The Place for Young Voices in Politics

By Grace Masback

Want Editor

“Watching the results coming in on election night, my thoughts drifted back to four years ago, when I was an eighth grader heavily engaged by the 2012 presidential election and hopeful for the potential of four more years of an Obama presidency. I was already looking forward to the fact that in 2016 I would be a senior in high school, 18-years-old, and eligible to vote for the first time.

I wrote an essay previewing my aspirations for the 2016 election:

I watched the recent presidential campaign from a whole new perspective. I realized that in four years I will be part of the voting public. While I am excited about my four-year journey to the status of “voter,” I want the next election cycle to feature four important developments that will deliver a more respectful and informative exchange of ideas and a more engaged public.

I called for more bi-partisan agreement in Congress, more high-level discourse between political candidates, a greater effort to remove barriers to voting, and an increase in youth civic engagement. I ended the piece by slyly wondering if I would have the opportunity to vote to elect the first female president.

Needless to say, my grand hopes for the 2016 election cycle failed to eventuate (except for the female presidential candidate).

Last week, I voted for the first time. Oregon has a mail-in ballot system, meaning that we received our ballots in the mail 3-4 weeks before Election Day and had the option to either mail them back or place them in a designated dropbox. Reading about the candidates for everything from local land use commissioner to president and studying the various ballot measures, I was excited, nervous, and saddened all at once. Excited about the chance to finally participate in the great American democracy, nervous about the high stakes and instability of the current election, saddened by the degree of apathy still present among Americans, especially young people.

It is a tragic reality that my interest in and engagement with politics makes me an outlier among my peers. I am dedicated to giving voice to the voiceless, and the lack of civic engagement has been a troubling topic throughout the 2016 campaign, with the preliminary exit poll information from this year’s election proving that, once again, the vast majority of eligible young voters failed to cast a ballot. Anticipating this outcome, I recently interviewed former White House Press Secretary, Mike McCurry, and the host of “Meet the Press,” Chuck Todd, about this situation.

In the 2012 election, only 59% of registered voters turned up to vote. The voter turnout among those aged 18-24 was 21%. Young people worried about college, developing a viable resume, and life in general aren’t motivated to get engaged. To them, it seems as if politicians ignore or don’t care about their opinion, or they conclude that their singular vote will have no impact. For young people not yet old enough to vote, the apathy is even greater.

Young people like fast, easy solutions. They like innovation. The highly partisan, gridlocked Washington political establishment provides neither of these. The political system is slow, messy, and often fails to produce results, making it easy for young people to ignore it and disengage.

Chuck Todd encapsulates the concerns over the lack of youth engagement in politics perfectly, “I worry that Washington and politics are not exactly inviting to younger activists who don’t see Government being the best place to enact change. For young people, Silicon Valley seems to be seen as a better destination for global or domestic change agents than Washington.”

Todd places much of the burden for motivating more youth interest and engagement in politics on the political establishment itself. “I think the current leaders don’t set an example of what CAN be done in government. And, until they do, then Gen Z and Millennials will continue to dismiss politics as a true calling to enact change.”

Caught up in their own narcissistic power struggles, many politicians and adults generally fail to recognize the power of the youth voice, so it’s incumbent upon youth journalists to lead the charge when it comes to engaging young people in politics.  As Todd puts it, “Just start doing it.  Don’t wait for permission, just dive in. Do so with a moral compass and be fair, be tough and be smart, and you’ll succeed.”

I know from the experience of founding my own student news site that features politics-oriented content from young people from around the world that youth journalists have the capacity to identify issues and write advocacy pieces that compete with the adult-centric mainstream media (www.wantnewsforteens.com). As youth journalists, it is our job to be on the lookout for political developments, to listen to all sides of the story, and then synthesize and present the information that we hear in a way that our peers can relate to and understand.

