy protests that snarled downtown Ottawa and multiple border crossings a year ago. (Cabinet will then have until February 20 to release that report.) On Feb. 7, the prime minister is scheduled to meet the premiers to discuss a grand bargain on health-care funding.

Even if Trudeau and the premiers broadly agree on what to do with health care, the prime minister is signalling an increasing willingness to engage in the fight over the notwithstanding clause. And even when Trudeau’s not looking for a fight, Danielle Smith will be trying to start one ahead of what could be a very consequential election in Alberta sometime this spring.

Even if that’s the biggest election in Canada this year (Manitoba and Prince Edward Island are also due to go to the polls), the next 12 months will be full of the sorts of debates and challenges that leave a mark and will shape the next national vote.

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Election unlikely in 2023 despite recent political posturing, pundits say

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Even though federal political leaders have been using some heated, election-style language to snipe at each other in recent weeks, pundits say it’s unlikely Canadians will go to the polls in 2023.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was active during the six-week parliamentary break, making stops in Saskatoon, Windsor, Ont. and Trois-Rivieres, Que. to talk up his government’s accomplishments. He also occasionally took shots at Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and his recent assertion that “everything seems broken” in Canada.

“Crossing your arms and saying ‘Canada is broken’ is not the way to build a better future for Canadians,” Trudeau said.

Poilievre, meanwhile, toured Quebec in an attempt to boost his poll numbers in that province. He also met with Indigenous leaders in Vancouver to discuss a proposed opt-in policy for First Nations to share the revenue generated by resource development on their lands.

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The Conservative leader also hit back at Trudeau on Friday during an address to his caucus prior to the House of Commons’ return. He blamed the prime minister for inflation, the recent travel chaos and deficit spending while appearing to goad Trudeau into an election battle.

“If you’re not responsible for any of these things, if you can’t do anything about it, then why don’t you get out of the way and let someone lead who can?” Poilievre said as his MPs cheered and applauded.

 

Addressing his Conservative caucus, Poilievre says ‘everything is worse’ under Trudeau

Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre addresses his Conservative caucus and highlights crime rates during Justin Trudeau’s time as prime minister.

Speaking to his own caucus earlier this month, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh touted his party’s confidence-and-supply agreement with the Liberals, saying that the deal was “delivering for Canadians.”

But Singh also indicated that he had his eyes set higher.

“We’re going to fight for every bit of help and hope we can win for Canadians and then I’m going to run for prime minister of Canada,” he said.

But Tim Powers of Summa Strategies said he doesn’t think any of the leaders are itching for an election right now, despite their recent posturing.

“The conditions don’t exist for an election this year,” he told CBC. “I don’t think anybody’s really going to have a breakaway moment.”

Shachi Kurl, president at the Angus Reid Institute, and Éric Grenier, writer and publisher of TheWrit.ca, joined Power & Politics Friday to discuss the latest polling data.

Powers said the Liberals are unlikely to seek a new mandate with the threat of an economic slowdown this year hanging over the government’s head.

“We will only have an election this year if Justin Trudeau sees the winning conditions exist for him,” Powers said. “I don’t think the Liberals are yet ready to manufacture an election.”

Sharan Kaur of SK Consulting agreed that an election is unlikely this year. She suggested the Conservatives will still use the economy to needle the Liberals and position themselves as a government-in-waiting.

“I would say the biggest looming issue of 2023 is going to be cost of living, a potential recession, and that will probably be the main pivot point for the Conservatives,” she said, adding that she thinks the Conservative Party is the only one that wants an election this year.

But Powers said Poilievre might be happy to wait and give himself more time to pitch himself to Canadians.

“I think Poilievre is content to have the time to let the Liberals age and build a brand and a platform that can be useful to him,” he said.

If the Liberal-NDP deal holds for its intended duration, the next election won’t happen until 2025.

But the agreement may face a tougher test in 2023 than it did in 2022 because it includes more benchmarks for progress — including a commitment to table pharmacare legislation. Singh also threatened to pull out of the deal if the Liberals don’t address the health-care crisis.

“The confidence-and-supply agreement gets a little bit more muscular [this year],” said Brad Lavigne of Consul Public Affairs.

Snow covers a fence surrounding Parliament Hill, Friday, January 20, 2023 in Ottawa.
Snow covers a fence surrounding Parliament Hill on January 20, 2023. MPs are set to return to the House of Commons on Monday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

NDP MP Daniel Blaikie told CBC News this month that the 2023 federal budget will be a key factor in deciding whether the Liberals are holding up their end of the deal.

But even if the deal falls apart this year, Lavigne said, it wouldn’t necessarily trigger an election.

