by Paul Taylor
Today’s teens are likely to be even more progressive than the millennials who voted in 2018, but will they show up?
Brianna took me aback. She was the first to speak when I asked students in her high school government class if they planned to vote once they turned 18.
“No way!” she said, mixing bravado with disdain. “It would be a waste of my time! I don’t feel like giving my time to this country.
“No politician is going to help me put a roof over my head. Nobody is going to put bread on my table. Nobody is going to take care of me. I need to take care of me.”
I was visiting her New York City classroom the week before the 2018 midterm elections. All the students were black or Hispanic. I’m an old white guy who was there trying to understand what the next generation thinks about politics, civics, democracy, voting, America.
“What do we think, guys?” I asked. “Is she right?”
The room stayed quiet for a few beats before Chloe weighed in, softly. “My mom says every vote counts. She says the reason we got Trump is that too many people didn’t vote. And everything he’s done since he got elected has been racist. If we get someone new, maybe things will get better.”
Another round of awkward silence. The class was like a jury mulling over two closing arguments, neither of which it found persuasive. Luis spoke next.
“America has always been racist,” he said. “With Trump, people are just more up-front about it.”
This drew approving nods around the room and a thumbs-up smirk from Brianna. “When I see white people now,” she said, “they look at me like I make them afraid.” More nods.
These teenagers belong to the most distinctive coming-of-age generation in American history. Today’s old skew white and conservative; today’s young skew brown and progressive. We’ve never had such a big chasm between the two.
For a liberal boomer like myself, there’s much to admire about the young: their passion for social justice, their empathy for the underdog, their celebration of racial and gender diversity, their respect for rules, their penchant for collaboration. But there are troubling signs too—a victim mentality, an intolerance of viewpoint diversity, a distrust of institutions, a wariness about human nature, an aversion to risk, a cynicism about the whole American experiment.
The historian Thomas Bender wrote that “nations are, among other things, a collective agreement, partly coerced, to affirm a common history as a basis for a shared future.”
When it comes to American history, young and old agree about almost nothing. Older adults take pride in the official version: We’re the greatest nation on earth, with noble ideals and, yes, some messy realities. Today’s teenagers learn mainly about the mess, especially those realities stemming from our original sins, racial oppression and slavery. Nearly half of adults over the age of 65 say that America stands above all other countries of the world. Just 14 percent of 13-to-21-year-olds agree.
As the generations cast their gaze forward, these perspectives flip. Teenagers are far more hopeful than older adults about what America will become, probably because both know the future belongs to the young. But there’s no guarantee that this coming-of-age generation will funnel its optimism into the civic habit most likely to create a brighter future: voting.
THE STAKES COULD not be higher. In 2018, voters under age 30 favored Democratic congressional candidates by a whopping 35 percentage points, while voters over the age of 45 were evenly split. It was the biggest age gap ever in a midterm election. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, there was often no age gap at all.
And there’s more to come: Today’s teenagers are likely to be even more progressive than the millennials who voted in 2018. For the first time ever, half of all Americans under the age of 20 are Hispanic, black, Asian American, or mixed race. They’re the mosaic created by a modern immigration wave that has brought more than 60 million newcomers here since 1965, nearly nine in ten of them nonwhite.
For them, diversity isn’t merely demography; it’s the beating heart of their value system. Throughout the 20th century, “melting pot” was our go-to metaphor for an America transformed by immigration. It no longer parses. Given their skin color, today’s immigrants and their children couldn’t melt if they wanted to. And most don’t want to. They want to live in a society where boundaries of race, gender, and sexual orientation are porous, and everyone is free to be whoever he/she/they wants. Not a melting pot; a “mosaic”—which is my nominee for a label for this new generation (let’s act fast before “Generation Z” gets more traction, with its creepy intimations of end-times).
Politically and ideologically, Mosaics are a tsunami-in-waiting. Four million will turn 18 this year. Another four million next year. And so on, for as far as the eye can see. If you’re wondering why the new guard of the Democratic Party has put forward such an audacious agenda this year—wealth tax, carbon-neutral economy, tuition-free college, Medicare for All, universal child care, racial reparations—wonder no more. They’re racing left to keep pace with their future base, which wants leaders who shoot for the moon.
According to a study by social scientists Yair Ghitza and Andrew Gelman, the political landscape that people encounter at age 18 leaves three times the mark on their values and partisanship as do events they experience at age 40. With that in mind, let’s take a quick tour of what politics looks like to most of today’s high school students.
