Millennials are frustrated with politics: Why this “negative” energy could be a good thing

Record election spending, the regularity with which moneyed interests win out in politics, and officials’ inability to persuade the American people that they can “get stuff done,” have seriously harmed Americans’ confidence in our democracy. Recent surveys from the Brennan Center showing that 41 percent of Americans believe that “votes don’t matter very much” and from the Harvard Institute of Politics indicating that fewer than a fourth of young Americans said they would be “definitely voting” in 2012 are dangerous omens.

We are stuck in a vicious cycle: cynicism leads to reduced participation. But to politicians and pundits, the lack of participation looks an awful lot like apathy, leading to the further detachment of politics from social and economic realities. This detachment fuels cynicism, continuing the cycle. Studies show that disillusioned political observers are significantly less likely to perceive media outlets as important sources of information, and in fact, Gallup polls show that confidence in radio, newspapers, and television fell from 72 percent in 1976 to 43 percent in 2010. So as the political system neglects large chunks of the population, those voters become more disengaged and less informed. Eventually, they will be ignored all together.

The only way to break this cycle is to make politicians listen. We have to keep a bug in their ears, but it has to be singing a very particular tune. Hashtag-activism and political complaining do not get very far in Washington. Instead, millennials need to mix creativity with proven methods for persuading politicians: visitations, phone calls, letters, and protests advocating viable solutions to problems. We need to harness our frustration. Polithon is committed to providing advocacy guidance and channeling distaste towards inaction into solution building.

Once we develop solutions to political problems, a plethora of statistical evidence shows that the average citizen has the power to push politics forward. We can act on our change potential by sending letters, calling, or sitting down with their congressmen or state representatives, or mobilizing voters by organizing rallies. A  1993 study by Rosenstone and Hansen concluded that had social movements been as active in the 1980s as they had in the 1960s, voter turnout would have been more than 8 percent higher than it was.

Successful 1960s social movements advocated for a slew of welfare programs, civil rights, and an end to the draft. The difference between those movements and, say, Occupy Wall Street, was the lack of ambiguity in their visions and the concreteness and viability of their demands. For protests to lead to voting and change instead of cynicism, they must articulate a tangible, realistic vision.

Once that happens, higher millennial turnout will have a threefold effect on policy. It will send a clear message to politicians that spending political capital on millennial policies is worthwhile, it will signal millennial approval for policy propositions that otherwise may not be given as serious consideration, and it will help put politicians who have millennials’ backs get into and stay in office.

Abraham Fraifeld is Polithon’s Operations Assistant. He is a rising Junior at Georgetown University working towards a BS in Foreign Service and a Certificate in International Development. Abraham wants to motivate voters to think outside the box and take advantage of the power of loud advocacy .

Polithon from an Intern’s Perspective

As an undergrad student living in DC, I have the pleasure of competing for the most prestigious of classes, jobs, and internships. College students may often appear to be easygoing and nonchalant, but make no mistake – everything is a battlefield. There are a finite number of positions available and more than enough eager students to fill them. We live in a city where students concentrate on the quantity of experience on their resumes. They’re focused on joining clubs, seeking leadership positions, being a “Hilltern,” and making as many personal connections as humanly possible.

I find that there is a difference, though, between those who claim they want to “do something” and those who actually go out and do it. Many students find themselves in dull internships where the most they might accomplish is filing papers, answering an important phone call, or providing proscribed information to those who request it.

Working at Polithon, I am lucky to avoid the typical monotonous “intern life” that has become commonplace and generally accepted as inevitable for someone of my age and my experience. My work doesn’t drone on for hours, I don’t spend my time wishing I were elsewhere, and I don’t leave feeling as if everything I accomplished for the day was futile or redundant.

At Polithon, I have the ability to actually learn from those that I work with, try my skills at new tasks, and test what I can actually do on my own. I’m given real work to do, which at the end of the day is actually important for our team. I don’t go on coffee runs or sit and answer phones; I actually can tell that what I do is worthwhile, for myself and for this organization.

Part of the reason why I enjoy working at Polithon so much is because its mission is similar to my own way of operating. I like to feel as if my actions matter, that I can influence something, and not just do uninteresting, rote work. Polithon‘s goal is to help an entire generation feel and act this way. I literally get to help an organization that works to turn my peers, my very same school competitors, into young adults that actually take action and do something.

Everyone at school constantly talks about what they do, where they go, and how they have a “leg up” over everyone else. There is consistent pressure to take what you can before others get to it, but why does it have to be a zero-sum game? Often we choose to distance ourselves from our peers rather than work collectively, effectively weakening our strength as a cohesive generation. Polithon provides the opportunity to create a unified generation of millennials that work together, use their voices, and make an impact. When I leave Polithon, I don’t have to wonder if I’ve done anything other than build my resume—I know I’ve helped make a difference.

Danielle is Polithon’s Operations Assistant. She is a second-year student at The George Washington University working toward her BA in Political Science and her MA in Public Administration. Danielle wants to work to establish a more involved generation of voters and engage social media to support political change. She is also an avid traveler and chocolate connoisseur.