This graduation season, seniors will sit through what seem like endless speeches full of life advice. Many will hear from politicians – at least a dozen Senate and House members, a majority of the members of President Barack Obama’s cabinet, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Colin Powell, among others, are scheduled to speak – but this won’t be an easy crowd for those politicians.
According to the most recent data released in April from Harvard's Institute of Politics’ “Survey of Young Americans’ Attitudes Toward Politics and Public Service,” 62 percent of 18 to 29 year-olds agree with the statement that “elected officials seem to be motivated by selfish reasons,” and 58 percent agree with the statement that “elected officials don’t seem to have the same priorities I have.” Even Obama doesn’t have a majority of support of this demographic. While his approval rating has increased 6 percentage points, from 41 percent to 47 percent, since the November survey, it is down 9 points from the first survey conducted, during the 2010 midterm election cycle. And more than twice as many young Americans believe things are on the wrong track rather than the right one.
This disillusionment with politicians might be to the advantage of young people, because it will encourage them to question slick proposals offered by government officials to fix problems. Take Obamacare. For Obamacare to work, it depends on young, generally healthier people signing up to share the cost of care for older, generally sicker people. We’ve seen a number of efforts by the administration to try to get young people to enroll in Obamacare – the president appeared on "Between Two Ferns," the administration recruited celebrities to promote Obamacare, and Obama’s team created a “Health Care for the Holidays” website to provide a guide for parents on how to talk to their kids about enrolling. And this doesn’t even include ads by outside groups, such as the infamous “brosurance” ad, which encouraged young men to sign up with a keg stand. Yet only 39 percent of young Americans support Obamacare in the Harvard survey. But just disapproving of Obamacare isn’t enough.
If young people want things to get better, they must take stock of the world they are entering upon graduation, learn from their mistakes and vote for policies that will improve society and particularly the economy for the next group of graduates.
With distrust at these levels, you’d think young people would be ready to vote and vote for changed leadership. But according to this survey, less than one in four (23 percent) young Americans say they will “definitely be voting” in the upcoming midterm elections, a decrease of 10 percentage points since the fall survey. There does seem to be more enthusiasm among traditional Republican constituencies – 44 percent of those who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 say they are “definitely voting” versus 35 percent of 2012 Obama voters who say the same.
New graduates should do a reality check. Young people were one of the president’s most loyal constituencies. Yet, his policies are making it more difficult for them to get a job out of college, let alone to embark on a path to true success. Graduating seniors still face high unemployment. It’s time to recognize that this generation deserves better and hold elected leadership accountable for their failures.
Twenty-nine percent of 18 to 29 year-olds agree with the statement that “political involvement rarely has any tangible results.” That means almost a third of this demographic doesn’t believe that joining the political process leads to change.
But they should also consider this: Not getting involved in politics guarantees that their interests won't be taken seriously. Politicians delivering graduation speeches will try to inspire the students to change the world. Graduates instead should take a look at the world around them and use their distrust of government to fight for a new era of rolling back government’s power and returning it to citizens like them.
Karin Agness is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and founder and president of the Network of enlightened Women.