The White House is occupied by a villain from central casting who got there by riding a backlash to the demographic changes they embody. Large chunks of the GOP establishment and the conservative media echo chamber have become captive to a xenophobic right-wing fringe. Meanwhile, one diverse new crop of Democrats has planted itself noisily in Congress and another is running for president. Mosaics may hate politics and have no use for party labels, but they’re beginning to see their own lives, likenesses, and values reflected in a new generation of Democratic leaders. The moon and stars have aligned to make them a blue wave of historic proportions.
If they vote. And here’s where the crystal ball grows cloudy. Even with the “Trump bump” that took midterm voter turnout rates to their highest levels in a century for all age groups, the rate among eligible adults under age 25 was still barely half the rate among voters ages 45 and older (32 percent versus 62 percent).
As they form families, start careers, buy houses, send their kids to school, and pay taxes, will Mosaics start pulling their weight on Election Day? Historical trends say yes. But what if history isn’t a guide? What if this generation’s allergy to voting isn’t a function of life stage only? What if it’s also the by-product of coming of age at a time when an embittered right and aggrieved left disagree about everything else, but lock arms around their shared conviction that politics is rigged? If that’s where the story of American democracy starts for you, why wouldn’t you stand with Brianna and take a hike on voting?
For someone like me, it’s easy to rail against President Trump for conducting his civics-lesson-in-reverse, with daily rage tweets against the courts, Congress, the political parties, the FBI, the intelligence community, the media, immigrants, minorities, the rule of law, and just about every cherished democratic norm under the sun.
But to the young, the woke left also throws plenty of shade at America. Some comes from a popular culture that often seems fixated on our deepest moral failings—witness, for example, the three Grammy Awards and 500 million YouTube views taken in by “This Is America,” the 2018 rap video that intersperses joyful singing and dancing with shocking images of blacks being gunned down. And some comes from an education establishment that can take political correctness to self-parodying excesses—as when the University of California advises faculty members to avoid phrases like “America is the land of opportunity” because they might be seen as a microaggression.
These days, there are a dwindling number of college courses that explore the majesty of the Bill of Rights or the genius of checks and balances. “Ten years ago I could teach Madison,” says Peter Levine, a professor of citizenship and public affairs at Tufts University. “Now I can’t because the only thing my students are interested in is slavery.”
Levine helped launch and for a decade ran CIRCLE, a nonprofit research group that tracks youth civic engagement and voting. “I have complicated feelings about where we are now,” he says. “Lots of Americans, especially African Americans, have reason to read our history in a jaundiced way. But the worry is that you create a narrative for the next generation that says this country is too deeply racist and sexist to ever fix itself.”
Some data points illuminate the challenge:
The Young Don’t Put Voting on a Pedestal. Nine in ten older adults say voting is essential to citizenship. Just 56 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds agree, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey.
Their Diversity Might Not Draw Them to the Voting Booths. The historic turnout gap between blacks and whites closed during Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns but opened back up in 2016, due mainly to a decline in turnout by younger blacks. Among Mosaics, blacks aren’t the largest minority group; Hispanics are. And here the turnout prospects are even more problematic. Election after election, Hispanic turnout rates lag about 20 percentage points behind those of whites.
They’re Not All-In on Patriotism. Just a third of 18-to-29-year-olds say they are extremely proud Americans, compared with nearly six in ten adults ages 50 and older, according to a 2018 Gallup survey.
They Don’t Trust Government. Today, just 20 percent of teenagers and young twenty-somethings say they trust the government in Washington, D.C., to do what’s right. Back when baby boomers were that same age, 73 percent of them trusted the government to do what’s right.
They Don’t Trust People. Over the past half-century, the American public, young as well as old, has been hemorrhaging confidence in nearly all major institutions of society. But among the young, there’s something else even more daunting: They also don’t trust other human beings. Just 24 percent of Mosaics say most people can be trusted. Together with the young adults of the millennial generation, they register the lowest scores for interpersonal trust in the half-century that this topic has been explored by the General Social Survey.
The drought in social trust among the young is especially worrisome. In a fast-paced entrepreneurial economy, trust is the grease that keeps the gears from grinding. In an increasingly pluralistic society, it’s the glue that holds the mosaic together. In a self-governing democracy, it’s a rationale for voting and predicate for pragmatic compromise.
