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The author, center, with a class of high school students in Clifton Park, NY

Editor’s Note: This post was written by Brianna Russo.

This February, I visited Shenendehowa High School in my hometown of Clifton Park for a chance to talk politics with the current senior class. Robert Keyser, the National Issues Forum teacher who coordinated my visit, wanted me to discuss my trip to New Hampshire this January and my experience working with the Bernie Sanders campaign in order to offer his students more insight as to how the presidential primary process works.

Prior to speaking with the classes, I was unsure of what to expect in terms of the responses I would get from students, or if I would get a response at all. Recently, numerous news articles have surfaced, discussing the relationship between millennials (which a study by CQ Researcher labels as those born between 1980 and 2005) and politics. The CQ Researcher study discusses how millennials, more often than not, are disillusioned with the current political system; they feel as if their participation doesn’t matter. The article’s author, Chuck McCutcheon, quotes political scientist David McLennan as stating, “If you were born in 1990, you’ve seen pretty much a dysfunctional Congress for your entire life,” which only adds to millennials’ disillusionment.

Millennials, as a result, don’t feel their voices matter. Political scientists would say that millennials lack a “sense of political efficacy.” Political efficacy is a feeling that one’s voice and participation does matter. The current generation of young people seem to lack this sense of efficacy, which can have real effects on participation – a study by the Pew Research Center shows the steady decline of young voter turnout and registration since 2008.

Because I assumed that the high school students I would be speaking to would prove to have lower levels of political efficacy as studies suggest, I was not expecting an overwhelming amount of participation in the classrooms. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Aside from questions like “Did Bernie look just as old in real life as he does on TV?,” most students had real, substantive questions about the primary process.

Most frequently, students asked about the superdelegates on the Democratic side. The students seemed confused and frustrated with the fact that even though Hillary Clinton’s superdelegate count isn’t necessarily finalized until the convention in July when the nominee is selected, the media often uses the count to insinuate that Sanders is too far behind. Sanders’s supporters in general have criticized superdelegates throughout the primaries, saying that they do not align with the “will of the voters.” Some students expressed concern and said that it seemed as if the primary results on the Democratic side didn’t matter at all as long as one candidate had more superdelegates. My experience with the senior class at Shenendehowa proved to me that millennials aren’t necessarily disengaged with politics because they don’t care, but rather they are skeptical of the process; they think that their participation will not make a difference. Superdelegates are but one piece of the political process that may add to low levels of political efficacy among millennials.

To examine the hypothesis that millennials have lower levels of political efficacy than older generations in a more systematic fashion, I looked at data from the General Social Survey in 2014. Examining which respondents agreed with the statement “I don’t have any say about what the Government does,” I compared responses between millennials (those aged 35 and under) and non-millennials (those over the age of 35). Table 1 shows that in the millennial category, 52.3% of the respondents either strongly agree or agree that they don’t have any say about what the government does, compared to the 24.8% who disagree or strongly disagree that they don’t have any say. Among non-millennials, only 43.8% of respondents agree or strongly agree that they don’t have any say about what the government does, compared to the 42% who disagree or strongly disagree that they don’t have any say.

''I don't have any say about what the government does'' (Source: 2014 GSS)
Under 35 Over 35
Strongly Agree 22.5% 18.6%
Agree 29.8% 25.2%
Neither Agree nor Disagree 22.9% 14.1%
Disagree 17.8% 29.6%
Strongly Disagree 7.0% 12.5%
N=1236 Chi-Sq=33.62*

Thus, the data show that non-millennial respondents have an almost even split between those who agree and disagree that they don’t have any say about what the government does. Very few millennial respondents, however, disagree with the statement that they don’t have a say about what the government does. As denoted by the Chi-squared statistic, this difference is statistically meaningful. The table shows the overwhelming percentages of millennials who agree with the survey question, demonstrating that low levels of political efficacy among voters under the age of 35 is common.

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