The following article was written a few weeks prior to the presidential election. The premise of the article--that young voters would become apathetic towards the political process, as a result of the perceived insincerity of the two major party candidates for President of the United States--was affirmed by the results of the election. Voters between the ages of 18 and 29 largely repudiated Donald Trump and demonstrated their lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton. Eight percent of millennial voters cast their ballots for third party candidates, almost triple the number who voted for third party candidates in 2012. This exodus of young voters disproportionately affected Hillary Clinton, who only gained 55 percent of the youth vote, compared to President Obama's 60 percent in the 2012 presidential election.
It would seem as though mine is the most politically connected generation in history. Email solicitations from advocacy groups, trying to win over our affections and support, land in our inboxes every day. Our Facebook news feeds are filled with articles, videos, and commentaries on the candidates’ every word. We can find the exact location of any designated polling place on our computers in a few keystrokes. And yet, even with an abundance of information bombarding us at all times about the presidential election, young voters are evidently turned off by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and are either supporting third-party candidates, or are abstaining from voting entirely.
It isn’t as if young voters were uninspired and remained absent from voting during the primary season. My generation was enthralled by Bernie Sanders and his call for dramatic economic, social, and political change, and young voters showed their enthusiasm by voting in record numbers in the Democratic primaries. But the general election is different. The same enthusiasm that sparked the success of an outsider, who began his campaign in protest, has vanished. This lack of enthusiasm is due in large part to my generation’s fundamental distrust of the two presidential candidates. Young voters do not believe a word of Trump’s lie-ridden promises to transform America’s economy or his hateful conspiracy theories that have no factual basis whatsoever. Similarly, young voters find Clinton’s dramatic turnabout from taking exorbitant amounts of money for telling executives on Wall Street what they wanted to hear to being a “bold progressive fighter” to be insincere.
In this election cycle, what matters to young voters is whether the words that the two candidates say in speeches and interviews align with their true policy and personal goals.Verifying the factuality of a candidate’s speech is easy. Politifact, the New York Times, and the Washington Post each present excellent analyses of the statistics cited and statements made by the candidates, checking them for factual inaccuracies with great precision. What is incredibly difficult, though, is verifying the sincerity of a candidate’s words. Young voters look to articles and essays about each of the candidates’ pasts and from there decide whether their statements in the present are truly sincere. But this method of checking the sincerity of a candidate is flawed. On the one hand it leaves little room to account for an individual’s personal growth. On the other hand, it leaves voters suspicious that new positions are really only cynical attempts to gain support.
But perhaps young voters are reflecting the candidates’ own distrust in them. Clinton withholds information about herself from voters, for fear that they might think less of her and withdraw their support. She doesn’t trust their judgement. Trump tells his supporters that, “no one knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” to affirm his stature as a demagogue. He doesn’t trust their intellect. This feedback loop of distrust is at the core of why the political system in the United States is not working for young voters in this election.
Young voters are left with three unfortunate options from which to choose: voice their dissatisfaction through protest votes that bear the possibility of disastrous unintended consequences; vote for a candidate they don’t truly believe in; or respond in an entirely apathetic manner that can only lead to a less representative democracy.
Of course, this election is not the first in which the candidates’ sincerity has been an issue. But what may be especially dispiriting to young people about this election cycle is that they saw and heard what true sincerity looks and sounds like in Bernie Sanders, whose message resonated with authenticity and the promise for real and positive change. With the choice now between a monster and a moderate, young voters are forced into a retreat from their instincts and even their beliefs. Now, the status quo is the best we can hope for.