Out of the Mouths of Babes
Teenagers Share their Political Insights and Concerns for 2020
The Reporters Inc’s Kim Whiting recently interviewed nine teenagers from the Tulsa, Oklahoma area to find out how aware and affected they are by the current state of America’s politics. They come from a mix of ethnic backgrounds, from mostly middle and upper-middle class income households, and live with parents who have both liberal and conservative political points of view. (Most of these interviews were conducted prior to the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.)
Kim concludes, “If their responses are indicative of teens nationwide, then the general consensus of our youth is that we adults need to chill out, grow up and do what’s right.”
Our kids are so disappointed in us.
If you’re over 50 I’m betting that, like me, political obliviousness was one of the hallmarks of your childhood. In my earlier childhood, there were Vietnam protests (my dad did two tours of Vietnam) and Watergate. I was aware that these things were going on, but the emotional heat of them didn’t reach me. My youth was cool and politically carefree. Though my mom was active in the The League of Women Voters, I saw politics as an adult thing, something dull that I didn’t need to concern myself with until some distant future—if ever. Until adulthood, I wasn’t even certain of my parents’ political affiliations. Most kids of my generation were busy playing, learning, socializing, developing—doing the things kids are supposed to be doing. Most of us didn’t really care about politics. We didn’t really have to.
Today, my kids (and likely yours as well) aren’t getting the politically carefree childhoods the majority of us had. With mass media, kids plugged into the internet, and the super-heated political divisiveness in our country, politics is “in your face” and difficult for our youth to avoid. They’ve been pulled into the political trenches with older generations and many are already battle-weary.
The political issues themselves are also difficult for kids to ignore. For perhaps the first time in U.S. history, most of our big issues impact our children—or will soon be impacting them—more than the rest of us. We have saddled our children with underfunded schools, exorbitantly priced college, a culture of gun violence/school shootings, national debt, expensive healthcare and most stressful of all (according to the majority of our respondents), a polluted planet and changing climate.
We would do well to listen to our children, not only because they have good points to make, but because they’re impacted now and will be affected even more in the future by the decisions we make and actions we take today.
What do you think about how adults are behaving in the arena of politics?
MATAYA (16-years-old, Asian American, from a politically liberal household): I do not approve of the behavior of most adults in politics. Unfortunately, many politicians have dealt rashly with rising political tension and pressure. In many cases, politicians have acted unprofessionally and childish. For example, President Trump has referred to his political opponent Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” and has referred to other nations as “shithole countries.” On the other end of the political spectrum, Nancy Pelosi felt the need to tear up her copy of Trump’s State of the Union Address. Regardless of political affiliation, many politicians, especially Trump, have acted without thinking. It is worrisome to see people who are supposed to be running the nation act without impulse control. In addition to the lack of impulse control, it is also worrisome that parties are willing to put their party’s interest over the nation’s. The failed removal of Trump from office exemplifies this issue.
ANDREW (16-years-old, white, from a politically conservative household): Some adults behave in an organized manner when discussing their ideas. However, many times I have seen them acting like children who didn’t get their way. They behave immaturely, especially when discussing ideas or sharing thoughts. This kind of behavior comes from both sides of the argument, Republicans and Democrats. Discussing politics should be more like an intellectual conversation, where both sides share ideas and end up coming away with a better understanding of either the other person’s viewpoint or with a new viewpoint.
SAM (17-years-old, Latino, from a household that usually votes for Democrats): They are behaving poorly. A lot of adults are using the internet and it makes it too easy for them to express any thought that comes to mind without any filter, and without any in-person feedback or reaction, which probably makes them gutsier. Many adults seem uninformed or misinformed because they’re just reading what other people are posting. I think the primaries haven’t been ideal and I stopped watching during the Nevada primaries. The candidates were tactless and self-serving. As for Trump, I think he’s very unpresidential, rash and self-serving. He seems to just be on an ego-trip. I don’t think he’s malicious. I just think he’s not smart or properly qualified for the position. I also don’t think he’s a very good person, with women, bad business practices, and his refusal to submit his taxes, which makes me think he’s shady.