Why are Mosaics so distrustful? There’s an oversupply of explanations. A record share are minorities, and in all societies, minority groups tend to be less trusting. In their young lives, many have been given “the talk”—guidance from protective parents (but also popular culture, personal experience, and street wisdom) that cops, courts, pols, and even priests aren’t on their side. They’ve grown up doing lockdown drills in school, wondering if that strange kid from fourth period might be the next mass shooter. And they spend tons of time on social media, where it takes a nanosecond to figure out that not all their friends really are their friends.
So how do you persuade Brianna and her classmates that America is worth a vote?
Ultimately this is a job for candidates and campaigns, and there’s a good chance that 2020 will serve up a stark enough choice to energize the youth vote. But at a time when politics is stuck in a doom loop of mutual provocation, reciprocal outrage, and relentless cynicism, it would help to have the backstop of a robust civic culture that promotes the habit of voting.
Happily, a vanguard of savvy social entrepreneurs and idealistic educators is on the case. Unhappily, they’re working on a scale that doesn’t begin to measure up to the size of the challenge. And to watch them in the classroom is to appreciate the magic trick they have to pull off: How do you empathize with your young charges’ sense of victimization without adding to their sense of disempowerment?
I was steered to Brianna’s class by Generation Citizen, a decade-old group that has developed an “action civics” curriculum being used in eight urban public-school systems across the country, mainly serving students of color. “Our job is to teach them that politics isn’t a dirty word. And that they have the power to make change,” says DeNora Getachew, executive director of New York City’s Generation Citizen.
In the GC program, students in a social studies, government, or history class spend a semester choosing among themselves an issue they want to tackle, then figuring out how to make their case and whom to lobby—be it a principal, school board member, city councilman, state legislator, or member of Congress. The issues run the gamut from small bore (dress codes, cellphone bans, cafeteria food) to big ticket (gentrification, mass incarceration, gun violence). The students often don’t get results. They sometimes have trouble getting anyone’s ear—or even agreeing among themselves which problem to tackle. It’s all part of the curriculum.
“When they find out that getting a consensus can be hard, we tell them: ‘Welcome to the rest of your life,’” says Getachew, who worked in city government before taking on her job at GC.
At the end of each semester, New York’s GC program hosts a citywide civics fair where students show off their projects on poster boards. This year it was held in the Midtown Manhattan office of the New York City Bar Association, with generations of white male lawyers peering down from their austere oil paintings on the walls, no doubt disoriented by the proceedings below.
Most of the students were female; few were white. Getachew opened the assembly by noting that 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of the election of the first African American woman to Congress, New York’s Shirley Chisholm. “She used to say that if they don’t have a seat for you at the table, bring your own folding chair!”
That exhortation drew whoops and cheers. And the underlying message clearly registers. Research by Generation Citizen and a handful of programs like it shows that students who take these courses go on to become more active than their peers in civic and political life.
SOME OF THIS, no doubt, is a “selection effect”—the students who enroll tend to be predisposed to civic engagement. And even within this atypical group, there’s often a layer of cynicism that can be hard to breach. “These kids feel like the world is rigged against them,” said Brianna’s teacher, Lisa Hicks. “They know what’s going on, much more than I did when I was a kid. They’re aware of the hate and anger that’s out there.”
Over the past six months, I’ve interviewed scores of students and sat in on a handful of high school action civics classes, mostly in minority neighborhoods in New York City and Washington, D.C. I’ve been blown away by just about everyone I met, teachers and students alike—their passion, street smarts, resilience. True, the classes I got access to were selected by the folks who run these programs, so I suspect I was seeing the cream of the crop. Even so, it was impossible to come away from my field visits without feeling hopeful about America’s next generation. But also a little worried.
This ambivalence is underscored by a nationwide survey of 13-to-21-year-olds conducted at the end of last year by the Pew Research Center. It shows that Brianna’s downbeat take on the state of America is widely shared by others in her generation. Among Mosaics, 83 percent of blacks and 76 percent of Hispanics say this country is headed in the wrong direction, as do 60 percent of whites. (There’s a similar racial divide on this question within older generations.)
Distrustful of government, the “Mosaic” generation has turned out in full force to call attention to the climate crisis.
But the same survey also shows that Chloe’s civic hopefulness resonates, especially with minority teens. Some 63 percent of black and 62 percent of Hispanic Mosaics say that “ordinary citizens can do a lot to influence the government in Washington DC,” a view shared by just 45 percent of white Mosaics. This survey question didn’t ask about voting, so it’s possible these young respondents were thinking about the protest marches that have proliferated during the Age of Trump. Either way, it’s one of the few encouraging survey findings about youth civic engagement that I’ve come across.
