Four years ago, Generation Z, or those born from 1997-2012, broke the record for young voter turnout. Their champion? Then-77-year-old Joe Biden. Four years later, less than 50% of 18-29 year-olds “definitely” plan on voting, and only 33% of the age group approves of President Biden’s job performance.
The pressing question is why an overwhelmingly liberal generation – just 21% of Gen Z adults are registered GOP voters – is hesitant to support the Democratic Party incumbent, especially when their alternative option is the deeply controversial former President Donald Trump. Gen Z poses a question in response: Why would we be eager to participate in a system that isn’t working for or with us?
Zoe Romyn, a 24-year-old Wisconsin voter working as a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion coordinator, put it simply: “Nihilistic might be one of the words I would use to describe my sentiment towards the U.S. government.”
Gen Z (nicknamed the “Zoomer” generation) is largely disillusioned with the state of Washington politics today. About 61% of Zoomers say they do not trust their political leaders, compared to 32% of Baby Boomers. It is worth examining what exactly is going on inside the minds of the nation’s youngest voters.
Immediate gratification, short attention spans, political division, cultural and economic instability – these are said to be the defining factors of Gen Z. But they have their reasons. Zoomers were raised amid the 2008 financial crash and came of age during a global pandemic. Many set up their first social media account by junior high school, where they had unlimited access to footage of natural disasters and police brutality. This is the generation of school shooter drills and school assemblies on cyberbullying and suicide.
Understanding how these factors interact is crucial to our understanding of Zoomers’ political progressivism. There is a longing among these young voters for effective humanitarian-centered public policies.
“It is less about them, than it is about others,” said John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics and author of “Fight: How Gen Z is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America.”
“Millions of young people vote every cycle, not just to protect and expand their rights and their vision of America,” Della Volpe said in an interview, “but to protect and expand the rights of those more vulnerable than themselves.”
This humanitarian bent means young voters are more likely to support initiatives such as gun control, climate change, nonviolence policies, equitable education, and universal healthcare, among others.
“I think Gen Z is definitely more focused on human rights as a whole,” said Henry Bradley, a 24-year-old from San Francisco. “Maybe that’s because of the social media culture, maybe sympathy does better algorithmically.”
To many of their elders, this sympathy can take disastrously wrong turns. Taught to graft concepts like “intersectionality” and “anti-colonialism” into global affairs, young Americans are less proud of their country and its foreign policy than any generation in U.S. history and, by their own accounting, are not very “patriotic.”
Zoomers shocked older generations – and sent shudders through the Democratic Party – by taking a pro-Palestine stance in the wake of the unprompted and violent attack perpetrated by the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas, in which 1,200 Israeli Jews were killed and 250 civilians were kidnapped. A critical mass of young Democrats has broken with the Biden administration for its funding of the Israeli government’s military response to the attack, which has resulted in the death of approximately 25,000 Palestinian civilians.
The culture of social media is affecting Gen Z in additional and unpredictable ways. Approximately 98% of Zoomers own a smartphone, and the age group averages over four hours per day online. People under the age of 25 are two times more likely to use apps such as TikTok, Instagram, and X (formerly Twitter) as their news source than they are to look at traditional news sources.
Emotionally evocative, fast-paced content thrives on social media. This might be like a 30-second rant about bombings in Gaza or a one-page infographic about the rapidly growing housing crisis. Often, content such as this will receive millions of views or be reposted thousands of times. Young people will post donation links, e-boycott large corporations, or virtually plan protests.
“When our attention is brought by the media to something like Ukraine or student loans, we commit a lot of civic engagement immediately,” said Romyn. “We anticipate seeing the changes that we want before the next subject matter comes up. And I don’t think that we’re wrong for wanting to see those kinds of changes. But it’s a bureaucracy and nothing moves fast.”
This is the major disconnect between Gen Z and Washington, D.C. It is no wonder that the same generation who grew up with next-day delivery would desire next-day policy implementation. Unfortunately for the instant gratification generation, Congress was designed to move at a glacial pace.