KAYA (17-years-old, white from a politically mixed household): I think a majority of them are being childish and are only seeing what they want to see. They’re stubborn and closed-minded. Trump is a child himself. He uses fear and other high school tactics to forward his agenda. He’s not a great role model for the open-minded, across the aisle politics we need to get things done.
SARAH (17-years-old, African American, from a politically moderate household): I believe that adults’ approach to politics and the general welfare of all human beings is close-minded and disappointing. There are definitely times where my generation feels as if our world and our future are being put in jeopardy because of the actions of the adults that we are supposed to trust. Our country‘s political arena is extremely divided at this time and this divide can be felt by everyone. I feel the tension between my classmates, my relatives, and my friends every day. This makes me feel upset as well as annoyed because, in my opinion, this current divide does not need to be as radical as it has become.
JEFFERSON (17-years-old, white, from a household that usually votes Republican): I believe that adults start to act like children when you bring up politics with them. I get mad at how the politicians act. For example, the Democratic Party candidates talk over each other in the debates and should focus more on what they’re going to do to help America rather than how they can beat Trump. As for the Republicans, Trump doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut and we should delete his Twitter account. He makes the whole Republican Party look bad because he’ll bully anyone who doesn’t agree with him.
MOLLY (15-years-old, white, from a politically liberal household): I think the adults in politics aren’t doing their jobs as politicians. They argue to argue, not to work out differences and at this point everything is so polarized that I’m not sure they know how to have the civil exchange of ideas that gets things done. I also think that on top of shutting down any opposing idea, they seem to enjoy causing a larger divide between parties or even within parties. I don’t see how this is productive or even beneficial to either side.
EMILY (17-years-old, Native American, from a politically mixed household): Some adults take their political views too seriously. Many adults have open debates about politics at the most inappropriate times and in ways that are aggressive, when it doesn’t need to come to that. We all have different opinions on things, so why can’t we all just talk about it like civilized people?
ELIZABETH (17-years-old, white, from household that normally votes Republican): I think some are behaving really badly—judgmental about the beliefs of others and acting like children. It’s like it’s “my way or the highway.” I think it’s really hard to get things done because they’re not working together to solve problems. They seem to only care that their problem gets solved, not seeming to care that they may be hurting others or at least not helping people.
What emotions do you feel in relation to our country’s politics and political climate?
MATAYA (16-years-old, Asian American, from a politically liberal household): Politics is so chaotic that it makes me want to withdraw from it, but then I don’t know what’s going on and can get confused because I don’t know if what I am hearing (from peers and social media) is true or not. A lot of headlines get me angry, so I step back from it. Socially, politics is a volatile subject, so I stay away from it for that reason as well.
ANDREW (16-years-old, white, from a politically conservative household): I’m disappointed in the way people act toward the Trump administration. Even if you don’t like him or his ideas, he is still your president. Instead of working against people you don’t agree with and blatantly disrespecting them, try to find common ground or viewpoints that you can agree on. Our country is organized in a manner in which it is nearly impossible for someone to be tyrannical or overruling, because we have a checks and balances system in place. The conflicting views of both parties cancel each other out; leaving us with a neutral balance. In my school, political discussion flows over into the classroom and as is the case with the adults, almost nobody’s opinion is changed after debating topics.
SAM (17-years-old, Latino, from a household that usually votes for Democrats): I’m exasperated with the circus of it and the fact that the people in charge are mostly the top 1 percent in terms of wealth and don’t represent the people they’re supposed to represent. I’m tired of all the drama and their overreacting to things that don’t matter, and underreacting to things that do matter.
KAYA (17-years-old, white from a politically mixed household): I’m sick of it all. It’s not exciting. Everyone is just angry and confused. I used to want to work in politics and was fired up about it, but it’s so far gone that I don’t feel like there’s anything I could get done. I’m so tired of all the drama. In the Democratic Party debates, everyone was tearing each other apart, in a disrespectful way, and it made me want to shut it all out.
JEFFERSON (17-years-old, white, from a household that usually votes for Republicans): I’m sad because of how split-up America is right now. No one can agree with anyone else’s opinions and it’s stupid how people can hate each other for that.