Similarly, 83 percent of black, 71 percent of Hispanic, and 60 percent of white Mosaics say the national government should do more to solve problems. Their generation far outpaces older adults in their support for an activist government. Thus, a paradox: Mosaics are cynical about government but want more of it. This will make for fascinating crosscurrents as they age into the electorate.
Not surprisingly, they’re also a very pro-immigrant generation: 78 percent of Mosaics say legal immigrants are having a positive impact on society. But in my interviews with students who are immigrants or the children of immigrants, the chill of the Trump era was palpable.
“Until Trump came into office, I’ve never felt uncomfortable here before,” said Ruba, a hajib-wearing college sophomore whose family emigrated from Pakistan a few years after 9/11. “I always assumed I would spend the rest of my life in America. Now, I’m not sure. After college, we’ll see.”
Francina, a high school junior whose parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic, said she too despises Trump’s immigration policies. But she counts her blessings to be living in America. “Over there,” she said of her visits to relatives in Santo Domingo, “you can’t go out on the street with your cellphone because someone will snatch it.”
Many students I interviewed, regardless of race, party, or immigrant status, spoke of feeling whipsawed by a political culture that in their young lives has produced two such different presidents.
“When I was younger, I worried that my generation would be the most apathetic ever,” said Mike, a college sophomore who grew up in rural Oregon. “We took it for granted that everything would be okay because Obama was president.” Trump came as a shock, but Mike sees a silver lining. “The fact that we’re in such a toxic environment is going to get more young people involved,” he said, adding, “I still see America as a great shining light.”
But for most others in his generation, that’s a hope for tomorrow rather than an appraisal of today.
At the Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood, Karen Lee opened her AP government class by scrawling a question on the whiteboard: “What’s the biggest issue facing young people today?”
Nearly every hand shot up. Lee asked for short answers.
“Lack of opportunity.”
“Lack of guidance.”
“We aren’t taken seriously.”
“No role models.”
“Decline of mobility.”
“Valuing your own life.”
Lee’s classroom is a shrine to the civil rights movement. Its walls are covered with pictures of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks, along with iconic photos of the marchers at the bridge in Selma and the protestors at the lunch counter in Greensboro. Other wall hangings evoke more-recent struggles. One poster displays the hashtag “#NoBanNoWall.” Another depicts the Statue of Liberty with a caption, “I’m with Her.” Another offers guidance about “How to Stop Fake News,” advising: “Be Skeptical. Verify. Look for Other Clues. Get Help.”
Lee is the only person in the room (besides me) who’s white. She was born and raised in Idaho in a “mixed household” (one parent liberal, the other conservative), making for spirited dinner table conversation. She majored in political science at the University of Idaho but left her home state not long after graduating because she found it too insular.
For the past 15 years, she’s lived and taught in Anacostia, “also insular, but in a different way,” she says. It’s a historic black neighborhood, long plagued by crime and poverty, that has seen some promising spurts of economic development in the past few years. There’s a new Starbucks down the street from the high school, a new branch office of a bank, a new bookstore. But there’s still a lot of crime. “I know because I hear the gunshots,” she says.
Her classroom has an electric vibe. After that rapid-fire opening survey, she assigned each of her students to put together a short talk about an issue they feel passionately about. Describe problem; propose remedy; construct argument. This is a centerpiece of a Project Soapbox curriculum developed by Mikva Challenge, a program similar to Generation Citizen that was launched 20 years ago by friends of Abner Mikva, the late congressman, judge, and White House counsel.
A few weeks later, the students began giving their talks in class (eventually some would go on to a citywide Soapbox competition). Relatively few presentations covered topics that fell into the orbit of politics, government, or civics. A good many were about sexual stereotypes and mores, not surprising given today’s turmoil in gender relations.
Jassmyn took on “slut shaming.” She wanted to know why teenage boys are treated “as heroes and gods for having multiple sex partners,” while girls are treated “like sluts and ho’s … for wearing clothes that show off their bodies and their self-confidence.” Jayla railed against the “Angry Black Woman” trope by calling on her female classmates to “get loud. Take back the word ‘angry.’ Be the change you want to see.” Marquis delivered a riff on “black masculinity” that poked fun at his friends for wearing their pants below their butts and buying designer brands they can’t afford, all in an effort, he said, to mask their insecurity. “I love to party and I dress to impress,” he concluded, “but I buy my clothes at Walmart.”
Other topics ranged across a varied landscape—from the school-to-prison pipeline to the scarcity of mental-health services to the overuse of antibiotics on farm animals. All got boisterous receptions from the class. “You have incredibly beautiful ideas about the way the world should be,” Lee told them. “And what chokes me up is the way you care for each other.”
