Is politics making people sick? A lot of young people say so

Demonstrators block Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., during rush hour, with the Capitol in the background.
Demonstrators near the U.S. Capitol in December ask that Congress pass President Biden’s legislative agenda. Among young people, there’s a “mounting frustration and disillusionment with the way politics is being practiced at this moment,” says polling expert John Della Volpe.
(Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)

Ask most Americans what they think about politics, and the negative descriptions pour out: nasty, petty, squabbling, gridlock.

And yet, the share of Americans engaged with the political system has never been higher.

The last presidential election featured the largest turnout of eligible voters in more than a century, matching turnout percentage records set back in the days when “eligible voters” in most states meant only men and, in many, only whites. In addition to voting, the share of Americans contributing money to political candidates and otherwise participating in electoral politics has also risen.

It’s a defining characteristic of our era — the glaring contrast between the revulsion many Americans express toward politics and their willingness, nonetheless, to engage with it.


That contrast is especially striking for young Americans, a group whose political habits and preferences are still being shaped.

That helps explain why a group of Harvard students and their faculty mentor found themselves briefing President Biden on Monday about the latest findings from the semiannual poll of American young people conducted by the university’s Institute of Politics.

Politics and mental health

The poll’s headline number was that Biden’s job approval among Americans aged 18 to 29 has continued to plummet, dropping 18 percentage points over the last year — from 59% in the first spring of Biden’s tenure to 41% now. That made the Harvard survey the latest in a series of polls to show Biden, and Democrats more generally, in trouble with the young voters who were key to their victories in 2018 and 2020.

But the students also told Biden about another aspect of the poll which, in the long run, may matter more: A majority of young Americans, 52%, reported feeling “down, depressed, or hopeless” for several days or more during the prior two weeks, and nearly 1 in 4 have had recent thoughts of hurting themselves or that they would be “better off dead.”

Those indicators point to unusually high levels of mental or emotional strain, part of the youth mental health crisis that Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy warned of in a formal health advisory in December. From 2009 to 2019, the share of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%, to more than 1 in 3, Murthy reported. Between 2007 and 2018, the suicide rate among Americans aged 10 to 24 increased 57%.

A year ago, when the Harvard poll found similarly high levels of mental stress, many people, including about a third of the young people polled, attributed much of the problem to the stress of lockdowns and the isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. But COVID-related restrictions are largely gone now, while the high levels of depression and anxiety persist.

Asked what aspects of life are harmful to them, the young people Harvard polled had a clear answer:

Politics and news are hurting their mental health, nearly half said — making those two the most frequently cited as harmful.


By contrast, about three-quarters of those surveyed said that their work had a positive (45%) or neutral (33%) impact on their mental health. Most said the same for social media.

Few viewed politics or the news media as positive factors. Overall, 45% said politics was having a negative impact on them. The level was even higher among people who identify as LGBTQ — roughly two-thirds of them said that politics was having a negative impact on their mental health.

There are at least a couple of different ways of interpreting that finding, and they are “not mutually exclusive,” said John Della Volpe, the polling director at the Institute of Politics.

Substantively, many young people care intensely about issues such as climate change, student loan debt, LGBTQ rights and racism. Given that progress on those fronts has been slow, at best, it should be no surprise that many young people look at the state of American politics and despair.

Young people “have this weight they carry” related to their “concern about these systemic issues they see as holding them back and their peers back and holding the country back,” said Della Volpe. There’s a “mounting frustration and disillusionment with the way politics is being practiced at this moment.”

That same perception that nothing is getting done lies behind much of the decline in Biden’s approval numbers.

Beyond disappointment over issues, however, the poll points to something else that doesn’t involve the content of American politics so much as its form.


A large share of American young people say they feel “under attack” because of their racial, ethnic or sexual identities.

One in five Americans between 18 and 29 identify as LGBTQ, and nearly half of them, 45%, reported feeling under attack “a lot” because of their sexual orientation, the poll found.

Nearly 6 in 10 young Black Americans said people of their racial background were under attack “a lot.” So did 43% of Asian American and Pacific Islander young people and 37% of Latino youth. Almost half of young Republicans, 46%, said they believe people who hold their political views are under attack “a lot.” Religious minorities, including Jews, Muslims and evangelical Christians, were also more likely than others to say they felt under attack for their beliefs.

