Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Take a walk with me.
In season six of The West Wing, a group of middle and high school students went to the White House of fictional president Jed Bartlet. They came with a mission which they explained to communications director Toby Ziegler, to eliminate the voting age requirement.
Speaker 2: I'm going to be breathing the air and drinking the water after you're long gone, but I can't vote to protect the environment.
Speaker 3: And kids who work pay into social security without any say as to how the fund is managed.
Speaker 2: Right. When you guys pay social security, you have to keep adults happy, but you can rob our future without losing a single vote.
Speaker 3: Here's another one. Poverty among young people exceeds all other age groups, yet the government spends 10 times more on each poor senior than it does each poor child.
Speaker 2: Wow. We have no voice at all.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's true. A lot of things that adult voters make choices about and policymakers enact, well, they affect young people who don't have a voice at the ballot box. Taking the voting age lower than 18 might seem far-fetched, but lowering the age of voting is something we've done before in this country. We did it in part in recognition of the idea that if we're sending 18 to 21-year-olds off to war, they should at least have a say in who we elect to make those decisions. During World War II, when the draft age was lowered to 18, a new slogan was born. "Old enough to fight, old enough to vote."
In 1942, Jennings Randolph, a congressman from West Virginia, introduced a bill to lower the voting age, which even won support from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. It didn't get enough traction in Congress, but it did start a movement. 1943, Georgia lowered the voting age for state and local elections to 18. In 1944, Kentucky followed suit. In the following decades, that slogan, "Old enough to fight, old enough to vote," would again become a rallying cry during the Vietnam War. It was written on signs, chanted at anti-war protests, and finally culminated in the 26th Amendment being ratified in July of 1971.
Speaker 4: That amendment, as you know, provides for the right to vote of all of our young people between 18 and 21. 11 million new voters as a result of this amendment that you now will see certified by the GSA administrator.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Since winning the right to vote, 18 to 21-year-olds have never turned out at the same rates as older citizens, but why?
Is it apathy or access? Senator Elizabeth Warren along with Representative Nikema Williams of Georgia are working to address access for young voters. In July, they filed a bill called the Youth Voting Rights Act. It's an effort to expand youth access to voting. The bill would allow 16 and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote so that they're ready on their 18th birthday to head to the polls. It would expand voter registration access at public universities and colleges, and require institutions of higher education to have on-campus polling places.
Recently youth voter turnout has actually increased. In the 2018 midterms, we saw historic voter turnout rates among people aged 18 to 29. In the 2020 presidential election, about half of 18 to 29-year-olds voted. That was an 11% increase from 2016. Now, what we know is that in 2020, Gen Z made up about 10% of eligible voters in the US, and Gen Z is more ethnically and racially diverse than previous generations. They're also on target to be the most educated generation yet. It left us asking, as we approach the 2022 midterms, what do young people want? We asked you.
Andrew: Hi, this is Andrew from Milwaukie, Oregon. When it comes to this election and, unfortunately, probably every election for the rest of my life, the number one, two, and three topics of importance to me will be climate change. We need leaders who can think outside the box of capitalism and come up with real solutions that focus on real results, equality, equity, and sustaining life on this planet.
Maya: I'm Maya. I'm calling from Columbus, Ohio. I'm 21 years old. In terms of which issues are most important to me in the upcoming election, I think something also I've noticed a lot in my community is just a general disengagement from politics. I think the Supreme Court's series of decisions over abortion rights, it felt a lot that there was nothing that could be done. On a more hopeful note, or at least a less apathetic note, I would say the issues that are most important to me would include gun violence laws and just general social support and individual liberties continuing to be protected in the LGBTQ community and also with women's health.
Ty: My name is Ty. I'm from Los Angeles. I'm a millennial. I'm a sibling to two Gen Z kids. What matters most to us is college loans, the cost of college, and the cost of housing because none of us are able to move out of our parents' house because it's just too expensive. Also, we are really concerned that there is nothing happening in the environmental sector, there's nothing happening to reduce CO2 emissions. The switch to electric cars seems like a red herring because where is the electricity coming from? Unless it's coming from clean sources, it really doesn't matter.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As always, we love hearing from you. We wanted to dig in a little bit more, so we sat down with two young political leaders. A progressive and a conservative, and talked with them about how they see the state of voting, the health of our democracy, and the quality of our elected leadership. I spoke with 19-year-old Anya Dillard, activist and founder of The Next Gen Come Up, and 23-year-old Benji Backer, founder and president of the American Conservation Coalition. How are you feeling about the health of American democracy right now?