MOLLY (15-years-old, white, from a liberal household): I feel very impacted by the current political tension. I feel stuck in a country that’s doing nothing to protect, improve, or even ensure my future and the future of those younger than me. Their behavior that causes further division and gridlock shows me they don’t care about my future. On the other hand, I think there are a lot of bright new voices in politics. The political tension in our nation has inspired so many young people to produce the change that they want to see because no one else will do it for us. I also hear about great new ideas and legislation, but without bipartisan cooperation, I don’t see any of it becoming a reality. I worry about the environment and the world I will have to live in. I’m very upset that Trump removed the U.S. from the Paris Accord and rolled back laws on air emissions, water pollution, toxic substances and protected lands. These changes might have short term economic benefit, but those benefits are far overshadowed by the long-term damage they are doing. I would like to have children one day, but worry that the state of the environment won’t morally allow me to bring children into the world. I worry about my future and whether I will have astronomical debt after college. I worry that my school isn’t safe and that I am among many in the U.S. who isn’t getting a good education. I worry that the responsibility to fix these problems is on us.
EMILY (17-years-old, Native American, from a politically mixed household): I feel really tense and stressed because everyone wants to know who I would vote for and what my stance is. And all I hear about in the news is who’s going to vote for whom, and one person discounting another.
ELIZABETH (17-years-old, white, from a household that usually votes for Republicans): I’m angry, confused and disappointed. I’m disappointed that they’ve made such a mess of things, especially relations between the two main political parties. It’s so strained and it’s trickling down to the general public, the strain and the anger. I’m confused why it’s such a big deal for some people to be right or to be part of a specific party and why they think one is so much better than another.
How do you see other kids being affected by politics?
MATAYA (16-years-old, Asian American, from a politically liberal household): In general, kids seem to be very withdrawn or very angry, regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum. Another reaction I see from kids is that they get halfway mad, but then politics and the behavior of politicians is so ridiculous that they have to laugh. The main way politics is communicated amongst teens is through jokes. I can’t even count the number of Trump jokes I hear in a day.
SARAH (17-years-old, African American, from a politically moderate household): I go to a public school located in not the best part of town. (Note: The highest ranked public high school in Tulsa is in a low-income neighborhood.) I see the fear in my friends’ eyes when we go on lockdown. I have texted my parents out of fear that a shooter was on my campus. This is my generation’s reality and norm. Meanwhile, gun control is still a controversial subject despite its dire need to be addressed. And this is only one example. Don’t even get me started on climate change.
JEFFERSON (17-years-old, white, from a household that usually votes for Republicans): I see a lot of kids who are afraid to state their opinions and get involved in politics or political discussions because no matter what they say, they always get chewed up by the guy with the opposing view.
ELIZABETH (17-years-old, white, from a household that usually votes for Republicans): I think some kids are forced to make a decision at an early age about what their beliefs should be, before they’re really ready to choose, or before they really understand what everything means. Kids argue about politics when they’re not really sure what they’re talking about, just repeating what they hear their parents say. They are fired up and want to change a lot of things, especially the environment and equal rights, but some really aren’t informed about it. Some kids are inspired and feel hopeful, but some feel lost and don’t know what to do because they’re just kids and not even able to vote.
EMILY (17-year-olds, Native American, from a politically mixed household: Kids all around me talk about politics. It’s astounding how they get dragged into conversations with their parents about it. I think it’s a good thing that kids are becoming more aware, but it’s also stressful.
What do you see as going well in our country’s politics?
MATAYA (16-years-old, Asian American, from a politically liberal household): I am happy to see politics becoming more diverse. People of color, women, people from the LGBTQ community, and people belonging to other minorities are very present in the 2020 political demographics. It is good to see strong people of all backgrounds running for various offices.
ANDREW (16-years-old, white, from a politically conservative household): The economy is progressing in a manner that is good for American businesses and workers. We are negotiating better trade deals for both ourselves and the rest of the world. Our military has gained power, providing greater peace abroad, while at the same time, we have been able to cut costs and lower our debt total.
