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It's summer break at Tufts. Temporary plastic fencing blocks off most of a main walkway—
on this hot June day, workers on the Medford/Somerville campus are doing the kinds of jobs that are best left to when students aren’t around. Lawnmowers buzz in the distance. But as I sit in an empty classroom across from Alan Solomont, dean of Tufts’ Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, his mind is focused like a laser on November. That’s when voters will be casting ballots in the midterm elections.

Historically, midterms have had far-reaching effects. For example, in 1994 the GOP won control of both the House and the Senate for the first time in forty years, and the ensuing conflict between Congress and President Clinton led to shutdowns of the federal government in 1995 and 1996. The 2018 midterms may be even more consequential. They could yield a significant check on the power of President Donald J. Trump, or give him a mandate to continue to set new precedents for presidential norms.

Solomont is convinced that young people will be a deciding factor at both this critical moment and others to come. “The future of this country is in the hands of the next generation,” he told me. Tisch, the only university-wide college of its kind, makes opportunities for both educational development and civic engagement available to all Tufts students. The school also conducts groundbreaking research on young people’s civic and political participation, and Solomont and his team of fifteen researchers at the school have gathered an astounding amount of data on sixteen-to-twenty-nine-year-olds. That group represents the trailing edge of Millennials and the first crop of voting-age Gen Z-ers. Let’s call them MillZees. According to the research being conducted at Tisch, they’re fifty-four million strong and constitute 22 percent of the adult population, which makes them more numerous even than seniors, whose share is 20 percent. Yet a Gallup poll from August suggests that they feel their priorities are underrepresented in Washington. The president’s approval rating in the poll ranged from 40 to 50 percent for all age groups except those younger than thirty. For them it was 24 percent.

Portrait of Alan Solomont

Alan Solomont, Dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)

Lately, some young people have begun injecting themselves in the political discussion by getting involved in politics, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who, at twenty-eight, is still paying off her college loans. Ocasio-Cortez recently made headlines by beating a powerful incumbent in the Democratic primary for New York’s fourteenth congressional district. In far too many cases, however, MillZees don’t even vote. Tisch research shows that in the 2016 presidential election, only 46 percent did—making their participation rate higher than you might guess from media reports but still well below that of other age groups. And Tisch’s statistics regarding the 2014 midterms are even more sobering. Back then, the participation rate among voters under thirty was a mere 20 percent. 

So why does Solomont continue to believe in the political power of MillZees? One reason is that such figures are just a small part of his team’s trove of information on young voters. Tisch has conducted some of the most extensive studies ever on the group’s worldview, attitudes, and political preferences, and the picture that’s emerged does not jibe with any stereotype of disaffected youth. There’s also the fact that unlike some research, Tisch’s work isn’t sitting on a shelf somewhere gathering dust. Instead, it’s being pushed out to thousands of high schools and colleges where it is being used to help create an informed and engaged citizenry.

Voting group graphic

(Sources: CIRCLE, pewtrusts.org, census.go)

Getting Millzees to vote is a complex problem, one easier to wrap your head around when you understand how the landscape has changed since Solomont’s generation, the Baby Boomers, came of age. Like MillZees, Solomont and his peers were “very suspicious about government,” he told me. They complained that government “had failed to guarantee civil rights for everyone, and had gotten us into a war that we had no business waging.”

But their anger drove them into politics rather than out. Young people marched in the streets, occupied the president’s offices at schools, and pursued careers in community organizing and advocacy. Solomont himself eventually became a top Democratic fundraiser and served as the ambassador to Spain under President Obama. So what explains such different reactions from one generation to another?

Solomont thinks the answer has to do with two major differences in the world today. The first is economic. In the 1960s, he said, income inequality was nothing like what it is now and the prospects of a job that would actually pay the bills were good. An abundance of research backs him up. A report from the University of California at Berkeley, for example, reveals that between 2009 and 2015, more than 50 percent of the country’s income gains went to the richest 1 percent of Americans. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis notes that since 2000, real median wages for people with full-time jobs have risen only 4.8 percent while basic expenses have soared: 59.5 percent for housing, 53.4 percent for health care, 51.6 percent for food, and, especially significant for young people, 132.8 percent for education. Meanwhile, according to a study from the Pew Research Center, MillZees are feeling the effects. Among those age eighteen to twenty-four, 55 percent said young adults—as opposed to middle-aged adults or older adults—were having a tougher time than other age groups economically, and 44 percent of those twenty-five to thirty-four agreed.

The second difference Solomont sees in the world today has more to do with people’s approach to civic life, and it’s in this realm that Tisch College is working for change. Fifty years ago, Americans were expected to engage politically and were bound together by the idea that a healthy democracy depends on such participation. Moreover, the education system reflected that. American high school students were supposed to read the newspaper daily, and they debated current events in the classroom. These days, by contrast, vibrant civics classes have been replaced by history lessons.

