After four years of political polarization, how are students responding?
“So help you God?”
“So help me God.”
“Congratulations, Mr. President.” The crowd erupts in applause and cheers as the United States Marine Band commences Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States of America. His family gives hugs and kisses. Biden waves at the sea of claps resounding around him. The first term of the United State’s 46th president has begun.
Some at-home viewers celebrated. Others sighed with defeat.
The maelstrom of emotions the American people have experienced over the past five years has left many exhausted. It begs the question: how have the people’s political participation and interest changed?
“I feel like it’s still too early to tell,” said social studies teacher Collin Quinn, taking a look at voter participation as a bookmark of general interest.
“I think the result, from a voting percentage, for the 2020 election was a record number. 66% of people voted. That’s a good number. So, in that way, that’s encouraging. It was seven percentage points higher than it was in 2016.”
There were numerous factors that could have contributed to this spike in voter participation. Switch of presidential powers, important government decisions being made and current events are possibilities.
“I think [Trump’s election] galvanized the Democrats for sure, to try and get him out of office,” said Quinn.
The observed spike in the number of voters may not be matched by an increase in emotional interest.
“I think what’s interesting is, even though voting rates were up in the November election, it feels like there is a sense of hopelessness… There is some voter discouragement.”
Whether the change in political interest and action is a positive or negative change, it is still quite prevalent.
“[The question of why is there a change in activism] even framed some of what I’ve been doing in my classes,” said Quinn. “Why do we think what we do?”
American teenagers, who surprised the older generations and themselves with their fierce political activism, were arguably some of the most affected mentally and emotionally by the roller coaster of events.
In an anonymous survey of a Minnehaha senior government class, students were questioned about their history of political interest and participation. The term “politics” referred to political campaigns, political parties and their actions, the presidential election and government activities.
On a scale from one to 10, with 10 representing “most interested”, students were asked to rate their interest in politics during five different time periods: before 2016, during the 2016 presidential election, during Donald Trump’s administration, during the 2020 presidential election, and at the start of Joe Biden’s administration.
Out of the sample size of students, 33.3% recorded their interest in politics in 2016 as a three out of ten. 25% recorded it as a one and 16.7% recorded theirs as a five.
Regarding the 2016 presidential election, 25% recorded their interest as a five, 16.7% recorded theirs as an eight and 8.3% recorded theirs as a ten.
Sweeping into Trump’s administration, 33.3% landed on a four on the scale and 16.7% landed on either a five, seven, or nine.
During the 2020 presidential election, 33.3% reported their interest as a ten out of ten. 8.3% reported theirs as a one, while the existing 58.3% landed on either a seven, eight or nine.
When asked about their interest in the present, 75.1% reported their interest somewhere between six and ten.
Overall, then, most students experienced an increase in their political participation and interest during Trump’s administration, the 2020 presidential election, and the start of Biden’s administration.
The students were also asked about their feelings regarding the social climate in the United States currently. Responses varied.
“I think that the political and social climate right now, is both abrasive and destructive,” said an anonymous senior. “People are so obstinately tied to their beliefs that they condemn anyone who doesn’t agree with them. If you are in the minority on a highly contestable topic, it can be difficult to share your opinion for fear of hate and animosity.”
The aggressive discourse that people all over the country are having, is taking place in every space. It submerges break rooms, classrooms, dinner tables and Facebook pages into a whirlpool of emotional conversation.
Other students commented on particular leaders, rather than the general public.
“I feel a bit better about it now that Trump is out of office,” said an anonymous senior. “It seems like there is less of a concern that our country will explode because there is a more level headed leader in power.”
While some feel relieved to be under a new president, others are now more concerned for the country.
This disagreement sits among many others. This has caused strife in classrooms, work spaces and on the internet. Americans, particularly teenagers, are still trying to narrow their focus on progressing the country for the benefit of the greater good.
“We could be using our voices more than we are. I feel like there are a lot of wrongs in the country that are not being talked about publicly,” said one senior.