SAM (17-years-old, Latino, from a household that usually votes for Democrats): I like that the upcoming generations are more enlightened. I feel hopeful that things will get better when the younger generations get into politics, although I do like Bernie Sanders even though he’s in his 70s. He’s focused on what I believe is important.
KAYA (17-years-old, white from a politically mixed household): I think our economy is better. We’ve got a lot of debt paid off, which is great.
SARAH (17-years-old, African American, from a politically moderate household): My family is originally from Nigeria and we go back for Christmas every year. When I go back, I see what I could have had and I realize that I am lucky to be in the United States. We have a system of government in which the people’s voice can be heard and that is not something to take for granted. We have a system in which, for the most part, the people‘s needs are what is most important. We have Medicare, federal funding, security, etc. and this is all due to politicians and others who govern America.
JEFFERSON (17-years-old, white, from a household that usually votes for Republicans): Our economy is stronger than ever, or at least it was before the COVID-19 virus outbreak, the unemployment rate is at an all-time low, low wage workers are experiencing a faster rate of increased pay, and NATO has increased its defense spending by $130 billion dollars since 2016.
EMILY (17-years-old, Native American, from a politically mixed household): It’s hard to see what’s going well, as the news covers what’s going badly.
ELIZABETH (17-years-old, white, from a household that usually votes for Republicans): The news reporting is mostly about the arguing and what isn’t going well. I don’t pay much attention anymore because it makes me feel bad, and sad. I’m not really sure what’s going well.
What, if any, political issues do you worry about?
MATAYA (16-years-old, Asian American, from a politically liberal household): I worry about many political issues, from human rights to Trump’s rolling backward on environmental protection policies. The issue of gun violence is also very worrisome. I have grown up in a time where mass shootings, especially school shootings, have almost always been a valid fear. Whenever there is a school lock down or a fire alarm there is a fear that my school will be the next big headline. I see this issue as being so preventable. Education is another big issue that I worry about. It’s the foundation of any society. I have seen too many important programs cut. All students, no matter their district, deserve strong educations. If politicians are going to rely on my generation and younger to fix problems like global warming, they need to supply a strong, well rounded education to all people.
ANDREW (16-years-old, white, from a politically conservative household): The issue of gun violence generalizes the whole population of gun owners into being bad people. Most people simply keep guns in order to protect themselves and their family or to hunt wild game. Most of the time, mass shootings occur when people of an unstable mental state get their hands on an unsecured weapon. However, this could happen with nearly any other device. If people want something, whether it is legal or not, they’ll find a way to get it. I do care about the environment but I don’t think it’s as big an issue as some people make of it, compared to other topics. I don’t think it’s the government’s job to regulate things as uncontrollable as the environment, overpopulation, or other problems that are global. If necessary, we can form world organizations to fight these kinds of problems. Our government is there to help our people, not control the whole world. Underfunded schools are a major problem in our society, especially in some inner cities. Children are the future of our country. If we want to keep our country strong, we should provide the materials and opportunities for them to be successful. We should find a way to increase teachers’ pay, preferably without high taxes, as they are the ones who control our education system and our future. This applies to affordable colleges as well. As much as possible, the government should not interfere with people’s daily lives and stay as close to the U.S. Constitution as possible.
SAM (17-years-old, Latino, from a household that usually votes for Democrats): I worry aboutaffordable college and about the environment. We need to switch away from fossil fuels, to more sustainable fuels. I think fixing the environment has to happen at the highest levels of corporations and the military, because their pollution output is staggering.
KAYA (17-years-old, white from a politically mixed household): I worry about the environment and think we need to act fast. So many of us don’t think it’s going to affect us and aren’t paying attention at all. The environmental tipping point feels far away, but pollution and climate change are going to affect my kids. I know a lot of kids now who don’t believe they should have children because of the world we’d be bringing them into. We talk about that a lot. I wish college was more affordable. I don’t know where the money can come from to pay for it, but I do think there needs to be alternatives. I also think racism and prejudices need to be addressed. It makes me angry that we’re still treating some people badly or unequally.