Are progressive Zoomers taking out their frustration with the government on Joe Biden? Or is there separate and passionate discontent with the president himself, too? It would seem that both are true.
During Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, “He made us feel heard and he made us feel seen,” said 23-year-old Chicagoan Jessica Rinaldi. “I feel like since then, it’s been radio silence.”
Many left-wing Gen Z voters feel that Biden has underdelivered on the issues most important to them, including their inability to meet economic milestones, gun control, abortion rights, the war in Gaza, mental health, climate change, and racial justice.
For instance, 72% of 18-29-year-old Americans say abortion should be legal in most or all cases. The fact that Roe v. Wade was overturned during Biden’s presidency and abortion law was returned to state choice left a stain many Zoomers haven’t been able to wash out.
“Biden definitely could have done something to help women and our rights,” said Amanda Koenigstein, a 21-year-old college senior. “Or, he tried, but he just didn’t do enough.”
Biden and Democrats in Congress pushed to codify the protections of Roe at the federal level in 2022, but partisan divides in the Senate made legislative efforts on that front impossible. Biden’s response was to urge voters to “elect more pro-choice senators this November and return a pro-choice majority to the House.” Democrats held on to the Senate and lost the House.
“Both in rhetoric and policy, Democrats have fallen pretty short on abortion,” said 25-year-old Nashville resident Chase Mueller. “There was a two-year span where we had an all-blue federal government, and they dropped the ball.”
In fact, Biden backed a rule change to the Senate filibuster, which would have allowed the codification of Roe (and other legislation) to pass by a simple majority instead of a 60-vote supermajority, but the change was blocked in a bipartisan vote.
Biden’s failures, not his efforts, went viral on the TikTok ‘For You’ page, and he is remembered as the Democratic president who let reproductive rights go by the wayside while tweeting about how women deserve the option to choose.
There are those Zoomers who recognize the limited power of the president. Romyn points out that she isn’t “discontented with the Biden administration, other than realizing that there’s not really a lot that he can do. There’s just so much that you have to play politics around.”
In 2020, Biden’s five decades of political experience was offered by the Democrats as a virtue – an antidote to the chaos of novice politician Donald Trump. Four years later, Biden’s politics-is-the-art-of-the-possible approach has left Zoomers dissatisfied with the president.
“If you have no faith in the political system, you’re not necessarily going to want a president who’s working through the system and trying to go negotiate and compromise and work with the other party,” Daniel Cox, director of the Survey Center on American Life at the American Enterprise Institute, said of Gen Z voters.
Even though frustration with Washington and the Biden administration abounds, many progressive Zoomers who spoke to RCP remain committed to casting a ballot. For some, it’ll be less of a vote for the Democrats and more of a vote against Donald Trump.
“I feel like right now, we have a criminal, and we have a disappointment,” Rinaldi said, referring to Trump’s 91 felony charges. “I’d rather vote for a disappointment than a criminal.”
Another facet of Rinaldi’s decision-making process harkens back to the humanitarian impulses of the Zoomer generation. Rinaldi told RCP that if she was voting solely for the impact the president would have on her, she wouldn’t vote at all.
“My biggest thing with voting is, sometimes it’s not about you. It’s about who’s gonna do best for the general population,” Rinaldi said, suggesting that another Biden administration would have a better impact on the American public than a second Trump term.
The Biden campaign and its Republican counterpart could stand to acknowledge the intricacies of those factors informing Gen Z tendencies, as well as the plain-and-simple, bureaucracy-transcending criticisms of young voters.
“Morally, I don’t think I could vote for either [Biden or Trump],” said Amanda Koenigstein. “I feel like we need someone younger, who understands where we’re at and what we’re going through. We can’t find jobs, the housing market is insane, cost of living is up. They aren’t helping enough.”
Adeline Von Drehle is a rising senior at the University of Missouri studying American history. She will spend the coming year as an Oxford fellow at Corpus Christi College.