All that adds up to a very high percentage of young Americans feeling under assault, whether from the right or the left. That feeling of beleaguerment reflects the intensity of the nation’s culture wars, many of which currently focus on the rights of LGBTQ individuals and families, as well as the tensions over race and ethnicity that continue to shape politics and the overall level of vitriol that suffuses so much political debate.

The question on which the next few elections could turn is how young people respond to that feeling: fight or flight?

In 2018 and again in 2020 youth turnout soared relative to previous elections. The current generation of young people showed a much greater commitment to involvement in electoral politics than did the young voters who turned out for Barack Obama in 2008, but then largely abandoned the field in 2010 and subsequent elections.

Della Volpe, who looked deeply at the political awakening of the country’s youngest voters in his recent book, “Fight: How Gen Z Is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America,” attributes the generational difference in large part to the impact of former President Trump, who “made the importance of politics visible to young people.” Trump, he said, inadvertently created a generation of politically engaged young people who mostly oppose his policies.


“It may be his greatest legacy,” Della Volpe said.

So far, the Harvard poll shows that high level of political engagement continues, despite young Americans’ disaffection with Biden. The huge unknown is whether young people will remain engaged or increasingly turn away from an arena in which they feel under assault and emotionally vulnerable.

For Democrats, maintaining a high level of youth turnout is an existential issue. In 2020, voters in Generation Z (those ages 18 to 23 that year) and the millennial generation (ages 24 to 39 in 2020) went for Biden over Trump by 20 percentage points, according to the Pew Research Center’s postelection study of voters. The two ran roughly even among baby boomers and Generation X, while Trump beat Biden soundly among their own age group — voters 75 and older.

Biden won in large part because Gen Z and millennial voters made up 30% of the electorate in 2020, up from 23% just four years earlier. In 2024, those two generations will probably make up around 40% of the voting population, Della Volpe estimates.

Over the long run, the inevitable generational shift in the electorate poses a challenge for Republicans.

The sorts of fights that excite the party’s voters — the “Don’t say gay” measure that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law last week, for example — put the GOP sharply at odds with a large majority of people younger than 30. Currently, “there are about as many LGBTQ young people as Republican young people,” Della Volpe noted — 21% versus 27%.

In the near term, however, it’s Democrats feeling the pinch. Older voters reliably show up to cast ballots; younger voters are more easily disillusioned.


Republicans have successfully deployed their power to maximize disillusionment by blocking Democratic initiatives.

Democrats’ slim chances of keeping their Senate majority, and Biden’s ability to bounce back from his current problems, both depend heavily on finding ways to counter that and keep young Americans engaged and motivated. It’s no wonder that the Harvard poll caught the attention of the man in the Oval Office.

Redistricting: Democrats lose a big round

New York’s highest court ruled this week that Democrats violated the state’s constitution when they redrew congressional and legislative district lines to strongly favor their party, one of the most aggressive gerrymanders of the current round of redistricting.

The 4-3 ruling from a court whose members were all appointed by Democratic governors sharply disappointed party strategists. A special master will now draw the state’s new district lines, and whatever plan he comes up with, it almost surely won’t deliver 22 of the state’s 26 congressional districts to Democrats the way the map the Legislature passed earlier this year promised to do.

The ruling continues two trends that have marked the once-a-decade process of redrawing district boundaries to keep their populations equal: the adoption, mostly in blue states, of rules and procedures such as citizen commissions to limit gerrymanders and the increased willingness of state courts to enforce those rules.

The next big court fight will come in Florida, where a Republican-dominated court will eventually rule on whether a gerrymander pushed by DeSantis violated that state’s constitutional ban on partisan line drawing.


If the Florida court does what the New York court did, the two rulings could largely cancel each other out. If DeSantis’ map prevails, however, the result will reinforce a system of blue states and red states operating under very different rules — one set that strongly limits gerrymanders, the other which allows them — to the significant advantage of Republicans.

