How Does it Feel for 2020 to Be Your Generation’s Defining Year?

Young Americans will be voting in huge numbers. They are also the most globally minded generation since the 1970s.

Voters wait in line outside Philadelphia City Hall to cast early voting ballots on Oct. 27.
Voters wait in line outside Philadelphia City Hall to cast early voting ballots on Oct. 27. Mark Makela/Getty Images

After going on for what feels like an eternity, the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign has finally entered its final lap. Everything just feels longer and more tedious in the Zoomiverse, where so many of us are living, working, and studying these days. That applies especially to politics—and in particular for those Americans voting in a presidential election for the very first time.

College-age Americans have vague recollections of global affairs before the Trump era: the killing of Osama bin Laden, older relatives arguing about the Iraq War. For the most part, however, the 2016 election was when they awoke to politics—and the 2020 election is when they can finally do something about it. It is time to take stock of this generation coming of age during the Raging ’20s, what they know about politics, and how they imagine the United States’ role in the world.

What do the members of this generation know so far? They know that U.S. elections seem especially vulnerable to foreign interference, with reasonable doubts raised as to whether Russian meddling tipped the scales for now-President Donald Trump’s narrow victory in 2016. They know that four years later, Russia and other countries are meddling again, and they have some questions about the resilience of the electoral process they are joining.

They know that eight months into a once-in-a-century pandemic, leaders at the federal, state, and local levels are still struggling to develop safe and effective public health measures that can enjoy broad public support.
Young people in the United States today feel an extraordinary level of powerlessness.

And they know that they face bleak economic prospects, calling their hopes and dreams into doubt.

We believe this all adds up to a grim picture: Young people in the United States today feel an extraordinary level of powerlessness. Even if it’s a characteristic trait for youth to feel disempowered, the defining experiences for this generation—the COVID-19 pandemic, economic disruptions, foreign election interference—have probably magnified its sense of helplessness. As a result, when young voters head to the polls next week, they will be torn between competing emotions—a powerful sense of the importance of their ballot coupled with doubts about the legitimacy and efficacy of that act.

It is no surprise, then, that an October report found young people around the world to be more disgruntled with democracy than any previous generation at their age. Only 19 percent of young Americans believe their country is on the right track, and their growing frustration undermines the long-term health of U.S. democracy from within just as foreign election interference undermines it from without. That, of course, is precisely the goal of Russia’s campaign.

But we believe U.S. democracy will survive in the long run, because even though young Americans are dissatisfied, they are mobilized and engaged. A higher percentage of young voters say they intend to vote than in any election since 2008. According to a recent poll, 40 percent of young people have been paying more attention to the news during the COVID-19 crisis—and only 26 percent have been tuning in less. There may be disillusionment and apathy, but the era of Russian disinformation and COVID-19 could also end up breeding a new level of civic engagement.

What’s more, the new generation of voters is deeply concerned about global affairs. This generation has been energized by issues such as climate change and the need for international cooperation to address it. Persistent inequality across racial, gender, and other social lines is seen as a global issue, not just a domestic one.
If digital natives made up a larger part of the politically engaged population, the country might be better able to resist foreign interference.

In fact, youth may have a lead on their elders in developing better defenses against foreign disinformation and domestic fake news. Research suggests that older voters are more easily swayed by misinformation. According to a 2019 report, people over 65 shared seven times as much fake news on Facebook as people between 18 and 29. Jeff Hancock, a psychologist at Stanford University, told the New York Times that seniors “have a lot less experience [online] and are less likely to know what’s dangerous.” If young digital natives made up a higher percentage of the politically engaged population, the United States might be better equipped to resist foreign interference.

Still, foreign attacks on U.S. democracy and the COVID-19 pandemic will profoundly impact this generation in ways that are only dimly visible today. Consider how the 2020 generation might differ from those who immediately preceded it. Those who came of age in the mid-to-late 2000s, with wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, are more skeptical of the U.S. role in the world. In contrast, the current generation is watching the erosion of U.S. global leadership and domestic stability in real time. The United States’ failure to facilitate and lead a global pandemic response has dealt a knockout blow to an already damaged perception of American exceptionalism among the country’s youth. Perhaps paradoxically, we believe young Americans could well emerge from this era with a distinct appreciation for the importance of U.S. resilience, strength, and leadership.

We believe young Americans will not resign themselves to their country’s decline but will instead look for it to regain leadership on the international stage. There are three reasons for this: First, they are keenly aware that today’s problems are global and require global solutions. They know that a better coordinated and more robust international effort would have mitigated the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Young Americans will apply this lesson to efforts to stop climate change, which 80 percent of American voters between the ages of 18 and 29 believe is a major threat to humanity. Their conclusion is that U.S. involvement is critical to solving these and other global issues. It is perhaps no accident that former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who made famous the idea that America is “the indispensable nation,” is enormously popular on our college campus.

The second reason young Americans will lean toward greater international engagement is that they’d like to feel proud of their country. Coming of age in the Trump era has caused a jarring dissonance between the country they learned about in history class and the one they live in today. A friend recently described this feeling by saying that “people are more aware of their Americanness than ever before.” In other words, this generation is probably more embarrassed by and critical of the United States than any generation since the 1970s, and they may no longer see it as the beacon of democracy. Young Americans want a government that leads the world and makes them proud while doing it.
This generation is probably more critical of the United States than any generation since the 1970s.

The third reason for the new generation’s support of U.S. global leadership is that Americans who are maturing during the election interference age see a strong, resilient United States as the antidote to outside meddling. Young Americans have seen foreign disinformation campaigns pitting Americans against each other, contributing to an atmosphere of division and discord. This generation will want to shed the powerlessness it feels and demand that their country punish and deter election interference. Today’s youth will not tolerate permanent challenges to its elections and, by extension, its sovereignty. Instead, they will seek forceful responses and international leadership.

As this chapter in U.S. history is being written, a lot can still happen over the next few months that radically alters how young Americans see the future of their country. The successful development and distribution of a vaccine could restore faith in U.S. leadership. A contested election result, on the other hand, could erode confidence in democracy even further. Yet one thing seems certain: Foreign election meddling, a global pandemic, and worries about the earth’s climate could be turning young Americans into the most internationally minded generation in many decades. That makes us optimistic about the country’s future.

Spencer Kaplan is a student in political science and public policy at Duke University and co-chair of the Program in American Grand Strategy’s undergraduate council.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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