The formula behind the Soapbox is “as old as Alinsky,” says Brian Brady, nationwide director of Mikva, referring to Saul Alinsky, the radical community organizer whose writings have inspired, among others, Barack Obama. “The way you empower people is to ask them what they care about. And then you give them a platform. And then you listen.”
Brady has been doing this work for two decades. He says the apathy and cynicism of these teenagers “is only skin deep.” In today’s youth culture, he says, “if you want to fit in with your peers, showing your idealistic side is going to put you at risk. So programs like ours need to come up with ways to make civics and politics a safe thing for kids to do. Basically, it’s Adolescent Development 101.”
Gun violence, like the Parkland, Florida, school shooting in 2018, has left a mark on the entire “Mosaic” generation.
Mikva started in Chicago, has since expanded to Los Angeles and D.C., and is looking to add a half-dozen more cities next year. Generation Citizen operates in New York, Providence, Boston, Austin, Oklahoma City, Camden, Oakland, and San Diego. Together these action civics programs enroll a total of about 33,000 students per year, a tiny sliver in a nation with 15 million high school students.
Meanwhile, school systems around the country have been de-emphasizing traditional history and social studies courses for decades as they devote more resources to their STEM curriculum. One by-product has been a gusher of civic ignorance. Just 12 percent of the nation’s 12th graders are proficient in history, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the lowest score of nine subject areas tested. Civics ranks third from the bottom, at 24 percent.
The educators and social entrepreneurs leading the action civics movement believe that things are ripe for a turnaround. “I sort of joke that Trump is the best thing that’s happened to my course,” said Lee. “I used to get eye rolls when I told people what I did,” said Scott Warren, who launched Generation Citizen from his dorm room at Brown University a decade ago. “Now people can’t wait to tell me how important this work is.”
Even so, it’s no small feat to come up with a civics course that engages teenagers. “We aren’t Schoolhouse Rock and we don’t do a lot of ‘How a Bill Becomes a Law,’” says Getachew. Instead, they set out to show that “democracy is a contact sport” by having students experience it firsthand, both in and out of the classroom. For example, whenever an Election Day rolls around, Generation Citizen and Mikva Challenge encourage their students to serve as poll watchers.
But seeing the sausage being made isn’t necessarily a source of inspiration. In Lee’s class at Thurgood Marshall, students who’d volunteered as poll watchers last November reported back with anecdotes that made it clear they were underwhelmed.
“It was pretty much only old black ladies who came to my polling place.”
“Nobody seemed to know how to follow the rules.”
“People kept asking me who to vote for. I had to say, ‘I can’t tell you that!’”
The following week, student leaders from eight D.C. high schools gathered at the downtown Mikva office for a citywide post-election debrief. In short order, their shoptalk moved beyond war stories about poll watching to critiques of how the electoral process dilutes the power of minorities—voter suppression, partisan gerrymandering, big money, the Electoral College.
“Basically, it’s the old white guys who still call the shots,” said Lucy. “People of color, especially women of color, are the ones who get screwed over.”
“Every time I learn more about the Electoral College, it makes me feel like voting is pointless,” said Tia.
“It is pointless,” said DiJohn. “You vote, and if they don’t get the result they want, they throw it out and put their own candidate in there.”
None of this surprises Lee, who’s been hearing this kind of despair from her students for a long time. “They are absolutely correct when they say no one is listening to them,” she said. “And it’s very hard for them to get traction.”
Shootings and Stress
The months I was observing these classes coincided with the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, the horrific slaughter that led to what’s arguably been the most effective outbreak of youth activism since the Vietnam War era. Student survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School captivated the nation with their passion, eloquence, vulnerability, and media savvy. They became fixtures on cable news, late-night television, and social media; their faces were on the cover of Timemagazine, and their activism earned them the top spot on Fortune’s annual list of “The World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.”
Gun safety legislation remains an uphill climb in Congress, but state legislatures have passed 78 new gun safety laws since Parkland. And for the first time in decades, the National Rifle Association seems to be on its heels.
Yet all of that drew a mixed reception in all the minority schools I visited. “Nothing against those kids, but the feeling here is that they got all that media coverage because they’re privileged, upper middle class, and white,” said Lee. “And for us the issue isn’t just mass shootings at school. It’s everyday gun violence.”