Mike McCurry identifies the significant potential of serious youth involvement in politics. “I think young people, high school students especially, don’t realize how much power they have. A well-organized group of young voters could probably march in and take over most meetings of local Republican or Democratic party meetings. The problem is that many candidates for office don’t speak to issues that young people care most about because they believe young people won’t vote.” He adds, “So politicians talk about things that matter more to older voters. If young people become more active and use their power, I think we’d hear more about issues that young people care about. That would be a refreshing change in the tone of our politics, I think.”

Once individuals take office, it is the responsibility of youth journalists to monitor and critique their actions. Too often, journalists focus attention on the political circus of Washington, neglecting the actions taken closer to home that often have more immediate impact on our lives. In the past, I have been guilty of failing to recognize the importance of local government. Yet, as I filled out my ballot, I recognized the somewhat monumental changes going on around me, and the capacity I had to talk about them with other voters.

Chuck Todd observes, “Now, if I could make one ask: the biggest crisis in journalism is local. We want and need more local news but no one has figured out how to do it as a business.” Affirming the value of attention to local government and elections. He continues stating, “We need smarter and more thorough local reporting and the lack of it will hurt us over time because the press at its best is a watchdog. And while we have plenty of public watchdogs in Washington, we don’t have those watchdogs in the numbers we need on the local and state level. This needs to change. Be the generation that does it!”

If we show that we care, we show that we are willing to hold people accountable the power of youth journalists will be recognize. With this current election on the horizon, it is more important than ever that we take a stand now and continue to observe and document in the days, weeks, and months that follow. As Todd puts it, “This election feels like one that is about defining who we are as Americans.  Our pick for president will define how the world views us and how we view ourselves.  In that respect, teens may have their own opinion about where we are headed and how we are defined as Americans and teens, even those who can’t vote yet, can have an influence on their parents if your parents are convinced their kids are serious.”

Anyone can be a youth journalist. For those of us already established it is important for us to continue to work honestly and passionately, covering stories that help to engage our peers. For young people still looking to find their voice, journalism is a wonderful way to do that, a forum for thoughts, conversation, and debate.

Todd and McCurry both arrived at their careers as journalists via their love of politics and with very little traditional journalistic training in their early years. Like any young person today can do with access to a laptop or a smartphone, they harnessed their love for politics and started talking about it, using journalism as a means of sharing their voice.

“Actually. I didn’t have the journalism bug as much as I had the political bug. I was an obsessive reader of all sorts of political publications,” Todd candidly remarks. He continues, “My dad was a political junkie so we got a lot of political publications at the house. From National Review on the right to the New Republicon the left, my dad believed in seeing and reading multiple points of view though he himself was someone who usually leaned right. My mom and dad cancelled each other’s vote out and yet were never antagonistic about it. Very healthy and interesting political debate was a regular deal during my formative years.”

McCurry tells a slightly different story, stating, “I always loved politics growing up, but I thought I’d start my career as a journalist. I worked my way through college as a campus correspondent for the local newspaper, but then my job fell through and I ended up volunteering for the presidential campaign of California Governor Jerry Brown (in 1976!). That was my first job as a press secretary and I loved the mix of working with journalists and working for politicians.  I made a decent career out of that for the next 35 years.”

My own view is that the secret to engaging young people in politics, particularly the generation after Millennials – Gen Z – is to connect to them via issues that matter. To me, Gen Z is post-partisan, but pro-world. Gen Z thinks globally because we are so interconnected, with 60 percent of us wanting to “change the world” (compared with 39 percent of Millennials). We find inspiration in the stories of our peers from around the world.

For example, one Gen Z hero is one of our own, Malala Yousafzai, from Pakistan. Yousafzai is the first member of our generation to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Her book, I Am Malala, tells of her incredible journey from Taliban victim to international celebrity, all because she wanted to exercise her right to attend school. Her near death experience after being shot by the Taliban inspired her to become an advocate for global access to education – another issue that is fundamentally non-partisan. Malala’s book and the movie made from the book show a girl who is like lots of other Gen Z girls from around the world – she has homework, doesn’t always get perfect grades, fights with her siblings, and plays video games. Her “normality” helps Gen Z see her extraordinary courage and passion to change the world as achievable.

