We often hear that Millennials are disengaged and disillusioned with the U.S. political system. In many ways, that’s true. Compared with Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980) and Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964), the generation of Americans who were born after 1980 and before 1997 identify less with political parties, are less interested in politics and vote at lower rates. Even young Americans who consider themselves politically active may not do much more than vote every few years, sign an online petition once a year, or passive-aggressively unfriend people who express different political views on Facebook.
Many people see these trends as a product of the general uprooting of American civic society. For a variety of complex reasons -- including changes in work, technology and gender roles -- Americans today know less about their neighbors, are less likely to take part in their communities, and be part of fewer formal institutions such as churches or political parties.
But there are hints that this could change, as social media lowers the cost of reaching out to Millennials and introduces new ways to engage and organize them politically. On Wednesday, the newest entrant in this area emerged, with the release of a new app called Brigade, which its founders, including Napster founder and Facebook backer Sean Parker, describe as "like a Tindr for politics." The app follows in the traditions of Web sites like DoSomething.org and Change.org that have already successfully used social media to start petitions, form nonprofits and recruit volunteers.
The app, which launched in private beta testing Wednesday morning, allows people to express their opinions on a variety of issues, from climate change and charter schools to the future of Ukraine, and see how those opinions compare with their friends and connections. It also encourages people to comment on trending news topics and form groups with their friends and neighbors, potentially for offline social action.
The app is also meant to be a tool for advocacy groups and candidates, who can use it to build out their supporter networks, run campaigns on a specific issue and get much more accurate information on who their supporters are and what they believe. The app launched with several advocacy partners, including the Drug Policy Alliance, Heritage Action and Americans for Tax Reform.
In an interview, Brigade chief executive Matt Mahan and president James Windon said they hope the app will help connect voters and give them tools to organize. By starting conversations about politics with your friends and contacts, the goal is to help bridge the gap between American's political and civic lives and their social lives and "bring it back in the sphere of people we trust."
The app is also designed to better map the complexity of people's political views outside of America's two parties, an approach that is particularly suited to the views of Millennials. And when the general election comes in 2016, the company is planning to introduce features to help people vote in line with their values. "People often don’t fall into a left-right spectrum, especially when it comes to local issues. We think we’re going to create new openings for people to act together to do something that might get buried in the current system," says Mahan.
Thirteen-thousand people have already tested out Brigade, and users can invite others to participate. People can also request an invitation through the app's Web site.
Brigade has about 50 employees housed in Washington and San Francisco and raised $9.5 million in venture capital in April from Parker, Salesforce chief executive Marc Benioff and venture capitalist Ron Conway. The company does not have an immediate plan to generate a profit, but Windon said that they do intend to do so in the future.
"Right now, we’re trying to get the tools out. Assuming we can, we’ll be thinking about revenue in the future," he said. "We have to assume that the data we’re collecting will form part of our revenue model."
The basic task of getting millennials engaged will be challenging enough. Poll after poll show that millennials are less interested in politics and talk about it less frequently than their elders. They are also far more likely to describe themselves as independents, though in practice many lean liberal, especially on social issues like same-sex marriage. According to Pew, these figures are at or near the highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation any group has shown in the quarter century that Pew has done its polling.
One reason millennials may not be as politically motivated is they don't see much of a difference between Democrats and Republicans. And fewer millennials say they trust political parties -- or people in general. Just 19 percent of millennials agree that most people can be trusted, compared with 31 percent of Gen Xers and 40 percent of Boomers in a poll by Pew Research Center.
That mistrust extends to institutions of authority more generally. In a Harvard survey of 3,000 18- to 29-year-olds, only about half of the respondents said they trusted the military, while 42 percent trusted the Supreme Court. The figures were even lower for the president, the United Nations, the federal government and Congress. The same poll also showed little confidence in the justice system in general, or the ability of protests like #BlackLivesMatter to make changes to it.
Mindy Romero, director of the California Civic Engagement Project at the University of California, Davis, says younger people don't trust political parties because they grew up during a period of intense partisan bickering, and they don’t personally see evidence of what Washington is doing for their communities. The economic hardships triggered by the Great Recession and globalization have further eroded their faith in institutions.
But young people also face specific barriers to political participation that could be reduced, says Romero. One is a lack of education and preparation in schools about practical aspects like voter registration, as well as the more abstract understanding of civic duty. She says another barrier is America's two-step voting process, which requires you to separately register before you vote. Young people tend to move around more, and that can cause their registration to lapse.
There are also practical barriers to reaching young people, since they are less likely to participate in formal organizations and pay attention to diverse media sources.
“You can’t reach young people through formal organizations, because they’re not in them … They’re not all watching the same TV show,” says Peter Levine, a professor at Tufts who directs a civic engagement program. The one place young people do congregate is college, so a lot of campuses have become the focus of a lot of political youth organization. But even so, Levine points out that most millennials aren't in college in a given year. About 70 percent of high school grads are enrolled in college or university the next year, but they only stay in school for a few years.
The one place where millennials do talk politics more than older generations is on social media. In a poll by Pew Research Center, roughly a quarter of millennial Facebook users said at least half of the posts they see on Facebook relate to government and politics – compared with only 18 percent of Gen Xers and 16 percent of Baby Boomers.
The obstacles abound, but once political messages reach Millennials, they can be very effective. The Obama campaign directly asked young people to vote, volunteer and express their opinions, and found that Millennials responded strongly. “One of the lessons of the 2008 Obama campaign is that it really pays off to actually ask people to participate,” Levine says.
Parties, candidates and analysts alike have also found that Millennials are more willing to organize around particular issues rather than political parties. “For all human beings, it makes more sense to talk about issues than parties – who cares about parties. Most people are more interested in solving issues,” says Levine. “But I think it’s especially true for young people, who have a particularly weak attachment to political parties.”
All this hints at better ways to get Millennials engaged in political and civic life -- including appealing to them directly, using social media in a smart, strategic way, and focusing on issues they care about and how those issues impact their communities.