It’s an issue that hits very close to home. The boyfriend of one of Lee’s students was shot to death in a robbery a few paces outside his home as he returned from a college prep class. Lauryn Renford’s civics project has been to install murals around D.C. that memorialize her “muse” and other young gunshot victims. She’s been a dynamo: Her GoFundMe page has raised more than $12,500, and she’s lined up support from artists, businesses, and political leaders. One mural is already up, a half-dozen blocks from the U.S. Capitol. More are in the works.
And yet. During Lauren’s year of activism, gun violence spiked in D.C., with homicides rising by 40 percent between 2017 and 2018. “It would help if these kids could get some wins,” says Lee.
Gun violence has left a mark on the entire Mosaic generation. Just how deep hit home for me a few months after the Parkland massacre as I watched media coverage of yet another mass shooting by yet another deranged student, this one at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, that took the lives of ten. One of the student survivors, Paige Curry, gave a TV interview shortly after the slaughter that quickly went viral. The reporter asked if she ever thought anything like this could possibly happen at her school. “Of course,” she replied in a numb voice. “It’s been happening everywhere.”
A nationwide survey last year by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that, among a half-dozen current events tested, mass shootings were the leading source of stress for teens. In a related vein, a 2018 Pew Research survey found that teens consider “anxiety and depression” the biggest problem their generation faces, ahead of bullying, drinking, drugs, and poverty. And in the past decade, a new APA study shows, there’s been a 52 percent increase in the number of 12-to-17-year-olds who report symptoms that indicate major depression. Among 18- and 19-year-olds, suicidal thoughts are up by 46 percent.
But even if today’s teens are stressed, they’re exceptionally well behaved. Youth crime is down by two-thirds since the mid-1990s, teen pregnancies are down 70 percent, and teens today are much less likely than their same-aged counterparts were a generation ago to smoke, drink, use illicit drugs, or drop out of high school. What makes these positive trends all the more notable is that today’s teens are also more likely to have been raised in poverty or single-parent households, or both, than teens were back in the 1990s. Apparently, someone has been raising them well.
Civics and History
Yet civic engagement and social trust remain a black hole for the young. Given that generations are made, not born, let’s look more closely at what the old have done to sour the young on their own democracy.
Obviously, political gridlock and venomous public discourse haven’t helped, but there’s something deeper: a society-wide failure to pass along to the next generation the full story of America, in all its richness, complexity, highs and lows. And here the progressive left, including the idealistic folks in the vanguard of the action civics movement, bear some responsibility.
Warren, the founder of Generation Citizen and son of a Foreign Service officer, grew up living in Third World countries, witnessing firsthand the corrosive effects that weak democratic norms can have on society. As he saw the demographic shifts unfolding in his own country, he set out to replace “stale and monotonous” high school social studies courses with a curriculum that would resonate better with a new generation of students. “In a country that has historically oppressed people who are not white, acknowledging this real history is crucial in cultivating an effective civics education,” he says.
How does that approach play out in the classroom? “Nobody is on a pedestal,” Karen Lee says about the way she teaches the American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution. “Basically, we look at the founding fathers as wealthy white men, slaveholders, who were out to protect their own economic interests.”
If you’re so inclined, you can tell the whole American story this way—400 years of top-down greed and racial oppression. Historian Howard Zinn wrote the classic of the genre, A People’s History of the United States, which has sold more than two million copies since it was published in 1980.
By the sheer size of their pool and strength of their ideology, the “Mosaic” generation will transform the electoral landscape and turn it a deeper shade of blue.
The trouble with that story is that it’s only part of the story. Jill Lepore, author of the 2018 best-seller These Truths: A History of the United States, fills in the rest. “There is … a great deal of anguish in American history and more hypocrisy,” she writes. “But there is also … an extraordinary amount of decency and hope, of prosperity and ambition, and much, especially, of invention and beauty.”
Not much of that fuller version seems to be filtering down to Mosaics. In their own 2018 best-seller, The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff inveigh against a left-leaning academic establishment for encouraging students to think of themselves first and foremost as victims, whether by virtue of their race, gender, religion, or sexual identity. This, they argue, has helped make students emotionally fragile and risk averse. And it fosters a culture of liberal intolerance—witness the spate of campus shout-downs of conservative speakers.
Political correctness even has critics among the Mosaic generation. “Sharing your opinion can be dangerous, especially in New York City,” said Cooper, a white high school junior. “I feel like I’m always walking on eggshells.”
