The Riddle of Zoomer Politics

The Riddle of Zoomer Politics

Pollster John Della Volpe claims he’s cracked the puzzle on this generation’s ideology. But is there really straightforward answer to what makes Gen Z tick?


Young people today “can be this century’s ‘Greatest Generation,’” according to pollster John Della Volpe, who predicts that Generation Z “will change America more than growing up in America will change them.” Gen Z, by his estimation, is so politically powerful that he credits them with Donald Trump’s 2020 defeat; they’re also “why Mitch McConnell is no longer Senate majority leader.” They are singularly dedicated to change—no other age group can compare: “Never before has a generation been so devoted to serving justice and solving the underlying issues that hold so many in America back from pursuing their best lives.”

These are extraordinary achievements—especially in such a short period of time—which is why Della Volpe imbues young people with an almost magical quality. Greta Thunberg, the 19-year-old climate activist from Sweden, for example, does not have skills but rather “superpowers.”

To Della Volpe, Gen Z is unique not only in its successes but in its suffering as well. Its members “have endured more adversity than any generation of young Americans in at least seventy years,” he asserts, ignoring the hundreds of thousands of young people who participated in the civil rights movement and the student activism of the Vietnam War era. Zoomers must be incomparable, a generational anomaly distinctively defined by their anxiety, fear, and pain.

Gen Z, in reality, is far less exciting. It encompasses those “born in a roughly 20-year period beginning in the mid-1990s,” according to Della Volpe’s definition. This might seem like too broad a demographic for a pollster to draw decisive conclusions about—especially since it would include millions of elementary school students—but not for Della Volpe. As the director of polling at the Institute of Politics at Harvard, it is his job to help administer the institute’s annual youth poll, generating statistics on the “political opinions, voting trends, and views on public service” of 18-to-29-year-olds. But simply collecting this information is not enough; thus the title of his new book, Fight: How Gen Z Is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America. It is a bold declaration from Della Volpe, but certainly not the only one. Throughout Fight, he hopes to write the history of Generation Z before it has actually come to pass. (Joining him for the ride is the activist turned pillow entrepreneur David Hogg, whose foreword is a call to action for young people still on the sidelines and serves as a kind of rubber stamp for Della Volpe’s argument.)

The task of this book is not a small one: Della Volpe wants to be an interpreter, untangling chaotic, youthful anger into useful data for the politically and economically powerful. To draw the conclusions his book settles on, he must flatten down roughly 70 million people into a compact, easily quantified caricature. Ironically, Della Volpe has in the recent past disagreed with his own methods here: In a 2020 interview with The Harvard Crimson, he said, “It’s not the job of polling to make predictions for something that’s many months away. We need to collect more data before we have any real understanding of the variables that are going to be at play.”

Della Volpe should have followed his own advice: He’s so busy trying to predict the future for Gen Z that he overlooks important questions about what ails Americans of all generations. Even if we believe his claim that Gen Z’ers are “channeling their fear and passion to save America,” should the “America” Della Volpe envisions actually be saved?

Generational boundaries are squishy, at times not clearly defined until decades after their historical significance. The “Greatest Generation” moniker—those born from the 1900s through the 1920s—wasn’t created and defined until 1998. Having been born at the tail end of 1996, I made it into Gen Z right under the wire—but up until a few years ago, those my age were labeled “millennials.” Nothing innate had changed, but our designation had. Since I could sense no major differences between either category, the whiplash resulted in my own slight aversion to generational self-identification.

Indeed, in 2000, before his current focus on Generation Z, Della Volpe started polling millennials. The near-pointlessness of these delineations is clear when he discusses the two groups side by side. “Millennials, mostly now in their thirties, are a Gen Z prototype in many ways,” he asserts, and “have introduced America to a new, more progressive vision. Generation Z has adopted this outlook, expanded it, and is now swiftly beginning to fulfill it.” Yet in 2017 he warned that millennials—not Gen Z—would “tip over the system, if we’re not careful.” Della Volpe must feel as if he’s trapped in some sort of pollster’s purgatory, forced to report the same findings about young people again and again for more than two decades.

Eventually, millennials stopped being the generation du jour. “After years of headlines about the so-called Millennials, a new group of young people is poised to make their mark on the world,” Time proclaimed in 2018. Part of this switch was natural; the millennial cohort could no longer properly be synonymous with “youth,” as the oldest of the generation were approaching their 40s. But the prediction that millennials would alter the electorate had also not materialized.

Millennials “have yet to be the dominant political force in Washington that their size and collective values might warrant,” Della Volpe admits in Fight. This doesn’t mean there aren’t millennials making a difference. One such difference maker, he contends, is Pete Buttigieg, the two-term mayor from my home state of Indiana. Buttigieg leveraged a failed candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination—and before that, for chair of the Democratic National Committee—to become Joe Biden’s secretary of transportation. For Della Volpe, “Buttigieg came close to becoming the Bernie Sanders alternative that thousands of young Democrats in most states were searching for but never found.”

