Gen Z, or the Gloomers, as we'll call them, cares less about political parties and more about action. So who will they cast their votes for in 2020?

By Amelia Harnish
Aug 26, 2020 @ 1:40 pm
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Credit: Getty Images. Design by Jenna Brillhart

Sadie Reynolds, 18, was born just three weeks after September 11. She was in first grade when 2008’s financial crisis launched The Great Recession, and just starting high school the year Donald Trump entered the Oval Office. Flash forward to present-day, and Reynolds is entering college at a time when universities are closing campuses and moving the fall classes online; when police violence is finally and devastatingly being laid bare; when literal wildfires are raging across the country; and when every day begins with a new coronavirus death toll. These are the markers of her coming of age, and they’re wildly different (and let’s face it, way darker) from those remembered by her parents or even those of the millennial generation just a few years older than her.

This fall, Reynolds will be among the first crop of voters to belong to Generation Z, who in total will make up one in 10 eligible voters. To say that Gen Z or the Zoomers — as journalists, marketers, and Twitter personalities alike have dubbed them — are ready for America to turn the page on the dysfunction and injustice they’ve witnessed so far would be an understatement, if you ask Reynolds. “We just feel like the world was handed to us on fire,” Reynolds says. “We want change, and we want change now.”

So far, a lot has been said about Zoomers — who may be more aptly referred to as the Gloomers, for how dystopian (and even misanthropic) they might seem on the surface. They hate capitalism, and love TikTok. As the most distrustful generation in America — according to Pew Research Center, an incredible 73% of Americans between 18 and 29 say “most of the time, people just look out for themselves,” compared to 48% of people over 65 who say the same — they don’t have a lot of faith in political institutions, especially political parties. And they are all but enthused by the thought of having to choose between Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, and President Donald Trump in 2020 in the November general election.

But to hear Reynolds tell it, none of their pessimism and surface-level hopelessness should be confused for indifference or defeat. No one understands the urgency of 2020 better than first-time voters like herself. There isn’t one issue most pressing to Gen Z: They care about climate change and gun control and immigration and racial justice and the pandemic response and affordable college. They’re absolutely fed up with the state of things, and see all of these issues as related and equally urgent, says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of Tufts’ Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). The result: They can’t wait to vote this November — and they’re likely to vote for Biden by a wide margin — but the presidency isn’t really what they care about.

“There’s been sort of disillusionment around the presidency. Now we’re seeing young people leading walkouts and protests at high schools, or city hall, or local police stations,” Kawashima-Ginsberg says. “They’re seeing young people who are just like them going out there and doing something in the community. That’s new, and that’s a different kind of motivation than saying ‘I really want Biden,’ which is not what we’re hearing.” 

This captures a key idiosyncrasy of the Gloomers: While they have pretty much zero faith in the adults and institutions that came before them, they have enormous faith in themselves and their ability to do better. Less than a fifth of Gloomers say the U.S. is heading in the right direction, yet 62% agree theirs is the generation to shift America’s course, according to Morning Consult's Gen Z Worldview Tracker. Even more interesting is that that number has risen 6 points since May. 

So if the Gloomers distrust the office of the presidency and the major political parties, where do they stand, exactly? “This generation is solidly in the direction of progressive reform. They want widespread economic opportunity, environmental justice, and universal access to healthcare, and they’re part of grassroots organizations fighting against racism and classism. Their commitment is extraordinary,”  says Brandy S. Faulkner, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Virginia Tech. “Unlike previous generations, their focus is not just on themselves, but on improving the quality of life for others.”

More than three-quarters of Generation Z voters disapprove of President Trump, according to a Pew survey conducted in January. That was before COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers shook the world. Data suggest that both issues — the government’s inability to respond to a crisis, and the systemic racism embedded in the justice system — have only activated young voters even more: 75% of Gloomer respondents said the pandemic has majorly impacted their worldview, and 68% (up 21 points since April) say the same about Black Lives Matter, per Morning Consult. 

Kenna Borrieci, 20, counts herself in that cohort. Before March, she wasn’t all that engaged with the political process. She wanted Sen. Bernie Sanders on the presidential ballot, but she didn’t vote in the primary because, like a lot of Gen Z’ers, she doesn’t have a strong party affiliation. “When COVID happened, I started getting much more involved,” she says. Then came George Floyd’s death and the outpouring of activity in solidarity with the Black community. She says she’s participated in demonstrations, and now racial inequality is the issue that holds the most weight for her. In the fall, she plans to vote for Biden.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Salena Debreyesus, 18. “Given current events, my [progressive] views have strengthened. I’ve taken this time to sit down and look at how things are impacting me and the greater community,” she says. 

