In a recent appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, I referenced data from Harvard’s Institute of Politics showing that only 20 percent of my generation trusts the federal government, the lowest percentage in the past five years. I argued that the fossil fuel divestment movement, which aims to create new political space, can help restore the lost faith of young and old alike in our political system.
John Avlon, editor of the Daily Beast and a panelist on the show that evening, reacted aggressively, denying even my premise: “There’s a generation that was engaged and is now apathetic…but if they decide, then, [that] they’d rather change the world by being a slacktivist rather than going out and voting, they’re not only undermining our democracy—they are going to compound the problems we’ve got right now.”
Avlon grossly misinterprets the reality of my generation, today’s youth activism and what I said. We may be disillusioned, but we are not apathetic. We are engaged and determined to take action in thousands of new ways. We are not waiting on the sidelines for a miracle, and we are not giving up on the power of our vote—in fact we’re saving it.
The fact is that data from the Pew Research Center shows that “adults of all ages have become less attached to political and religious institutions in the past decade, but millennials are at the leading edge of this social phenomenon.” And understandably so: my peers and I grew up watching Clinton’s impeachment hearings. We came of age during eights years of Bush-Cheney, witnesses to the politics of fear and destruction. Climate denial has percolated throughout society as the planet hurdles towards an unprecedented state of emergency. We were hopeful when we elected Barack Obama. But he has turned out to be the change that we can’t believe in.
This picture of disaffiliation is complicated by a strong drive toward activism. millennials are more optimistic about the future than any other generation. Half of us are political “independents,” but we vote heavily for liberal policies and candidates and believe in an activist government. Another report from Telefónica supports these findings: 40 percent of millennials believe that we can make a global difference. While we may be skeptical of traditional institutions we use new technologies to create alternative networks and communities through which we mobilize political action. As I said on Real Time, our new forms of engagement are aimed at taking back democracy and restoring it to government of, by, and for the people.