How Events Shape, Or Don't Shape, Political Worldviews

Apr 20, 2018
Originally published on April 20, 2018 11:52 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Today, on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting and just over two months after the shooting in Parkland, Fla., many students around the country are walking out of class again. They're calling for stricter gun laws. One big question around these protests is what kind of lasting political impact this might have on a new generation of first-time voters. NPR's Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Emily Nakano (ph) says she's been around guns her entire life. She's a senior in high school from Illinois.

EMILY NAKANO: The first time I was behind a gun, I was probably 3 or 4. I remember early years going to the gun range with my family. And I think the first time I shot totally independent was probably when I was 10 or 11.

KHALID: Nakano says she's not scared of guns, but sometimes she's scared at school. She's gotten accustomed to lockdown drills. She's been doing them since she was in second grade.

NAKANO: An alarm plays over the PA system, and we lock the door, turn off the lights and hide in a corner away from the window.

KHALID: Nakano's 18. She's part of this new generation of voters coming up behind millennials. They're often called Generation Z. Nakano voted for the first time this past March in the Illinois primary, and she chose the Democratic ballot even though she thought she was a Republican growing up. Her vote was not strictly about guns, but she says something needs to be done, and she's not alone.

JOHN DELLA VOLPE: Gun control is now the symbol of all things that young people really despise about Washington, D.C.

KHALID: That's John Della Volpe. He's director of polling at the Harvard Institute of Politics which surveys young voters. More young people say they're definitely voting in the midterms than he's ever seen in his polls before.

DELLA VOLPE: This is, I think, the culmination of a year or two years of frustration building up symbolized by the tragic events of Parkland.

KHALID: He says it's a broader reaction to Donald Trump's election. Many young people say they're now fearful about the future of America - and that, analysts say, could be important. Kristen Soltis Anderson is a GOP pollster.

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON: When you are young, your political views are being molded. And the things that really stick with you tend to have an echo over time.

KHALID: Anderson is a millennial who studied her generation. She says the election of Barack Obama was pivotal for her fellow millennials, but there was something else, too.

SOLTIS ANDERSON: I think of 9/11 as the beginning of the political awakening for millennials. You had this older piece of the millennial generation realizing we are not alone in the world. The world is a scary place.

KHALID: But the idea that experiencing events at the same time creates some sort of uniform political consciousness has its skeptics. Todd Gitlin is a sociologist who's written a number of books about the 1960s. He says, for example, look at the civil rights movement.

TODD GITLIN: Your attitudes vary greatly according to whether you were black or white, whether you were in the South or the North.

KHALID: And as a result, you inherited a different set of politics. Gitlin doesn't believe in discrete generations.

GITLIN: It's not a function of birth dates. It's a function of what's salient to them. Where are they in their life cycle when certain events take place?

KHALID: He says key events do matter, but you can have two polar opposite political groups spring out of the same moment. Take, for instance, the escalation of the Vietnam War. Dewey Chaney (ph) is a Vietnam War vet I recently met in Charleston, W.V. And he told me that he wasn't really politically aware until he came home from the war, and it did not have the same impact on everybody.

DEWEY CHANEY: The war was very unpopular. Half the country was for it, half was against it. It was hardhats versus hippies. It was a mess. And a lot of people was protesting, a lot of body bags coming home on the evening news.

KHALID: Vietnam helped shape his identity as a Democrat.

CHANEY: If it wasn't for the protests, who knows how long we would have been there?

KHALID: The students protesting today also hope they can bring about change by putting pressure on lawmakers and registering new voters. About two-thirds of 18 to 29-year-olds want stricter gun laws according to polling from the Harvard Institute of Politics. That's 15 points higher than after the 2012 Newtown school shooting.

The question is how much of an impact this issue will have on these voters as they age into the electorate. Experts who study voting behavior don't know that this will be defining for this generation, but events that occur when we're younger tend to have an outsized impact on our politics as we get older. Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.