In the Pew survey, 57 percent of white Mosaics say that too many people are easily offended by the language other people use; 54 percent of Hispanic Mosaics agree, as do 43 percent of black Mosaics. But nearly half of all Mosaics (46 percent) take the opposite view—that people need to be more careful with their language in order to avoid offending those with different backgrounds.
Mosaics are much more likely than older generations to see racism as a pervasive feature of American life. They’re also more supportive of reparations, more inclined to evaluate public policy through a racial prism. Whatever the merit to this perspective, it carries political and social baggage. Twenty-five years ago, the philosopher Richard Rorty warned that the progressive left’s “focus on marginalized groups will … help to make our country much more decent, more tolerant and more civilized. … But there is a problem with this left: it is unpatriotic. … It refuses to rejoice in the country it inhabits. It repudiates the idea of a national identity, and the emotion of national pride.”
To be clear, the left isn’t alone in stoking identity-based grievances. The populist right is busy doing the same, led by a hate-mongering president and a right-wing media mortified by the erosion of white privilege. At the moment, these two tribes coexist in an angry equilibrium, with the right in control of most of the government and liberals and the left in control of most of the media, academia, and the zeitgeist—leaving everyone with reason to be pissed off about something.
This won’t last. The same demographic storms that blew us into this stalemate will eventually blow us out of it. With each new presidential election, 16 million Mosaics will age into the electorate and 10 million older adults will exit. One birth, one death, and one graduation ceremony at a time, a progressive new generation will build up the political muscles to match its cultural clout. The math is inexorable. What’s less clear is what kind of citizens Mosaics will become, what sort of future they’ll create, and whether their political activism will be more throat than vote.
The Big Blue Generational Wave
As they age into adulthood, Mosaics pose three political puzzles that will shape America’s destiny through mid-century: (1) Will they remain progressive? (2) Will they start voting? (3) Will they outgrow their tribalism?
Before taking a stab at some answers, let’s take stock of what sometimes gets lost in today’s all-Trump-all-the-time hellscape: The demographic changes that created the Mosaic generation have already transformed America.
It was only a dozen years ago that same-sex marriage, legal marijuana, and transgender rights were barely imaginable; Confederate statues stood tall; and no one had heard of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, March for Our Lives, or Occupy Wall Street. Even in electoral politics, times have changed, though it doesn’t feel that way with Trump in the White House. But since 1992, Democratic presidential candidates have won the popular vote in six of seven elections. No political party in American history has ever accomplished that feat before (or had less to show for it, due to Electoral College inversions in 2000 and 2016).
Now, as Mosaics start pouring into the electorate, this big blue wave will keep getting even bigger. So, back to our questions.
Will they remain as progressive as they are now?
The best argument in the negative comes from the famous quip variously attributed to Georges Clemenceau, Winston Churchill, and a host of others. “If you’re not a liberal at age 20, you have no heart; if you’re not a conservative at age 40, you have no brain.” It’s a clever line, and it more or less traces the ideological journey of some (but by no means all) generations, most recently the baby boomers.
But I can’t see it fitting the Mosaics. Their political values are tethered to their racial diversity, something they’ll never outgrow. It’s possible that some of their “out-group” identity will diminish over time, through intermarriage, growing social acceptance, or some future existential crisis that braids e pluribus unum back together. But Republicans who are counting on Mosaics en masse to make a Churchillian life stage conversion will be sorely disappointed.
Consider another oft-quoted adage, this one coined by Ronald Reagan after his poor showing among Latino voters in the 1980 presidential election. “Latinos are Republican. They just don’t know it yet,” he said, projecting onto America’s newest immigrants the same 20th-century journey that had carried millions of second- and third-generation Italian, Irish, and Polish Americans from their families’ Democratic roots into his own winning coalition.
Reagan was a good historian but a lousy seer. In the past 40 years, Hispanics have become less Republican, not more. Reagan got 37 percent of the Latino vote in 1980. Trump got just 28 percent in 2016. Among Asian Americans, the other big immigrant group of the modern era, Trump got just 27 percent.
It’s hard to see things going much better for the GOP with the children of these voters, not when they’re coming of age to a Republican Party that’s so thoroughly marinating itself in anti-immigrant policy and rhetoric. Reagan’s home state offers the cautionary tale. California had been a Republican stronghold until the latter stages of the 20th century and was the political base for two late-century GOP presidents, Reagan and Richard Nixon. As immigration started to spike in the 1970s and 1980s, the state GOP became the anti-immigrant party—a fatal political mistake. Latinos now account for 39 percent of California’s population; whites 37 percent; Asian Americans 15 percent; blacks 6 percent; mixed race 4 percent. And California is not just the most diverse big state in America, it’s also the bluest. Every statewide elected official is a Democrat, as are 46 of the 53 members of its congressional delegation.
