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D. Sunshine Hillygus on the Campbell Conversations

D. Sunshine Hillygus
D. Sunshine Hillygus

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with D. Sunshine Hillygus, a Professor of Political Science at Duke University. They talk about her research into how younger generations think and behave politically.

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, I'm Grant Reeher. If you're a baby boomer and you're listening to this program, I don't have to tell you that we have been aging. Before too long, another generation will be replacing this one in positions of political leadership and new sets of voters will be the primary drivers in the electoral landscape. One newer generation that's getting increasing attention is Gen Z. What are the changes we might expect? Are these younger cohorts really different, or are they just younger? My guest today has been researching these questions. D. Sunshine Hillygus is a political science professor at Duke University, where she also directs the Duke Initiative on Survey Methodology. Among other works, she is the coauthor of, “Making Young Voters: Converting Civic Attitudes into Civic Action” and, “The Persuadable Voter: Wedge Issues in Political (*Presidential) Campaigns”. Professor Hillygus, welcome to the program.

D. Sunshine Hillygus: Thanks for having me.

GR: We really appreciate you making the time. So, let's just start with defining some of the boundaries around these generations that have come after the baby boomers. Where does where does Gen X begin and end? Where does Gen Z begin and end, the millennials? Just kind of very briefly, if you could lay it out for us, what this terrain looks like.

DSH: Well, I you know, honestly, I think the thing that I want to say is that I don't know that generations matter. You know, the case that I would make, actually, is that what matters is, you know, to some limits there are some things within a generation, that there are some generational experiences. So, you know, for Gen-X, my generation, our experiences and millennials, with 911 and for the boomers, their experiences with the Vietnam War. But, you know, my focus has really been instead on age cohorts. And talking about young voters because stage in life is something that, separate from the particular generation that you're in, has an impact on your likelihood of voting. And so, you know, I think that millennials in particular are often in the position of saying like, you know, we're not young anymore, right, and Gen Z’s will eventually get there. And I think the real question is, how is it that people at different stages in lives encounter the political system and that the barriers that they might face in being able to participate as they would like.

GR: Yeah, I want to unpack that a little bit because I do want to explore the difference between kind of age cohort and these formative experiences. But then also perhaps changes in technology which are probably going to be somewhat permanent and so we can get into that. But just for the completely ignorant person, just give me a basic sort of, where does Gen X and Gen Z, where do they start and end roughly, I know there's some debate about this.

DSH: So there's some debate, right. I think Gen Z, they say 1995 to 2012.

GR: For birth date.

DSH: For birth date, right. And millennials 1981 to 1996. And I'm in the Gen X generation but won't give you precisely where I fall in that.

GR: And Gen X is before the millennials.

DSH: Correct.

GR: Just to make it clear. Okay, so you got the boomers, you got the Xers, you got the millennials, you got the Z's. And then I guess now there's Alpha? Is that right?

DSH: (laughter)

GR: But they're not they're not old enough to count yet.

DSH: Right, right.

GR: Okay, all right, so we got this straight. So just if we could as a kind of an introductory. Politically how different are the Xers and the millennials and the Z’s from the baby boomers in terms of political beliefs and political behavior? Just, is it simply that they're more liberal? What are some of the differences?

DSH: Well, let me talk about the thing that I have been most focused on, and that is their level of participation in elections. And so what we see is that the baby boomers are participating at significantly higher rates than younger generations. But in particular, those Gen Zers are have a really lagging level of participation. Now, in terms of preferences, I want to be very careful in overgeneralizing, because, you know, one of the take home messages from the work that I've been doing on young voters is to say, one of the biggest mistakes that political elites right now are making in trying to either promote or suppress turnout among young voters, is making the assumptions that they will forever and always be liberal. And that young voters are, yes, on average, they are more liberal, particularly on a set of social issues. They tend to be more concerned about the environment and women's issues and there's a set of items. And we can go through each generation and talk about the averages in terms of preferences. And I think that overlooks incredible variation in what the actual preferences are, it is a real mistake. We have the saying in political science that demography is not destiny. And that is absolutely the case for young voters as well. You know, if we were to increase turnout among young voters in Alabama, it's going to strengthen the power of Republicans in that state. So we just want to be very careful that in talking about the preferences of these different generations, that we not overlook the significant variation within each group.