SARAH (17-years-old, African American, from a politically moderate household): My main worries involve foreign policy, gun control, climate change, education, and healthcare.
JEFFERSON (17-years-old, white, from a household that usually votes for Republicans): I worry about gun violence. I am pro-gun and on my 18th birthday, I’m going to buy an AR-15 Rifle and go to my friend’s ranch and use the crap out of it. But I believe that we need fewer restrictions on what guns we can buy and more on who can buy them. We also need more laws on where to keep firearms and how it’s necessary to keep a gun in a gun safe. I worry about people not getting good enough background checks when attempting to purchase guns. I also worry about the still expanding wage gap that women have to suffer through, easier ways for those in poverty to find ways to get out, climate change, and teachers not making enough money.
EMILY (17-year-olds, Native American, from a politically mixed household): I worry a lot about gun violence because in Oklahoma, it’s no secret that we love our guns. I’m a high schooler, and it’s not unheard of for a nearby school to be on lockdown or implement extra security because someone made a threat. It’s a scary thing. The environment is another thing I’m greatly concerned about. The Earth is home to all of us. We keep our houses clean, so why don’t we keep the Earth clean too? It’s not that hard.
ELIZABETH (17-years-old, white, from a household that usually votes for Republicans): I worry about abortion rights and climate change. I’m afraid that some people think our climate issues are just a phase that our planet is going through. I’m sure it’s partly that, but it’s also our emissions and I think people are going to wait until it’s too late to do anything about it. That’s really scary. I worry about affordable college and what’s going to happen to our healthcare system—or what’s already happening to it.
What issues would you like the next president to focus upon?
MATAYA (16-years-old, Asian American, from a politically liberal household): I would like the next president to focus on the environment, education, and public health.
ANDREW (16-years-old, white, from a politically conservative household): I believe the next president should continue to focus on cutting the federal budget to decrease the debt total, and implement some version of the proposed Fair Tax Act to eliminate the IRS or turn it into cost monitors to ensure wise spending on government contracts that are out of control. I also think the next president should eliminate Common Core Teaching Standards in education.
KAYA (17-years-old, white from a politically mixed household): I’d like the next president to focus on the environment, racism and more school funding.
SARAH (17-years-old, African American, from a politically moderate household): Education, gun control, and climate change.
JEFFERSON (17-years-old, white, from a household that usually votes for Republicans): Climate Change – I think Trump has done a good job in some categories, but I’m angry about the environmental rollbacks that he put into effect. These decisions seem mostly to benefit people in his top 1 percent income-earning world and are at the detriment of our country at large, especially younger generations who are going to have to deal with the ramifications of his environmental decisions. This is the world my kids are going to grow up in and I don’t want them living in a world that’s been destroyed by a bunch of people who aren’t going to live long enough to see what their ignorance has caused.
MOLLY (15-years-old, white, from a politically liberal household): I would like the next president to focus on what we can do to diminish the effects of the climate crisis. I would also like the next president to work on fixing the student debt issue, establishing health care for all, and work on gun reform bills.
EMILY (17-years-old, Native American, from a politically mixed household): I want the next president to focus on education and the environment. Those two issues are greatly important for upcoming generations and need to be improved upon now so that we don’t end up in a dark pit with no way out.
SAM (17-years-old, Latino, from a household that usually votes for Democrats): I’d like the next president to especially focus on education reform, affordable college and taxing the rich. I’d also like to see marijuana legalized nationwide, in order to reduce prison populations, increase jobs, and take the power and income out of the black market—and use the taxes from legalization to bolster education.
Do you know who your parents voted for in the last election or who they’ll be voting for this election?
MATAYA (16-years-old, Asian American, from a politically liberal household): Last election my parents voted for Hillary Clinton and this election they liked Elizabeth Warren but will vote for whomever becomes the candidate for the Democratic party.
ANDREW (16-years-old, white, from a politically conservative household): Both voted for Trump, and will vote for him again.
SAM (17-years-old, Latino, from a household that usually votes for Democrats): My mom voted for Hillary last time and she’ll vote for the Democratic Party candidate that wins the primaries.