Anya Dillard: I think that the health of America's democracy right now is not good. I think that we're in a very compromising position, but I don't think that this is a new position. I think that Gen Z advocates across the country have been trying to relay, not just to older generations, but to our policymakers, our dismay in how democracy has been upheld in years prior. We keep seeing policy go forth, and we keep seeing societal norms begin to oppress marginalized communities in ways that our democracy is not helping to prevent. I think that people expressing their disappointment in our country's democracy is not just a means of finding something to complain about, but it's actually the catalyst for progress.
We need to start giving more young people the platforms that they deserve to be able to explain their dismay and their expectations of our democracy because that's the only way that progress has ever been made. I think that recognizing that there's power in young people scrutinizing this democracy and offering their critique, it pushes me to continue empowering young people to share those opinions and to encourage young people to recognize that they do have a place at this table.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Benji, I'm wondering if you're feeling a similar concern about the overall health of American democracy.
Benji Backer: Yes, I think we're at a point in America where we can look back and say that over the course of our history, we've taken two steps forward and one step back many times over. We're at a time in history where I feel like we're taking a step back, and hopefully we will respond by taking two steps forward. I think both sides are contributing to a problem in the way that our democracy is working. I think you've got the right, which is denying the outcome of elections. The left actually was doing that in 2016. I just think that there's a pervasive victim mentality.
Everyone in this country wants to feel like something wrong is happening to them and they want to blame somebody else. By blaming somebody else, it ends up actually really harming democracy because instead of advocating for something, you're advocating against everything, and instead of voting and participating in politics, we're just complaining on social media and being angry and hateful towards each other because we want to blame other people. We want to be able to basically not have to solve these problems head on and actually put in the work to do it.
I think we're in a time where there's a lot of excuses, there's a lot of conspiracies, there's a lot of bad things going on. I do think throughout history, we have responded with those two steps forward with every step back. I think we can do that same thing again.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I worry that on the one hand, it is absolutely critical to point out the weak spots. Even if we're thinking of the health of democracy like the health of a person, it's important to diagnose the problems. At the same time, I worry that, and some data show us, that when we talk about democracy being broken and the system being broken, that what people do is feel like, "Well, the system is pretty big. I'm pretty small," and so they actually opt out rather than opt in. Talk to me about what has been the catalyst for you, Benji, about wanting to opt in rather than out?
Benji Backer: I run the largest organization in the country that's conservative and focused on the environment. That's pretty strange. If opting in is not bad, I don't know what opting in is because there's so much that goes against what the narrative is around conservatives and the environment. The reason that I've opted in and the reason that I've created this organization is because I feel like we have no other choice and there's nothing that one individual can do to solve everything. People teamed together can solve anything. One voice alone doesn't matter, but one voice teamed up with others matters more than money in politics, than media, than anything.
We've diluted the importance of people's individual voices in a way that I think is really harmful because we've made it seem like these systemic problems and big problems like climate change, which is what I focus on, are only solvable by big government or big corporate entities changing the way that we do things. When that is the narrative, then it feels like your individual decision won't and shouldn't matter. At the end of the day, it does. It's like voting, where if the mindset is my vote doesn't matter and everyone's mindset is that and no one turns out to vote, it can dictate the outcome of the election.
It's the same thing here, where there are these big problems and people don't think that their input matters. Because they all don't think their input matters, it ends up being a huge detriment to us trying to solve these problems. Opting in won't solve it, but it contributes to a societal change that needs to happen and inspires others to join, and then you have a team of people who can change the world.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Anya, similar question for you. Why recognize and acknowledging the sets of concerns that you've raised there? Why opt in rather than out?
Anya Dillard: I completely agree with Benji's point. I think that there have been so many devices in our society that have convinced young people that their vote has no power. I think that mindset is so detrimental, especially when we see things like what went on before the insurrection with voter suppression. The media was flooded with narratives of how marginalized communities and young people were unable to get their voices heard in that way, even when they were doing everything in their power to try. I think that moments like that can be extremely discouraging when it comes to encouraging young people to get out and to voice their opinions in the mode of voting.
