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Democracy is 'failed' or 'in trouble' among young voters, a new poll shows

The largest segment of this bloc of Americans is the non-college segment, and they're not fans of the Biden White House.
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WASHINGTON — Last week, Harvard University's Kennedy School released a poll of young Americans ages 18 to 29 and found a generation of voters that looks a little different from what many people expected.

There was not a lot of youthful optimism in the data, and some findings showed that large divisions in the electorate over the last decade are still part of this generation. But other numbers suggest that this new group of voters may be charting a new course politically.

The best place to start may be the overall mood of the group. The survey shows a pretty sullen collection of Americans, not especially happy with how the country is working or where it is heading.

Only a quarter of those who were polled believe democracy in the U.S. is working as well as it should, and only one-third believe democracy is "healthy" or "somewhat functioning." Considering that this group of people includes the country's next set of leaders, those are somewhat concerning findings.

Yes, younger people tend to see flaws in the status quo and are often the spark behind change, but when more than half of 18- to 29-year-olds believe U.S. democracy is "failed" or "in trouble," it raises questions about how the next generation sees the future.

The poll also shows some divides around different levels of education.

The thought in some communities may be that "everyone goes to college" after high school, but the Kennedy School poll shows that nearly 60 percent of the respondents are not enrolled in college and/or do not have bachelor's degrees. About 1 in 5 are pursuing bachelor's degrees, while 22 percent already have them.

The numbers may have political consequences.

There is a growing partisan education gap in U.S. politics: Those with bachelor's degrees increasingly lean to the political left, and those without them tend to be on the right. It has become one of the dominant trends in political polling over the last decade. And the Kennedy School poll suggests that the ideological split may be carrying through to the younger generation.

Consider attitudes about Joe Biden's presidency.

There is fairly strong support for Biden among those in college or with degrees; his job approval is 54 percent with both groups. Among the non-college group, however, the picture is very different. Biden's approval number is 13 points lower, at 41 percent, with 57 percent disapproving.

On the whole, that might sound like a win for Republicans. The largest segment of this bloc of Americans is the non-college segment, and they are not fans of the Biden White House.

But that is where things start to look different. When you look more closely at the non-college group, respondents are not especially conservative, and they are even less likely to call themselves Republican.

Only a third of the non-college 18- to 29-year-olds say they are “conservative,” and only 22 percent self-identify as Republican. Meanwhile, members of the group are as likely to call themselves “liberal” as “conservative,” and 33 percent self-identify as Democrats, 11 points higher than the GOP number.

In other words, the non-college element of this group is not pro-Biden, but the data show that they are also not pro-GOP. They are more likely to call themselves “independent” and “moderate.”

Beyond questions of political partisanship and ideology, there appear to be areas of generational agreement about pressing issues, including climate change. Across all education levels, there is concern that climate change will affect future decisions, such as where they live and the kind of work they might do.

A majority of young voters in all education groups believe climate change will affect their lives. The numbers are highest among those with degrees — 70 of them percent say climate change will affect their lives directly — but 57 percent of current college students and 51 percent of the non-college group say they will be affected, as well. Across all the educational groups, one-third or fewer said climate change will not have an impact.

In addition, all those subgroups agree that the U.S. is not doing enough to address climate change, and they agree that the climate change challenge is not "hopeless." That suggests support for action on the issue.

There are a lot of unknowns for this next generation of voters. After all, they have come of age in a volatile era (from the turbulent Trump presidency to Covid), and it's not clear how much that has shaped how they see politics and how much their views could change as they grow older.

But even as some of the broader educational divides appear to be taking root with these voters, the data also show some important commonalities. They are disgruntled and dissatisfied, but they also seem to agree on some of the important challenges facing the country.

In a country where division reigns over nearly everything, that is a noteworthy difference.