GR: Now, that's an important point. You're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with Duke University political scientist D. Sunshine Hillygus. You know, what you just said there about warning against thinking about these groups in monolithic terms, also strikes me that some of that seems to be going on in recent years regarding ethnic and racial groups. There is a tendency, I think, to see them in monolithic terms. And we always have to remember there's quite a bit of diversity among these different groups. So, well, let me ask this question about technology and these younger groups and my understanding is and certainly, I know I'm not using it and I'm a baby boomer. But something like a platform like TikTok as a means of communicating and trying to persuade politically, those are not used very much by the older cohort, but they are employed more increasingly by the younger cohort. Does that limit their effectiveness politically if they’re using a particular form of communication, which is limited in some important respects from kind of the older folks like me who vote?

DSH: (laughter) You can put me in that category as well. Well, yeah, I guess, you know, a different hat that I wear in terms of my research is on campaigns and on political communication. And I actually, I love teaching political communication class because you know, every time I learn so much from my undergraduates about what is going to be the next thing. And the thing that we like to say in the political communications world with respect to candidates’ strategy and communications, is that they are often chasing the teenagers and they look ridiculous doing it, right?

GR: (laughter)

DSH: So there is absolutely the case, right? That by the time that researchers get around to kind of tracking what is it that the candidates were doing on whatever new platform of the day there is, that we are doing a pretty descriptive job of reflecting what the candidates are trying to do that is really, you know, chasing what the teenagers are doing. And so there are some risks associated with the use of new technologies when it just looks super awkward. And, you know, there are some really actually, you know, really going back to when I first started looking at some of these things, there was Second Life. This was a platform where people could have avatars and, of course, you know, this is coming back again. But back in 2008, you know, it was the case that Obama was able to look more natural in these use of new technologies. And, you know, there are there are lots of examples of ,you know, other candidates not being so adept at it, despite I'm sure that the efforts of their young staffers that are trying to help out. So I think in terms of one risk, you know, there is risk both ways though, is that on the one hand there is a missed opportunity for communicating with young people. And we can take this across a variety of different platforms. So, you know, radio programs, for instance, are incredibly segregated by audience. So you take any type of communication where there is a lot of segregation in the audience and the impact can be not only that there is different information being communicated across different platforms. And what you'll find with candidates communicating on whatever is the new platform is that sometimes they're saying, they're emphasizing different priorities in those TikTok videos, compared to what they would emphasize when they're talking to a bunch of old people, right? And that fragmentation in the media environment is something that I, you know, presented in my first book as being one of the, the contributors to polarization these days is because there, there is this very, you know, fragmented way of communicating. It also means, though, that the information flows are such that audiences can miss out on what is being communicated in those other platforms. So that micro-targeting that happens in TikTok, young people are absolutely being the focus of attention there in a way that they're not going to be in television ads on the golf channel.

GR: And I want to come back to something you mentioned at the outset, which is this phenomenon where the generations following the baby boomers in terms of voting participation and also more generally, more formal kinds of political participation like structural political activity, maybe working in a party and even serving in office, that those things are pursued less aggressively by these generations after the baby boomers. But what they do do is they engage a lot in activism and volunteering. They just don't see the connection between that and formal political activity. And so it's not like they're disengaged, they're just engaged in ways that are not so structural and formal. Is that true?

