Despite the great success of female candidates across the country this year, 2018 may become even more the political year of youth. This rosy possibility confronts the hard historical reality of low interest, low voting turnout and general cynicism toward politics among the young.
But there are signs in Kansas and across the country that this year may be different.
A few days ago, a BBC crew came to Kansas to do a major story on the teenagers running for governor. These individuals received a spate of publicity early on, but that soon dissipated. Still, Republicans Tyler Ruzich and Joe Tutera and Democrat Jack Bergeson will be on major party ballots in the August primary.
More importantly, if you haven’t heard these candidates debate the issues, you should. They are well spoken, coherent, passionate and brave enough to risk criticism from various quarters.
Then there are the Parkland, Florida, students who in the wake of their mass-murder school tragedy have bravely, aggressively and effectively turned their grief and anger into a powerful campaign, both on social media and in large-scale events to encourage far more youth voting and to force gun violence onto the nation’s political agenda. Indeed, many of them brought their message to Kansas this past weekend.
Bob Dylan wrote, more than 50 years ago in a different context, “Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command” and “your old road is rapidly agin’.” The voices of the Parkland students, amplified hundreds of times across the country, constitute a powerful political force in 2018.
Still, this isn’t the 1960s. What is remarkable about this year’s politics is how conventional it has become. To be sure, there is great passion, but it flows through our political institutions: Record numbers of primary candidacies among Democrats; a great influx of youthful volunteers in campaigns; and powerful efforts to register new voters, often in the face of unreasonable barriers.
For 35 years, I have run internship programs in Washington, D.C., and Topeka; 1,500 or so students have participated, almost always learning far more than they would in a classroom. This spring, the level of interest may have stood at an all-time high, with 25 interns in Washington and 25 in Topeka. These are students who want to work within the system, regardless of their diverse ideologies and interests. It is beyond heartening to see them grow over the course of four months of intensive work.
Equally significant this year is the level of interest in working on campaigns, perhaps the single best way to get your feet wet in American politics. Given the prevailing political winds and the number of candidates (six in the KS3 Democratic primary), somewhat larger numbers of students are working for Democrats, but many diligently provide their time and effort to Republicans. Nothing could be healthier for democracy than such on-the-ground endeavors.
As much as I’d like to believe that younger people will work hard and change the system, the political scientist in me is skeptical, while the small-d democrat remains hopeful.
Moreover, some data offer clues for the future. Most notably in 2003 the Pew Charitable Trust found that 53 percent of millennials identified/leaned Democratic, while 38 percent identified/leaned Republican. In 2017, with 14 more years of political experience, millennials broke 59 percent Democratic to 32 percent Republican.
A strong showing in 2018 might cement – or even increase – that margin, but that’s putting the proverbial cart way before the donkey.
Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.