As it turns out, Buttiegieg worked with Della Volpe and the Institute of Politics while he was at Harvard, serving on the polling project’s student committee in 2004. One could note the inherent bias of this affiliation and come to their own conclusion about the revolving door that is elite institutions and American politics. But beyond that, there isn’t a single figure that stands as a totem for a generation. And if there were, it certainly wouldn’t be Mayor Pete: Buttigieg isn’t “shaping politics and policy from the national stage,” as Della Volpe claims, but rather padding his résumé from his perch at the Department of Transportation. Apart from being half the age of the most prominent national politicians, it’s hard to see how he is any different.

And what about the millions of young people who identify as conservative? Della Volpe, to his credit, does not completely ignore the elephant in the room. He dedicates a chapter to the inevitable “backlash” that will emerge from the right-wingers and “extremists” of tomorrow, and he urges Gen Z to employ “the same fortitude and ingenuity used against the Taliban and ISIS in the 2000s and 2010s.”

Militaristic metaphors aside, this section muddies the rest of the monolithic portrait of Gen Z that Della Volpe attempts to paint. Earlier, he writes that the “divisions between [Trump’s] politics and the politics of Generation Z were measured not in feet but miles,” while acknowledging that a third of voters under 30 approved of Trump’s performance. One-third is, statistically speaking, pretty significant.

But what matters to Della Volpe is that Trump and other Republican candidates don’t succeed in making young people a central part of their campaign coalitions. Following in the footsteps of Barack Obama in 2008, Biden offered rhetorical capitulations to America’s youth vote leading up to the general election. After Sanders dropped out of the race, Biden promised to “make education at our public colleges and universities free” and to “ease the burden of student debt.” For Della Volpe, words speak louder than actions, as little effort has gone into making these pledges a reality.

This overemphasis on voting—mostly in national elections—rings hollow considering what we now know about Biden’s first year. But it does offer Della Volpe the rare chance to express his more pointed disagreements with young people today. As it turns out, the Democratic Party’s fumbling performance and uniquely vulnerable presidential candidate weren’t at fault for the electoral disaster of 2016; rather, it was the fact that “young people were detached and struggled to discern the difference between one party and the other,” so that Gen Z’s “lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton helped elect Donald Trump.”

It’s therefore not surprising that Della Volpe took a leave from his position at Harvard to wade into the 2020 election and advise the Biden campaign’s “youth polling efforts.” Social Sphere, his consulting firm, has also worked with brands like Adidas, NBC, Paramount, and FIFA. This consumer-focused approach is integral to understanding Della Volpe’s sense of youth politics: “Generation Z and millennial-led consumer activism is a central component to the politics of the future,” he argues. Which is another way of saying that polling, and whatever information it might glean, is nothing more than a marketing tool in his eyes.

After the 2018 mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., for example, Walmart raised its age requirement for purchasing firearms or ammunition to 21, leading 46 percent of Gen Z and millennial Democrats to be “much more inclined” to shop at the chain. Della Volpe cites this nugget of data approvingly, without heeding what I see as an immediate red flag: He’s unable to make a distinction between a corporate defense mechanism and youth activism. “In an increasingly competitive era for customers and talent,” he writes, “most of corporate America recognizes that aligning its values, products, and services to the most diverse, educated, and progressive market entering its prime earning years is not just good PR or good business, but essential to survival.”

This is true in both the boardroom and the Oval Office. Democrats are obsessed with generational politics because it allows them to rhetorically support “progressive values” without employing class analysis—and certainly without having to deliver on what was advertised. While the material circumstances of many young people and the working class do overlap, the Venn diagram is far from a single circle. But if you see the world through liberalism’s lens, why wouldn’t Walmart look like an ally in the fight to “save America”? The rich aren’t to blame, after all; it’s the boomers in power, and only the rising tide of Gen Z can save us.

Della Volpe’s idea of “saving,” unfortunately, does not mean liberating but maintaining. Gen Z, he assures us, believes that capitalism should be “preserved” and that it has simply gone “unchecked,” adding: “Zoomers yearn for a capitalism open to everyone.” In order to save America, according to Della Volpe, one must also save capitalism.

I do have hope for the future, but it is almost equally balanced by fear. If Gen Z is to save the world, it will only be through the creation of a multigenerational working-class movement, not the continuation of the status quo and the preemptive passing of the baton to a demographic group still in its earliest stages. Della Volpe wants to be the voice of a generation—just not his own—but his attempts to cling to the political and economic institutions that purposely fail us place him on the opposite side of the Fight he foresees.

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