Gabe Fleisher, an eighth grader from University City, Missouri, epitomizes the growing power of Gen Z voices in politics. Gabe has a passion for politics and history, as well as for informing and engaging people in the news. He is the driving force behind Wake Up to Politics, a daily political newsletter (www.wakeuptopolitics.com). The newsletter’s mission is to provide a look at the day’s news that matters and a quasi-insider view of what governmental movers and shakers are up to. A typical day’s issue covers the President, Congress, the courts, elections, and history, and just to keep you on your toes, Gabe throws in a daily trivia question.

Incredibly, Gabe has been putting out Wake Up to Politics since he was nine. His goal has remained the same – “to inform readers with the most non-partisan and comprehensive yet understandable version of the news that really matters.” You could call that the modern version of the New York Times’ “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” I see Gabe as on the cutting edge of Gen Z involvement in the world. The word that jumps out at me in his self-description is the same one I’ve used above, “non-partisan.” While that’s a word that is increasingly lost in “adult” political discourse, it’s one that typifies Gen Z engagement in the world.

Gabe’s story is instructive. He fell in love with politics and history after attending the 2009 presidential inauguration. A couple of years later, he began publishing his own daily political email blast, which he called The Daily Rundown. His only subscriber was his mother. Wake Up to Politics is sent to about 1200 readers a day. It’s content is 100% created by Gabe, who publishes the newsletter before heading to school each morning. A proud Gen Z tech native, Gabe also runs the Wake Up to Politics Twitter and Facebook accounts, which are followed by over 3500 people. He has interviewed political and legal figures such as Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Sandra Day O’Connor, covered presidential debates, attended primary caucus meetings, and written a book, a history of his elementary school. He has attracted the attention of NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” appeared on MSNBC’s “Up with Steve Kornacki, and been covered by Politico, the Washington Post, Salon, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Gabe is emblematic of a lot of what drives Gen Z. Enabled by technology, he has shown a relentless entrepreneurial spirit as he has pursued and developed a personal interest. His approach is decidedly non-partisan but pro-world – he wants to engage readers of all ages with interesting and informative content about politics in a America, hoping that a more informed public will be a more engaged public.

Chuck Todd leaves youth journalists, both aspiring and established, with the following words of advice, “Simple recipe to be a successful political journalist: Be fair. Be tough. Be smart. Don’t assume your readers or viewers are stupid and don’t be condescending to them.  If you simply follow this formula, you can win back credibility for the mainstream press one reader and viewer at a time.”

The mood of the country on November 9, 2016 was far from celebratory. Even many of those who supported the winning candidate were uncertain as to what would happen to our country and world under a President Trump. I worry that the bruising nature of the 2016 election will further disillusion young people about politics and civic engagement, which is why President Obama’s specific challenge to young people to remain involved or get involved was so important. And, as Hillary Clinton said in her concession speech, “Never stop believing in fighting for what’s right – it’s worth it!”

My experiences as a youth journalist and civic activist give me hope. When I look back on this piece four years from now, I’ll be a senior in college, contemplating what I want my life to look like as I go out into the world. The impact of the 2020 presidential election will have an even more direct impact on my life and that of my peers. If youth journalists continue to observe and advocate, particularly to our peers, we can help change the world for the better and ensure that our lives can be lived in peace and prosperity.”

As President Obama put it in his address to a deeply divided nation, “Now, everybody is sad when their side loses an election, but the day after we have to remember that we’re actually all on one team. This is an intramural scrimmage. We’re not Democrats first. We’re not Republicans first. We are Americans first. We’re patriots first.”

Photo Credit: DonkeyHote

About Grace Masback

Grace Masback, 17, aspires to give voice to the voiceless and holds the modest ambition of becoming the voice of Gen Z. Frustrated by the dearth of impactful platforms for teen journalists, she founded WANT, a news, sports, and entertainment website that aggregates the best in high school journalism from school newspapers and teen bloggers around the world (www.wantnewsforteens.com).

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