The rest of the country isn’t on track to become quite that diverse, but generational turnover is creating a coat of many colors that grows less white with each tick of the clock. In today’s America, the fastest-growing racial group is “mixed race.” It’s also the hardest to define, and we don’t really have an agreed-upon classification scheme. But here’s what we do know: 17 percent of all new marriages today are across lines of race and ethnicity, up from 2.4 percent half a century ago. We also know that Mosaics will be the largest and most diverse generation in the electorate within 15 years.
And here’s one more thing we know about Mosaics. Young women vote at much higher rates than young men, the reverse of the pattern that prevails for the oldest voters. In 2018, among 18-to-24-year-olds, the turnout rate was 35.3 percent for women and 29.5 percent for men. Given the long-standing preference of women of all ages for Democratic candidates, it’s yet another demographic albatross that the GOP will have to bear.
But will they start voting?
Voter turnout correlates with age. Young adults turn out at much lower rates than the middle-aged and old. In 2016, for example, just 39.4 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds voted, compared with 70.1 percent of those ages 65 to 74, according to the Census Bureau. In 2018, just 32 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds voted, compared with 46 percent of 25-to-44-year-olds; 60 percent of 45-to-64-year-olds; 68 percent of 65-to-74-year-olds; and 63 percent of those ages 75 and older, according to the Census Bureau. Then, once the young grow older, they too start voting in greater numbers.
This pattern might play out for Mosaics, but there’s plenty of room for skepticism. Here, too, diversity is the key factor. Their generation is composed of a record share of Hispanics and Asian Americans (about 30 percent), and these two groups punch below their weight on Election Day—typically lagging white turnout by 15 to 20 percentage points.
The gaps have been consistent over many decades and all age groups. They stem from language barriers, cultural barriers, voter suppression, poverty, and underdeveloped get-out-the-vote infrastructures.
This may finally be starting to change—and if does, Trump’s immigrant bashing will surely be a factor. In 2018, while turnout rates shot up for all racial groups, the biggest increases came among Hispanics and Asian Americans, whose turnout rates rose by 50 percent above what they had been in 2014. Even with this spike, however, Hispanic turnout (40 percent) and Asian American turnout (40 percent) in 2018 still lagged far behind that of whites (58 percent) and blacks (51 percent), according to the Census Bureau. Fear and anger can be powerful inducements to vote, but nothing trumps habit. So far, these newer immigrant groups have not become habitual voters—not the old among them, not the young.
Will they move beyond tribalism?
Even if their turnout rates stay low, Mosaics will by the sheer size of their pool and strength of their ideology keep turning the electorate a deeper shade of blue. This doesn’t guarantee that Democrats will win every election for the foreseeable future. Candidates matter, campaigns matter, stuff happens.
It does mean they’ll have the stronger hand. Might they fritter it away? Hey, they’re Democrats! Already this year we’ve seen plenty of friction between the party’s progressives and pragmatists in Congress, and there’s more to come during the long, crowded contest for the Democratic presidential nomination. If the party’s primary voters are smart, they’ll pick a candidate who can energize the progressives without alienating the pragmatists (easier said than done). If they don’t, they risk throwing Trump a lifeline next year.
Beyond the politics of 2020, a longer-term challenge looms for the Mosaic generation. Once they gain power, how will they use it? Will they govern by the tribal politics of their upbringing, or as repairers of the breach?
That’s too far over the horizon for a prediction. So let me close with a wish. America always needs new generations to clean up the mess their forebears leave behind. Mosaics are coming of age at a time when climate change is an existential threat, economic inequality has risen to record levels, and politics has rarely been as toxic or dysfunctional. We’re lucky to have them. They seem to have the right DNA to rescue democratic capitalism from its periodic excesses. We’ll be even luckier if they can pull off this salvage operation by drawing on our common humanity rather than our reciprocal grievances.
Brianna, I know that’s asking a lot. When you say America is rigged, you’re right. But if you think it’s irreparable, you’re mistaken. I hope you learn more about your country, our glories as well as our debacles. Then I hope you do yourself, your generation, and the rest of us a good turn. Once you turn 18, go out and vote.
Paul Taylor, founder and director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, was a newspaper reporter for 25 years, including 14 at The Washington Post, where he covered national politics and social issues.
This article appears under the title “The Reluctant Majority” in the Summer 2019 issue of The American Prospect magazine.