In 2016 millennials across the country will develop political habits that will characterize their generation for years to come. They are doing this in the midst of an extremely divisive election year- one that has already been characterized by negative campaigning and a deep sense of polarization. Both personal observation and data show that our tool of choice for political participation is social media.
But I have to wonder: Is social media cultivating - or distracting us from- the habits we need to effectively engage in November’s elections?
Americans - and millennials in particular - have a poor reputation when it comes to elections. In 2012 less than 60 percent of eligible voters, and less than half of eligible of Millennials, cast a vote in the general election. Primary turnout is even lower. According to Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, millennials “tend to be the flakiest of voters.” Even in 2008, when Obama’s first presidential campaign drew an unprecedented amount of attention from young voters, those younger than 30 accounted for just 22 percent of Iowa caucus-goers and only 14 percent of those participating in all Democratic nominating contests. As we struggle to make sense of these low numbers, it's important that we recognize the tendency to copy the behavior of those around us. Reversing our lackluster voting may require us to change the current norms in which we experience politics.
Recently, questions have been raised as to whether or not our obsession with social media has a direct impact on our hard-pressed civic participation. An article for US News, “What if Millennials Never Vote?”, articulates this concern. It reads, “Democratized social movements that spring from the digital media landscape, powerful and effective in their own right, absorb millennial political energy at the cost of institutional powers that drive turnout in elections.” This political energy is crucial when it comes to everything from registering to vote to volunteering for a campaign.
Millennials regularly opt to post news articles and opinions about controversial political topics on Facebook - but what if it's at the cost of a constructive, face to face conversation? Social media may present a fictional sense of engagement because of the high level in information that is shared.. However, the time we spend reviewing or critiquing political expression online may be time that would be spent in other, more beneficial, ways.
An additional danger to moving politics online is the way in which we are quick to disassociate ourselves from topics or opinions that we find unfavorable. Just as our representatives in elected office have continued to divide themselves among party lines at an alarming rate, the American public has followed suit. Many of us now live in silos of like-minded individuals, whether or not this is by choice, or a result of where we live. According to the Journal of Communication, it's becoming less likely that media messages will do anything other than reinforce prior predispositions.” With the constant flood of Facebook posts and Twitter feeds, and one’s that typically reflect similarly held views, healthy discourse fades away.
So how then can we begin to to move our elections off of social media?
Perhaps the most important habit for us to cultivate is to go to the ballot box in both primary and general elections. A democracy cannot be representative of its people if they do not vote. While on one level, this may seem like a fairly simple task, there are several things we can do to encourage and assist our peers in younger generations. This may include sharing information about registering to vote or using an absentee ballot. Millennials are particularly transient , and many attend colleges away from home. These two factors alone illustrate the potential impact of the large number of voters who are currently deterred by these circumstances.
In addition to voting, millennials have a duty to represent themselves and the issues that are unique to the circumstances of our generation. This may include anything from college debt to the national debt that we will soon be responsible for - and we need to be advocates for justice in these issue-specific ways. We can do this not only by getting informed, but by sharing that information with others in a hospitable way. Participating in a candidate's campaign in a capacity that personally resonates is a great way of doing this.
Find more information on how millennials can steer the 2016 agenda here.
There is a need for Christian millennials to have a distinct presence in the 2016 elections. An animating characteristic of this year’s election has been fear. Whether candidates have won votes off of the tension between Democrats and Republicans- or unjust tensions between economic or social groups - America is desperately in need of people who rise above fear driven politics. According to a Relevant article, “As Christians, we should neither fear uncertainty nor bemoan complexity. Rather, we should be eddies of calm during currents of change.” This courage means that we should not give up when times get tough, but rather seek to be stewards of what we have, and in this case, be effective stewards of our democracy.
While these lessons are indeed counter-cultural, they are ever important.
Active citizenship, done well, requires us to go beyond passive engagement. It requires us to act on the information we have found, and to steward the freedom inherent to democracy by participating in elections. According to The Atlantic, by 2020, millennials will be the largest voting group in the country. Developing the habits needed to sustain a healthy democracy will ensure that the political voice of our generation does not fade away behind phones of computer screens, but rather, seeks to bring redemption to a broken world.
-Jenny Hyde is a recent alumna of Gordon College, where she received her degree in International Affairs. She is currently living and working in Washington, D.C.