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“There’s a real fear in schools to talk about politics,” explained Solomont’s colleague Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of Tisch’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. Known as CIRCLE, the group is focused on civics education in K-12 classrooms. As part of its research, Kawashima-Ginsberg directed a survey in 2012 of eight hundred civics teachers across the country. More than 25 percent said they worried about community pushback if they focused on current events in class. Many of the respondents told CIRCLE researchers that they’d watched Obama’s inauguration with their students in 2009 and received angry phone calls and threats of lawsuits from parents who claimed that having a class witness the transfer of power to a new party was partisan. Since then, Kawashima-Ginsberg said, parents have become only more alert to any whiff of partisanship. During the 2016 election, civics teachers were so cautious that they avoided political discussion entirely. “Teachers are disempowered,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said, “and we are not testing for civic fluency, so they have no incentive to teach it.”

She and others at CIRCLE have responded by advocating for required classes that would provide meaningful civics education, and they’ve succeeded in forty-two states. “For kids who have never seen civic engagement in action, it can be very transformational,” she said. “Now students can practice democracy in their school and see what it’s like to be a citizen. We’re giving them a way to try it out, identify a local issue, and then push for change through municipal government.”

In fact, she believes the mandatory civics classes that resulted from CIRCLE’s work helped empower the Parkland High School students in Florida who took action after the murder in February of fourteen students and three teachers by a young, heavily armed former classmate. The Parkland students led a huge march in Washington, D.C., to support stricter gun laws and spearheaded a massive voter registration drive this summer.

Tisch's Voter work is not limited to high schoolers. When students enter college, the school continues its research with them through its Institute for Democracy and Higher Education. The institute’s director, Nancy Thomas, oversees the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), the largest college voting study in the country. 

NSLVE got its start in 2012, when the US Department of Education challenged institutions of higher education to provide programs and experiences that would get students more engaged in democracy. Most schools “were really struggling to measure their effectiveness in civic education,” Thomas said. So she initiated a project to give them clear data based on voting behavior, which she pointed out is “the only objective indicator of student interest in public life out there.”

Thomas asked administrators at hundreds of schools if they’d like to participate in a voting study. The researchers would get the enrollment records for each school that participated and look up the students’ voting records—wiped of names and other identifying data. Then they would publish reports of the findings for each school. The idea caught on, and by 2018, more than 1,100 colleges and universities had opted in, representing 10.7 million students. Media outlets from the New York Times to the Washington Monthly were commending the usefulness of NSLVE data.

Young voters graph

The reports put each school’s stats in bold relief. They include the participating institution’s voting rate, printed big in its own shaded box like an SAT score. Next to this is the percent change since the last report was issued, as well as the voting rate—50.4 percent—for all participating institutions. (At Tufts, 51.2 percent of students participated in the 2012 election. Thanks in part to Tisch get-out-the-vote efforts, that number jumped in 2016 to 63.2 percent.) The reports also show the distribution of students who use absentee ballots, early voting, or mail-in voting instead of voting in person on election day. The data are further broken down by age, academic year, enrollment status, gender, race, and field of study.

Not only do schools get a sense of how they’re doing compared with peer institutions, but they can choose to share the reports with organizations that can help them improve, such as the nonprofit Students Learn Students Vote, which promotes civic learning and engagement on campuses nationwide by providing information on best practices. That group’s executive director, Clarissa Unger, said the Tisch reports “are the key to what we do. When schools see the data, they often approach us for ways to get their numbers up.”

This August, Tisch provided colleges with some advice of its own, based on a second study by Thomas, one designed to figure out why some institutions produce engaged students while others don’t. Results showed that the most politically active students attend schools where they feel empowered by the administration to initiate change within their own communities. A handful of the most engaged campuses offered first-year classes that specifically teach new students how to discuss controversial issues. And among seven schools with exceptionally high voter turnout, four required courses in which students learn how to identify different perspectives, advocate for one side or the other, and write and make presentations using current events to frame issues. For institutions that want to produce better democratic citizens, it’s news they can use.

Tisch researchers have also produced findings that will interest political campaigns themselves. One is that if they want to reach MillZees, they can’t just talk about issues that are traditionally associated with a particular race, gender, or class, because young people now are thinking of themselves in new and different ways. Another is that MillZees tend to eschew traditional party allegiances. More than a third have registered as independents, and the views of most are best described not as Democratic or Republican but as points on an ideological spectrum that runs from “libertarian” (I can accomplish anything all by myself) to “egalitarian” (it takes a village).

Appealing to such a complex group of voters may seem daunting, especially to campaign managers who typically focus on populations that vote regularly and with great consistency along party lines. But Solomont has no doubt that it’s worth the trouble. “My theory is that if young people participate in politics and show up to vote, we’ll have a stronger democracy,” he told me. Furthermore, he thinks that as dizzyingly diverse as MillZees are, it’s actually simple to reach them. Speak to them directly and they will respond, he said. He held up Bernie Sanders’ success as a shining example of what’s possible when a candidate connects with the young.

If candidates want to win in November, Solomont said, they can’t afford to overlook this enormous voting bloc. “We’re going to see a greater turnout of young people in the midterm elections,” he predicted. “Young people matter. They’re not cynical, you just have to give them a reason to engage, and you have to make contact with them."