KAYA (17-years-old, white from a politically mixed household): My parents don’t talk about it. I’m pretty sure my dad voted for trump. I’m not positive about that though—and I don’t think he would vote for Trump again, because he was recently talking about how professional, mature and real President Obama was and how he misses those qualities in our nation’s leader. My mom leans toward liberal.
SARAH (17-years-old, African American, from a politically moderate household): My parents can’t vote because they are not citizens/registered. But they would vote for Joe Biden if they were able to vote.
JEFFERSON (17-years-old, white, from a household that usually votes for Republicans): My parents voted for Trump and will probably vote for him again because even though he is an absolutely horrible person, he still knows how to get things done. They would have voted for Mike Bloomberg if he hadn’t dropped out of the race.
MOLLY (15-years-old, white, from a politically liberal household): Both my parents voted for Hillary Clinton in the last election. My parents will vote for whomever the Democratic Party nominee is.
EMILY (17-years-old, Native American, from a politically mixed household): I do know who my mother voted for in the last election but I don’t know if she has chosen a candidate yet this time. We may have differing views, but she respects mine and I respect hers.
ELIZABETH (17-years-old, white, from a household that usually votes for Republicans): My parents are Republicans, but my parents don’t talk to me about who they vote for because they want me to form my own political opinions.
If you could vote, who would you vote for and why?
MATAYA (16-years-old, Asian American, from a politically liberal household): If I could vote, I would have voted for Elizabeth Warren. In a time when our president has no self-control or real plan to fix this nation, Warren would have been a strong pillar for the nation to rely on. She has a plan to fix issues this nation is dealing with.
ANDREW (16-years-old, white, from a politically conservative household): Trump, simply because he is currently the best option available and has done a decent job since being elected.
SAM (17-years-old, Latino, from a household that usually votes for Democrats): I’m going to be 18 by the general election so I will vote for Bernie Sanders, even if I have to put him as a write-in. I like his policies on student debt, health care, taxing the rich, education reform, reducing military spending and legalization of marijuana. His environmental policies aren’t perfect, but they’re decent.
KAYA (17-years-old, white from a politically mixed household): As of now, I’d vote for Bernie. A lot of people say he’s an extremist, but I don’t see him that way. He’s addressing the big issues that need to be addressed. I like that he addresses the environment, health care and free education, although I don’t know if he could really pull off free education. He’s the complete opposite of Trump and I think that’s what we need right now.
SARAH (17-years-old, African American, from a politically moderate household): I would vote for Bernie Sanders because although people claim his ideas are too extreme (and admittedly some of them are), if he were to win there are still checks and balances in place that would better control his plans. I think he has a genuine and good view of what America should aspire to be. He has also been the candidate that has reached out the most to my age group and truly considers our future, as can be seen with his plans for education.
JEFFERSON (17-years-old, white, from a household that usually votes for Republicans): I liked Bloomberg, but since he dropped out, I’d vote for Trump because he believes in the many things that I believe in, and he can get things done.
MOLLY (15-years-old, white, from a politically liberal household): If I could vote in this election, I would be unhappy with any of the choices, one way or other. I like many of the candidates’ policy ideas, but it also seems like this entire election for non-Trump supporters comes down to beating Trump, which I think gets in the way of being able to choose the candidate we believe is best. Overall, they all seem divisive and don’t seem to know how to have a discussion where the sole purpose isn’t just to state their opinion while ignoring the opinions of others.
EMILY (17-year-olds, Native American, from a politically mixed household): I would vote for Bernie Sanders because he has a lot of ideas that I like and that I hope to see come to fruition.
ELIZABETH (17-years-old, white, from a household that usually votes for Republicans): I stopped paying attention to the Democratic Party candidates because I’m tired of their arguing and I can’t vote, so I’m putting my attention on things that are more important to me. I definitely wouldn’t vote for Trump. I think he’s done some unforgiveable things, involving the Ukraine and Russia issues, and he’s so immature and dismissive on Twitter that it seems he doesn’t really take issues seriously.
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