DSH: So it is true. I mean, certainly younger generations are far more likely to volunteer. So, you know, when you look at young people, they're more engaged in their communities in some ways. I think it's a little bit of a… there's a group of people who have said like, oh, it's okay that young people aren't voting because they are doing, they’re showing up at the protests and they're doing these other things. And, you know, at the end of the day, I think it is important to emphasize and the thing that I often emphasize to youth organizations is that power in this country is shaped by elections, right? And so it doesn't really matter how many people show up to the protests so much as who shows up to the ballot box. And so it's not to be dismissive of other forms of participation because of course, they're great. And that is great for our communities to have this other type of engagement. But at the end of the day, and, you know, an electoral system, it matters which candidate gets the most votes. And those people who are in elective office care about getting elected. And so, you know, it's is just incredibly important to emphasize that the root to power policy change is through the ballot box.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with D. Sunshine Hillygus. She's a political science professor at Duke University, and she studies political generations and civic engagement. So, there has been writing about this coming cohort cliff, when it comes to the baby boomers in terms of political leadership filling those roles, national voting results and what's going to drive our national voting. Is there a cliff that we're about ready to run over and what's going to happen when we go over it?

DSH: Well, I mean, one of the things that we do see is that you know, that the pipeline for new people running for office is not going to close up, right? That, you know, there will be people who look for those opportunities. And in fact, it's entirely reasonable that, you know, some people will throw their hat into the ring when, you know, you have somebody who's been an incumbent for a very long time and then has maintained that position in power. It is also the case that as people age, some of the barriers to participation do go away. You know, as we settle, buy a home, you have children in the schools that, you know, the that you're not moving as much. And so the barrier of having to register to vote each time you move residences is less. At the same time, one of the things that I have emphasized is that there is a habitual nature to voting. And so in terms of, you know, how do we increase participation in this country overall, our best bet is to target young people because getting them into the system when they're young will then build on itself. And so, you know, we have seen increases in turnout among young people in the last couple of election cycles. I mean, it still falls far, far below that of older people. But the hope is that that builds on itself, right? That those people who came into the system, you know, in these last couple of election cycles, as they age will continue to be in the system and we'll see greater growth in participation.

GR: Is there any research out there on style of leadership among these younger generations that we are seeing as they begin to take on some of these roles? Is there any kind of generational aspect that we can identify that when these folks occupy political office, they're going to approach this differently than a baby boomer might?

DSH: Well, my research is far more focused on the voters as opposed to the elites. But I want to focus on one aspect that is quite different that we have seen in comparisons of voters and to some extent that might then translate into leadership. And that is, is that young people are far less likely to like the system, like the parties. They don't want to vote for a straight party ticket. Old people, they are happy to use party as a heuristic. There's a reason, you know, that this is a two party system. You can lean heavily on party for those down the ballot races rather than having to become fully informed about, you know, the dogcatcher race and the city council races that you can use as a heuristic your party affiliation. And there is a lot of resistance by young people for doing that as voters. And it's perhaps not a surprise, right? I mean, we're in a very polarized environment. It's easy to hate both sides of the aisle. There is a sense that, to be a good voter for young people, that you need to go out and do lots of research on every single office. And that's a really hard, if not impossible task. We're asked in this country to cast an enormous number of ballots on an enormous number of races on which, you know, we don't have a lot of information. And yet the way that we are socializing young people and educating young people is that like, what you need to do is you get need to memorize facts and figures, you need to learn all there is to know. And I mean, we could spend every minute of every day learning about the candidates and their positions and there's this unlimited amount of information on the internet. that's not necessary to be a good voter. It's not necessary to vote our interests. And this is something that older, more experienced voters recognize and so whatever they think of the two parties, right, they feel comfortable in using party as a heuristic in a way that young people don't, right? Young people have this sense of like closer to ideological purity rather than, you know, we really need to focus on, you know, my one issue or the issues I care about is this bundle and this is the side that's going to help that that bundle work. And so, you know, I think we see a little bit of that in, you know, members of Congress and so on. A little bit of that, you know, ideological rigidity that can stand in the way. It's exacerbated by our polarized political environment, but it also can contribute to it.