While the Gloomers’ comparative radicalism (a 2019 poll found that 64% of Gen Z voters say they’re somewhat or very likely to vote for a socialist candidate) and their devil-may-care-attitude (uh, remember when they got together on TikTok to embarrass Trump at his Tulsa Rally?) have gotten a lot of deserved attention, what’s been overlooked is their surprising pragmatism in the face of historic misfortune.

Amelia Federico, 18, tells me she was supposed to be heading to Washington D.C. to attend American University this fall. Instead, she’s staying local to attend the community college near her Denver, Colo. home for the next year. “I didn’t feel like it was financially right for me to spend $40,000 for an online university,” she explains. “So hopefully in Fall 2021, I’ll get to go.”

Federico says she cannot wait to vote this November for Joe Biden. She also voted Biden in the primary, making her a bit of an anomaly given that Biden struggled to win over the youngest voters earlier this year. In making her decision, she applied the same pragmatism of her choice to stay home from school this year. “I wasn’t gravitating towards Joe, but he was the person I landed on because I had to think about not only what I wanted, but who was gonna be the person to bring people together when it’s them against Donald Trump?”

She also  cited the pandemic, climate change, and structural racism as urgent issues. “I believe my generation has to carry a lot more at such a young age because if we won’t, who will?”

The Gloomers may turn out to be the most politically engaged generation in recent memory. Kawashima-Ginsberg cites a CIRCLE survey from June 2020 that shows an incredible 60% of Gloomers across all racial groups say they are part of a “political movement that will vote to express its views,” and 27% of 18-24-year-olds say they’ve protested or marched, a 22% increase for the same age group four years ago. “This kind of civic activism was fringe just a few years ago. It’s now something everybody does,” Kawashima-Ginsberg says. “And they are not replacing electoral engagement with activism. They are saying they are engaging in both.”

Whether this urgency around the issues, and the general lean to the left, will all ladder up to a Biden victory is an open question. As much as the various survey data (from both Pew and CIRCLE) suggest Gen Z is poised to be a liberal force this year, one thing we know for sure about the Gloomers is that they’re unpredictable and not easy to categorize. “If you think everyone [in Gen Z] supports Bernie, that’s a misconception,” Kawashima-Ginsberg says. “We forget how diverse they actually are.” 

When it comes to party identification, CIRCLE data from 2018 show about about a third (35.5%) lean Democrat, another 21% say they’re Republicans, and one third of youth identify as Independents. This last group — the independents — is the wild card that could include both very progressive and very conservative or libertarian folks. “That really, really progressive piece of the pie is still growing. But there are also many members of Gen Z who are ‘fiscally conservative and socially liberal,’” Kawashima-Ginsberg says. “About a third of them are more traditional Republicans, even if they’re not fans of the current GOP.” (Indeed, even Gen Z Republicans diverge from their elders in key ways, per Pew data: They’re way more likely to agree that Black people are treated less fairly than white people, and they’re more likely to agree that human activity is causing climate change.)

The other factor, of course, is turnout. While historic youth turnout in 2018’s midterms is certainly a good sign, Dr. Faulkner says we shouldn’t overlook the possibility that without the excitement, fewer Gloomers will vote for president at all. “We’re right when we say they don’t really have another choice [outside of Biden or Trump],” she says. “But they do. They can choose as a matter of protest to sit out, and that’s a serious possibility.”

The pandemic has also created a good amount of confusion among the youngest voters about how to vote by mail, and whether they are registered, the 2020 CIRCLE data suggest. “But when you encounter barriers when you’re voting, the thing that makes you stick with it is being really passionate about something,” Kawashima-Ginsberg says. And for the Gloomers, there’s no shortage of passion.

“Change is gonna happen regardless who’s elected for president,” Dabreysus says. “That’s the main point people need to get about my generation.”

“I know that voting will make a real change even if who I vote for doesn’t win,” Reynolds says. “A lot of people my age think that our generation is going to change the world. It sounds corny. But I think if we keep believing that then we really will.”