I think that it's extra important that we continue amplifying the importance of their vote and getting young people to understand that if their vote wasn't important, they wouldn't be trying to take it away from them. I think that it's a matter of really understanding how to get involved in the system, how to get your peers involved, and understanding that you do have such a powerful place in our democracy and in upholding the values that this country has placed upon it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Anya, I'm wondering for you, when you're doing that work, when you're talking about how to get your peers, your colleagues involved, do you look back in time? Do you look back and say, let's talk about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or young people engaging in the anti-war movement relative to Vietnam, or do you mostly not look backward, but rather to yourselves? Look what Gen Z did in 2020 with the largest social movements in world history. I'm wondering where you find inspiration. Is it from the past or really from your own selves?
Anya Dillard: I take inspiration when it comes to moving young people towards voting from the past and the present, as well as my visions for the future. I think that as a Black woman, the idea that my identity as a Black person was not supported in the voting space, nor was my identity as a woman for many, many years. Voting for me is I feel a civic duty that holds a lot of historical weight and ancestral weight. In the communities that I organize, me and some of my colleagues have organized some of the largest mobilization efforts in the tri-state area, those efforts have largely amplified the voices of POC women, of Black men. We have always emphasized the need for these communities to get out and to vote because for so long, we did not have the option to do it in any space.
With that, and knowing how far we've come just to be able to exercise that right, that's continued to move me and inspire me to educate young people about why it's important that they vote. Even looking back as far as the young voting movement that came out of Vietnam and World War II, that alone is something that is so monumental because it not only proves the importance of youths' vote, but it proves that young people mobilizing is an extremely polarizing and powerful tool, and it's effective in getting policy changed and in protecting the vote.
I think that getting young people to recognize that and recognize the correlation of those historical attributes to today, that is what we truly need in order to solidify the importance of the vote in the heads of young people across this country.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Benji, I'm wondering something similar. When you talk about presumably going against the grain by being an environmentalist and a conservative, the first environmental president that I remember was President George H. W. Bush. Are you looking primarily to this moment, or are you looking back and saying, "Hey, we actually have a tradition of this in our own party"?
Benji Backer: You make an incredible point there about Republican heritage on the environment, but you have to look at both. You have to look at the immediate impact that we're having and you also have to look at history. What history tells us is that Republicans and conservatives used to be the leaders on the environment. It really didn't change until the early 2000s. That's when Al Gore became the face of the environmental movement. It made Republicans and Democrats join tribes, which is what we have problems with today. A very tribal environment, where it's either us or it's the villains. If it's an issue even that you want to engage on, like the environment, you basically see people flip-flopping to be a part of their tribe. You've seen that with Republicans on the environment.
It's important to address that and know the elephant in the room, that there is that problem. Additionally, you have to know the immense impact that you can have right now, and look at what's working and what's not. I think back to the first moment of when I realized that my voice mattered so much when I helped this candidate win. He won by just a couple dozen votes. I volunteered 40 hours a week for his campaign. I knew that I had enough impact to make the difference in that effort. I think it's a matter of looking at what you can do as an individual right now, and also looking back at history to say, how can we return to some of the things that are needed?
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is interesting. Anya, as I'm listening to Benji talk about the work that he's doing and then moving towards getting a candidate elected. This is after all a midterm year. Whether it's tribal or partisan, people are going to go to the polls and they're going to pick one. The red, the blue, the donkey, the elephant, the D, the R. I'm wondering about how you think of the vote as compared to other tools that you have as a young person to influence the political world.
Anya Dillard: Personally, I have never been a fan of just seeing a politician on a pedestal and thinking, "Oh, that guy looks great." That's never enough. As young people, we're engaging. We're at a point in our society now where young people have very little qualms with expressing their political beliefs and their opinions. I think that social media, while it is a great resource, it should not be as far as we feel we can get, or as close as we feel we can get to our elected officials.
When it comes to the local and state levels, I'm always trying to bring young people into spaces where elected officials are willing to sit and hear their concerns and listen to what they want to see because ultimately, if those are the people that are going to be elected into office, that connectivity needs to be established in order for the youth to have an effective voice. The more that youth feel that their voice is being heard in these spaces, the more empowered we will be to vote.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Benji, how about you? How do you see the power of the vote versus other kinds of work?
