The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The next generation of voters is more liberal, more inclusive and believes in government

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students, from left, Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky and Alex Wind at a panel discussion about guns on March 20 at Harvard. (Steven Senne/AP)
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Parkland students have quickly become some of the country’s most effective opponents of gun violence, after a man fatally shot 17 people at their Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. The teens are organized, well-researched and poised. They’ve weathered social media abuse with maturity because they’ve been dealing with it their entire lives.

According to a new poll from the Pew Research Center, the teens may offer a window into the politics of Generation Z more broadly.

Generation Z, defined as those born after 1996, is on the cusp of adulthood. The oldest are graduating college. By 2020, almost half will be eligible to vote in the presidential election, which means their values and opinions could soon help shape national politics.

According to the survey, released Thursday, Gen Z teens and young adults have overwhelmingly adopted left-leaning beliefs similar to those of the millennials before them. They overwhelmingly disapprove of President Trump, believe the government should do more and reject American exceptionalism.

It’s not uncommon for young people to hold liberal views that moderate as they age. But Gen Zers grew up in a very different world than previous generations. The oldest among them was 11 when the first black president was elected. They became teenagers as same-sex marriage was legalized around the country. They also, according to Pew, will be the most racially diverse and well-educated generation.

This younger generation is much more likely to see climate change as a result of human behavior and to believe black Americans are treated unfairly.

These differences are particularly pronounced among Gen Zers who self-identify as Republican. While older Republicans overwhelmingly support Trump, his job approval drops off significantly with the younger generations. Eighty-five percent of baby-boomer Republicans believe Trump is doing a good job. Fifty-nine percent of Gen Zers share that view.

Historically, younger people are less civically engaged and vote in fewer numbers than older generations. In 2018, 31 percent of eligible millennials voted in the midterms. If millennials and Gen Zers increased their participation in elections, they could have the power to decide the outcome.

But events such as the partial government shutdown are not going to inspire them to get more involved. While the Parkland teens’ tremendous efforts influenced changes at the state level and got pro-gun-control candidates elected to Congress, they’ve been met mostly with dysfunction at the federal level.

But these Gen Zers remain slightly more optimistic than the two generations before them about how change can happen. While just 46 percent of millennials and 50 percent of Gen Xers say ordinary citizens can do a lot to influence government, 53 percent of Gen Zers believe they can make a difference.