“If you look back at recent history, [former prime minister Stephen] Harper had minority Parliaments in which he had no such supply agreement with any one opposition party, yet he maintained the confidence of the House for many years,” he said. “That is an option that is open to Mr. Trudeau as well.”

Even if an election doesn’t happen this year, Kaur said she doesn’t expect the political posturing to stop.

“We’re going to see a lot of pandering in the next year, especially around economic challenges, cost of living for people — just like the bread-and-butter issues,” she said.

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Jacinda Ardern’s resignation underscores the rising violence in our politics

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For as long as they’ve both been in office, Jacinda Ardern and Justin Trudeau have been kindred political spirits. Both bring the kind of youthful glamour to public office that only seems to come around once in a generation. Both share the same progressive values on issues like climate change, diversity and social inclusion. And both have seen their popularity at home decline in the face of proactive pandemic policies and the vocal opposition to them.

But while Trudeau has been adamant about sticking around to fight the next election, Ardern shocked everyone with her recent announcement that she would be stepping aside after just over five years in power. “I am human, politicians are human. We give all that we can for as long as we can. And then it’s time. And for me, it’s time,” she said.

It’s been tempting for Canadian pundits to draw a line between Ardern’s decision to leave and Trudeau’s insistence on staying, especially since both have faced similarly underwhelming poll numbers of late. But there’s another line they should be drawing, one that points to the spike in abuse and violent threats these leaders have contended with.

For Trudeau, that abuse has become part of the background noise of his political life over the last couple of years. Sometimes, as with the ugly protest in Hamilton the other day that saw an angry crowd surge toward the prime minister and his police protection, it gets a bit scary. But Trudeau, who has yet to back away from a fight in his political career, wasn’t about to let it cow him. “We’re not going to let a handful of angry people interfere with the democratic processes that Canadians have always taken pride in,” he said.

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But in some respects, they already are interfering in the democratic process.

Anti-vaccine activists routinely consume far more of the political oxygen than their numbers would suggest is appropriate, and they often pride themselves on directing vitriol and abuse at elected officials. That makes it more difficult for those officials to meet with constituents, interact with the public and otherwise do their job. “Those kinds of things suck your energy,” Liberal MP Hedy Fry told the Toronto Star. “I can understand the concept of burnout but I also think contributing to that is all the threats [Ardern] got online.”

And make no mistake: there’s a different kind of vitriol that gets directed at women in public life right now. Ardern refused to blame the threats she faced for her surprise departure from politics. But as Michelle Rempel Garner, the Conservative MP for Calgary Nose-Hill, pointed out in a post on her Substack, it’s hard to ignore the correlation there. “While both Trudeau and Ardern have had to contend with increased threats of violence, Ardern has battled a higher degree of sexualized violence,” she wrote. “Indeed, unlike Ardern, Trudeau hasn’t had to deal with things like being asked if he was going to have babies as a qualifier for his suitability for serving as prime minister or being asked if he met with another world leader because of his age and gender.”

Ardern’s departure may represent a victory for the anti-vaccine movement and the misogynists in their midst, but make no mistake: it’s a loss for almost everyone else. We’re facing a tragedy of the political commons, one that is rapidly eroding the public’s trust in both elected officials and the offices they hold.

And the more our political commons are polluted with things like rage-farming, conspiracy theories and toxic partisanship, the less attractive it becomes for anyone of standing or substance to run for public office.

This is not a new problem, and it didn’t just start when Trudeau was elected prime minister. As Harper-era cabinet minister James Moore noted on Twitter, “I, and many other cabinet colleagues, had multiple death threats and elevated security at work and at home. It was frequent.”

If people like Jacinda Ardern are finding the cost of public service to be prohibitively high, it’ll be the rest of us who end up paying the price in the end, writes columnist @maxfawcett for @NatObserver. #JacindaArdern

There should be an incentive, then, for everyone involved to reduce the temperature and restore at least a modicum of civility to our politics.

If they don’t, they’re painting themselves — and us — into a pretty dangerous corner. Who, other than the political lifer (hello, Pierre Poileivre!) or the hereditary torch-bearer (that’s you, Justin Trudeau!), would want the job of prime minister right now? If you’re an accomplished doctor, lawyer, business person, social worker or teacher, do you really want to give up your livelihood, move to Ottawa and get abused on social media 24/7? And how are we supposed to attract more women and other underrepresented groups to public life when they’re the ones who tend to receive the brunt of this abuse?

The answer, if we stay on this path, is that we won’t. That probably suits some people just fine. But if people like Jacinda Ardern are finding the cost of public service to be prohibitively high, it’ll be the rest of us who end up paying the price in the end.

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