Benji Backer: The power of the vote is the same as it always has been, which is the most powerful tool that we have. The only thing more powerful than the money in politics problem that we have, and the tribal partisanship, and the media dominating on the left and the right with their own narratives, is the vote because that's something that we have access to every single election and can utilize.
I think what a lot of this comes down to is that in an election, you're going to vote for one of two candidates at the end of the day that will not share every single value with you. We are trying to put millions of Americans in the same box of a Republican or a Democrat. The reality is, you might vote for a Republican or a Democrat, but that person shouldn't share every single belief that you do because we're all different people and we all have different beliefs. Some of us have conservative beliefs on certain things and liberal beliefs on others. Overall, we might sway one way.
I think we've gotten in this mindset of, oh, our vote has to be tied to somebody that we agree with 100% of the time. That creates an actual fake narrative where people are saying things that they don't believe just to try to fit every one of their voters into the same box. When we're voting, I think we have to be more intentional than that. We have to realize that we're going to disagree with the person we vote for on certain things. We are going to have to respect that disagreement.
That is the most important intentionality of the vote. Behind the vote is so much more that you can do, whether that's campaigning or it's just advocacy for a specific issue after the election, because what happens is, a lot of times people get really active in an election campaign and then tap out until the next election. People in Congress or any decision-maker locally as well needs to hear your voice on certain issues. We've seen how well that works with people on the left talking about climate change, young people in the streets. Democrats have responded with prioritizing the issue. Republicans have the same thing with the NRA. There's a lot of people that activate around gun rights.
Your activism after the election matters just as much because it allows the issue that you care about to be prioritized and they actually hear from you, which is what our democracy is meant to do.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Quick pause here. When we get back, Benji and Anya into the speed round.
Hey, y'all. We're back with The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. We're talking about what is on the minds of young voters as the 2022 midterms head into the fall. Here's what some of you told us.
Chris: My name is Chris. I'm a music teacher from Massachusetts. The issues that matter most to me this November are climate change, education and getting money out of politics.
Speaker 11: Hi. I'm [unintelligible 00:21:06] calling from Lawrence, New Jersey. I have two small kids. What matters to me is the environment. I am scared of what we're leaving them.
Jose: This is Jose from Redmond, Washington. My priority is for the government to invest in America and the American people. Previous generations enjoyed good infrastructure, cheaper education. It would be nice if we had that as well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I've been talking with Gen Z activists Anya Dillard and Benji Backer. I know that neither one of you can speak for an entire generation, but how would you rank maybe the top three issues for your generation that you've been hearing about from your peers, Benji?
Benji Backer: Climate change, abortion, and the economy are the most important, and people want tribalism to stop in politics.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Anya, how about you?
Anya Dillard: I agree. I think that the top three issues Gen Z have been complaining about have to be abortion rights, climate change, the economy, as well as white supremacy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. People always give young people grades. I know, Benji, that you've actually finished college and graduated. Anya, you're still in college. I'm going to give you all both an opportunity. Anya, I'll start with you here. What is your grade for President Biden? This can be for the administration more broadly. Doesn't have to be just for President Biden. What is your grade for former President Trump?
Anya Dillard: Oh my gosh. I would have to grade the Biden administration a solid C minus.
Melissa Harris-Perry: A solid C minus. [laughs]
Anya Dillard: A solid C minus. However, I don't believe there is a grade for the previous administration, so I'm going to have to go negative Z on that, if possible.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. Same thing for you, Benji.
Benji Backer: Well, I feel like I'm picking between two horrible options we've had to deal with for the past couple of presidential elections. I feel like most Americans feel that way. In terms of Joe Biden, I would give him a D plus. I think it's been a pretty rough go of things over his first couple of years. I would actually give former President Trump the same grade. I think it might shock some people that a conservative young person would give them the same grade, but I would do that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. This one is about media. Benji, I'll start with you on this one. This is just sort of like, is it overall good for or overall bad for democracy if you assess this for both social media and mainstream media?
Benji Backer: Our media and social media are tearing this country apart. If I was giving it a grade, I'd give it a negative Z like was previously given to Donald Trump in this conversation. I would absolutely say that the media and social media aspect of this country will be our downfall or it'll be where we can start picking things back up again. I think it's an absolutely horrible part of what's happening in this country. People are playing into it, but they also know that it's part of the problem.