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The latest from Washington

— A new study finds that the level of incivility in tweets by members of Congress increased by 23% between 2009 and 2019. Melanie Mason reported that the study’s authors attribute the increasingly nasty tone to the way Twitter’s “like” and “retweet” buttons reinforce the spread of toxic content. Calm, polite tweets didn’t get shared nearly as much as sharp-edged, negative ones, according to the study of 1.3 million tweets from official congressional accounts.

— Is Sen. Dianne Feinstein the victim of a sexist double-standard regarding attention to her age and reports of mental lapses? No, says Mark Z. Barabak. It’s true that the Senate’s other 88-year-old, Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, faces no similar pressure as he runs for a sixth term. But Grassley hasn’t shown signs of decline similar to those Feinstein has exhibited, Barabak wrote.

— Biden has asked Congress for an additional $33 billion to support Ukraine against Russia’s invasion and for the authority to make it easier to seize and sell the assets of Russian oligarchs, Eli Stokols reported. The request earmarks $20 billion for military assistance, $8.5 billion in economic assistance to help Ukraine’s government continue to function and $3 billion in humanitarian aid. It comes on top of $14 billion the U.S. has already provided Ukraine and covers what administration officials believe Ukraine will need over the next five months as the war becomes a protracted conflict.

— Vice President Kamala Harris tested positive for COVID-19, but remains largely symptom-free, Noah Bierman reported.


— Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas defended the administration’s plan to rescind a pandemic-related border restriction known as Title 42, but faced intense questioning from lawmakers, Anumita Kaur reported. “We expect migrant levels to increase,” Mayorkas said, but added that his agency has provisions to “prepare for and manage any rise of any noncitizen encounters.” The Trump-era policy, which began in 2020, denies migrants a chance to claim asylum in the U.S. on the grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19. A federal judge in Louisiana has issued a temporary injunction to block the administration from ending the policy.

— Biden shot down speculation that he is open to canceling up to $50,000 in debt for federal student loan borrowers, after Democratic lawmakers in favor of forgiveness suggested he was moving in their direction, Arit John reported. “I am considering dealing with some debt reduction,” Biden told reporters. “I am not considering $50,000 debt reduction. But I’m in the process of taking a hard look at whether or not there will be additional debt forgiveness.”

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The latest from California

— With six weeks remaining before the primary for Los Angeles mayor, Rick Caruso has already spent more than $23 million — far surpassing the combined spending of the other candidates in the field. As Julia Wick, Benjamin Oreskes and Iris Lee reported, Rep. Karen Bass, the onetime front-runner in the race who was tied with Caruso in the latest UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll, has spent just short of $800,000 this year.

Caruso, a billionaire developer, is mostly self-funding his campaign. Bass has raised more than $1 million since the start of the year and received an additional $1 million from the city’s matching program, which Caruso has opted out of.

— On the 30th anniversary of the civil unrest that tore through Los Angeles in 1992, the share of city residents who expect that another wave of “riots and disturbances” could hit the city has sharply risen, Sandy Banks, Alejandra Reyes-Velarde and Ruben Vives reported. According to a survey done by Loyola Marymount University every five years since 1997, the share who rate renewed riots as likely is now at the highest level since the survey launched.

— Millions of California families would receive cash rebates of $200 per person under a plan unveiled Thursday by state Senate Democrats, John Myers reported. The plan would provide additional boosts to those enrolled in government assistance programs as well as subsidies provided to small businesses. It’s all part of an effort to divvy up the state’s towering tax surplus. The legislative plan would be more far-reaching than recent proposals by Gov. Gavin Newsom and others to provide one-time cash payments in response to the recent spike in gas prices.

— Some of the state’s most powerful interest groups — trial lawyers, doctors and hospitals — reached a deal under which cash payments in medical malpractice cases would go up for the first time in nearly five decades. The compromise avoids a costly fight over a ballot measure that was aimed at the November election, Melody Gutierrez reported. The current limits were set by a law passed in 1975.

— Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Tuesday that his department was targeting a Times journalist in a criminal leak investigation for her reporting on a departmental cover-up, but then backed down after a barrage of criticism from politicians, the newspaper and press freedom groups, Harriet Ryan and Brittny Mejia reported.


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