GR: If you're just joining us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media and my guest is D. Sunshine Hillygus. Come back to something I mentioned at the very beginning, we were going back and forth. The difference between cohort effects and generational effects and thinking about how the views and the attitudes and behavior might change over time as people age and in thinking about this generational effect or the fact of aging, you know, changes this. And I'll just be personal for a minute, I've watched myself change in the last ten years, for instance, in ways that I wouldn't necessarily have predicted ten years ago. And maybe there are other factors there that are driving that, you know, things are going on around me. But I've changed. And so, I'm just wondering if we could think a little bit about this, like, maybe put it on these Generation X and Generation Z. What are the chances that as they age they're going to start looking more like baby boomers? You know, you mentioned getting a house, paying property taxes that, I forget who famously said, you know, if you want to make a conservative, you give them a tax bill. I just get your thoughts about how those two things kind of interact.

DSH: So it is absolutely the case that, you know, our political preferences, while they are sticky, are not immovable and our life circumstances absolutely shape that. I certainly know this. I was a freshman at the University of Arkansas when my governor ran for president. And I joined that campaign and went around the state, you know, trying to convince people to vote for him. And a lot of those people I was with are now, you know, on the extreme end of the Republican spectrum. So there is a lot of evolution that absolutely does occur and not only that, but I think it is particularly the case among young people. It is not just a function of aging, but, you know, when I have emphasized the fact that we really just need to get young people engaged and stop thinking about it from a politically strategic perspective. Part of that is the fact that young people, more than any other generation, they don't like either side, right? They are much less predictable in terms of their voting behavior than previous generations. And so, you know, when I've looked at the impact of things like preregistration and various ways to reduce registration, what you see is you see those have an impact on bringing into the fold those people who are less partisan, right? That increased in North Carolina for instance, when we had preregistration, those who were unaffiliated with the two parties. And while, yes, young people might be more likely to cast a ballot for a Democrat in the last election cycle, that doesn't necessarily mean that's going to be the case next election cycle. Their lives are very much evolving and changing. Preferences are quite diverse and so, you know, in the context right now, yes, abortion and guns are very salient. But who's to say something else isn't going to be salient in the next election cycle. And so if you don't have this strong attachment to a political party, then you're going to follow the candidate that is, you know, matches to you on the issues on which you care at that moment, that you think are at stake in the election. And so, you know, again, I think that young people are less predictable in terms of their vote preferences than is often assumed in the media.

GR: Yeah, that's an interesting point. And I can remember, I think with the Bernie Sanders campaign, a lot of young folks kind of just departed the field when he came to the end of the line there on that. We've got about just a couple of minutes left, but I want to try to squeeze two questions in in the couple of minutes that we have remaining. And the first one I'm going to frame this very simplistically, but would you think it is fair to say that thinking about these newer generations coming up, that the bottom line politically for the nation is that, as these new generations take more of the reins of power, we are likely to move to the left as a country, or should we not conclude that?

DSH: I think we shouldn't conclude that.

GR: Okay.

DSH: I think that we have made that mistake so many times in the past of making an assumption that bringing a particular group into the electorate will have a particular political consequence. And it doesn't always work that way, it doesn't work that way.

GR: And my last question is more personal for you and your experiences as a teacher. So obviously, you're looking at younger people, you're studying them. You're analyzing (them in) all these different ways, but you also are personally experiencing them as an instructor, as a teacher. So just in about a minute if you could, have there been things that you have noticed in your students as you have gotten older, and you get this fresh generation of students every year, that have just surprised the heck out of you politically or socially? What are some of the things where you're just like, wow, I'm gobsmacked?

DSH: I think one of those things is this realization that young people are holding themselves to a different standard than I hold them or that other generations hold them to and that it's not a realistic standard, right? And so when they fail to do their due diligence across every single candidate and every single election, they end up staying home because they don't want to be a partisan voter. They don't want to be a bad voter, right? And so I think that we have a responsibility to try and correct this misperception that people need to know it all in order to vote, we just need to go vote.

GR: All right, so we don't want to let them have the perfect be the enemy of the good, we'll leave it at the good. That was D. Sunshine Hillygus, Professor Hillygus, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.

DSH: Thank you.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.