Anya Dillard: I agree. I think that as a media girl myself, I'm a content creator, I'm double majoring in journalism and video production right now, and I feel as though it's very harmful that a lot of the mainstream media that we're consuming, while it may be pushing itself as objective and as informational, there is a lot of underlying opinionated points and rhetoric that is placed in stories that should be purely informative. I think that it prevents us from being able to be diplomatic across political parties and political beliefs. I also think that it creates more of a breeding ground for misinformation and prevents people from being able to simply source information and build their own individualized perspective about a sociopolitical issue.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, we're almost there, the last two on this one. I want to give you an opportunity to say who you think is getting it right. Is there an elected official, a political leader, somebody who when you look out into the world, could be your generation, could be from a different generation, who you're like, okay, maybe not perfect, but this is somebody who I think is overall getting it right in how our democracy works right now? Anya, let me start with you.
Anya Dillard: I think two of the people that I have looked to in terms of their ability to really hold this democracy to a higher standard have definitely been Stacey Abrams and Elizabeth Warren. I think that even on the points that I do not agree with them, the way that they choose to go about criticizing this country and upholding the values of democracy, I genuinely respect.
I feel that as women in the sociopolitical space, it is extremely important for young girls of all backgrounds to be able to see that because so often we are made to think that our voices do not matter in sociopolitical spaces. We're made to think that we cannot move mountains on our own. I think that it's extremely powerful to see two women of completely different backgrounds being able to move mountains in the way that they have.
Benji Backer: I have two people that are really influential in American politics for trying to change the course of this, but they're both not very well known because they don't feed into the device of narratives at all. One of which is Representative Blake Moore. He's a congressman from Utah. He's stood up for his values the entire time. He's been there. He's not well known. He's worked really hard on issues like climate change and other issues that are taboo for a Republican from Utah to focus on. On top of that, he's just a normal guy. He shows up to meetings on his little scooter. He's just a very normal average guy who's representing his constituency to the best of his ability. I think it's really heroic what he's done quietly for this country in just his first term in office.
Then on top of that, there's a gentleman named Collin O'Mara, who runs the National Wildlife Federation, which is one of the most historic environmental organizations. When you think back to the last three years, we've actually made the most bipartisan progress on the environment of any time in recent history, and most of it is thanks to him. He's also done it mostly behind the scenes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Would you ever consider running for office?
Benji Backer: In this divisive era of politics when some of the worst people in the world are elected to office, I wouldn't want to do it, which I think is part of the problem. I want to go where I can make the most impact, and right now, that is running the only conservative environmental organization in this country. Right now, politics is too divisive, too negative, and too hateful for somebody who is trying to make a difference from the outside.
Anya Dillard: Many young activists that have been successful in this space can attest to the fact that we've heard, "When are you running for president?" As glamorous as it sounds and as fun as it is to envision, I think that at this level, it is so much more impactful, especially in this sociopolitical era, to be as close to your cause as you possibly can. What we've seen in the past years is that the presidency especially, is very effective in disconnecting our elected officials from the community, from the people and from our wants and needs.
I think that grassroots organizers, people like myself and Benji that are managing to find those deep, intimate interconnections in our community that can really benefit our causes, that can really encourage real-world change, I think that maximizing those at this point in time is the primary priority. I think that that's where we hold the most power. Who's to say that in the next 30 or 40 years our minds may change on that? I think that while it is something that we are all as Gen Z change-makers very much so capable of, I think that it's important that young people recognize their power at the micro-levels because once you scale those up, they can apply much more pressure than anyone could have ever expected to those higher federal offices.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. Anya and Benji, you both inspired me during our conversation and then broke my heart at the end in exactly the way that always worries me, that the very best and brightest, the kindest and the best folks end up not running for office. I tell you what, you're both invited. Anytime you find yourself in North Carolina, which is where I live, I will take you to coffee and I'll convince you that there is an office somewhere for both of y'all to run for. I just have no doubt about it. I'm so grateful for both of you for joining me. Anya Dillard, activist and founder of The Next Gen Come Up, and Benji Backer, founder and president of the American Conservation Coalition. Thank you both.
Anya Dillard: Thank you so much.
Benji Backer: All right. Talk to you to you guys. Thanks so much.
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