The millennial generation, loosely defined as those born in the 80s and 90s, is America’s largest eligible voting block — that is, of course, if they would only show up to vote.
And it’s not just voting. Millennials are about as interested in political parties as they are in, say, playing canasta.
But, despite their poor reputations, political parties aren’t so bad — in fact, they are an essential component of a healthy republic.
Millennials should not abandon them. They should work to improve them.
This week, the Huffington Post partnered with Brigham Young University students to conduct 60 interviews with local Utah undergraduates, many of whom are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Their resulting article, titled “Millennial Mormons Abandon Political Labels In The Age Of Trump,” details their answers to “wide-ranging questions about their political leanings, how their religious beliefs influenced their political views, how they use social media for news and their thoughts on the two-party system.”
Many of the millennials interviewed said, “they were motivated by individual candidates and causes, rather than political parties.”
Placing candidates and causes above partisanship is by no means an ignoble sentiment — after all, it was George Washington who warned the country against “the fury” and “continual mischiefs” that can come from a “spirit of party.”
John Adams did him one better, writing in 1780: “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”
As these and other founders remind us, there are legitimate reasons to criticize parties and partisanship, especially the increasing polarization caused by extreme forms of partisanship.
And yet, the kind of enlightened disinterest in party affiliation that is coming into vogue among the rising generation may unintentionally lead to a form of self-selected disenfranchisement. By abandoning political parties out of apathy or intellectual purity does little to improve our political parties which, believe it or not, are in many ways supportive of good government.
Distinguished BYU political science professor David B. Magleby argues that, despite negative public perceptions, parties are an essential stabilizing force in modern democracy. He urges citizens to fully engage and affiliate with the party with which they most closely align.
“Strong partisans,” he says, “are the most informed and the most interested citizens, and they vote more frequently than others.”
While studies show that millennials care deeply about the country and politics, there’s still little interest in conventional party participation. This is not optimal, and leaders in political parties should work to involve more millennials.
Parties, Magleby explains, have come to act as an additional check on political power. Each party polices the other; parties moderate various factions and keep government more directly accountable. With two parties, extreme factions are unable to enact unpopular policies without an overwhelming mandate from voters. Thus, even though intractable political divides are mind-numbingly inefficient, they also help force leaders to compromise, collaborate and work toward shared solutions. As Magleby observes, “A government with two parties moderates the outcomes.”
Apathy by millennials toward established channels of civic engagement — especially political parties — threatens to erode this essential moderating force. Of course, it’s easy for commentators to lay all the blame at the feet of millennials. And with good reason. According to one study, “a majority of millennial respondents had posted on social media about the issues they care about in the past week” and yet the median age of citizens who vote in mayoral elections still hovers around 60, according to another study.
They seem to be all bark and no ballot.
But, just because someone doesn’t vote for mayor doesn’t mean they don’t care about shaping society — it’s worth acknowledging that many millennials are at an age where they are still in school or not-yet-established in a non-transitory residence.
Additionally, studies show that young people exemplify volunteerism in other contexts. Perhaps if parties did more to encourage their engagement, apathy would turn to energy. Perhaps if other generations took the time to mentor, millenials would exercise their talents in ways that promote and reform America’s party system, rather than abandon it.
All citizens should take their civic duties seriously and leverage the power of political parties to work to enact their vision of a better future. This means voting and engaging in the political process as well as adopting a party. It may also mean encouraging the next generation to do the same. Many might be surprised at what the millennial generation can do when channeled into a worthy civic cause.
Hal Boyd is the opinion editor of the Deseret News