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‘We want to find common ground’: Gen Z’s stubborn optimism

Apr 11


Younger Americans came of age amidst significant change, turmoil and partisanship. Many observers have wondered how this might impact their civic engagement and political opinions as adults. Approximately 41 million Gen Z Americans will be eligible to vote in the 2024 elections.

In this unique 31-minute episode of America Speaks, pollster and political analyst Dr. Frank Luntz interviews a class of high schoolers at a private school in Indiana. He asks for their opinions on everything from tribalism and immigration, to constitutional laws and norms. Underneath wide-ranging pessimism, Luntz uncovers a stubborn and hardened optimism, and a shared commitment to bridging the country’s political divide.

The special thing about America Speaks is that I get to go across the country listening and learning from people just like you. And every once in a while you get an opportunity that’s absolutely unique. I was doing a speech at the Culver academies in Indiana, one of the most remarkable education institutions I have ever seen. These young people are so driven to do good and do well. And they’ve got a sense of character and courage, service and sacrifice, not the school’s exact words, is that it teaches young people to think critically and act positively. And what you’re about to see is a discussion I have with them before this speech for about 30 minutes, understanding what makes them tick, but more importantly, their views of America. Whenever you can hear the voices of the next generation, please pay attention, because those voices matter. So enjoy Carver Academy teach me when I say the United States of America, what word or phrase comes to mind first? Freedom. They’re very interesting. Freedom, optimism, Army, freedom, diversity, tribalism. Okay, we’ll get back to the second, there’s always going to be one negative person, the group tolerance, hypocrisy to negative people, differences, opportunities, individualism, culture, integrity, tribalism, why people identify with their beliefs, they it becomes part of their identity, rather than and they forget the end goal of politics, which is to kind of find compromises and solve, find solutions. And with tribalism, we kind of forget that end goal. And we want to stay with our party beliefs rather than kind of solve these reactions to agree with that. Most of you nodding your heads, yes. who disagrees with that? Who says we’re united? None of you? Why aren’t we the United United States of America? Somebody, I think our partisan based mentality really divides us. Because at the end of the day, we want to find common ground. And that’s how we’re going to make this country better. And I think we’re so partisan oriented in legislature and in politics, that it just, it just pushes us apart even more every day. And I think that’s something that we really need to focus on is just find common ground.


Okay with that. Yeah, kind of switch that off of what else to say. So, I think that in the United States today, we have like, obviously, like two main political parties, but I think there’s a growing polarization between the two. And I think a lot of this is actually due to us, not being able to acquiesce and kind of seek the outside views. Gonna kind of refer to like the ideas of like Daniel Kahneman and Adam Grant. So when we formulate beliefs, we’re very vulnerable to things such as like our cognitive biases, such as like confirmation bias, another way, cognitive biases, you’re talking about cognitive biases in high school. That is why this place is special. The average American could not define cognitive bias. How the hell do you know that? Learn about in my literature behavioral economics class?


I’m impressed. Do you agree? Are we this divided?


Yeah, I would say, at least from my perspective, a lot of our polarization came from the year 2020, not 2020. Because I think with quarantined or online too much, and we lost a lot of those in face a human connections. And with this freshness of misinformation that led to people going really right wing or really left wing. Because of that, what do you blame for these divisions for this polarization? Anybody?


Well, I certainly don’t think the reliance on media as like a form of like spreading information, especially social media has really helped, like, like it’s definitely exasperated, this like division that we see especially again, like I mentioned during COVID When we’re all on the screen when we don’t have that interface, personal connections that we can like ground us to reality. We’re going to see community out in these spaces online that are just going to be become like thought bubbles of the same people spreading the same ideas, and it’s fostering this like us versus them mentality. might question to that is, why is this problem only occurring in the United States but not in other countries where there are multiple parties, like for example, the United Kingdom, they have the parliament they have several From parties in there, and yet they can always find common ground. So what’s the difference between United States and other countries? Like?


What’s your answer?


I don’t know.


What’s your answer?


Um, well, I was in Germany, specifically, I think Andrew Angela Merkel, when she was like campaigning, she was only allowed to do like one advertisement or something like heavily restricted in form of campaigning, which is not something you see in America, America relies so heavily on like, driving to the gym and mudslinging and like, just paring down the other opponent, and pouring so much money from like, donors into campaigning and getting their name out there. That like it distracts from, like the actual policymaking that should be happening. So like, as soon as the President gets in office, they have to at least dedicate a year that time on the campaign trail to secure like, another term.


Is our political system working for people like you?


I don’t believe so. Why not? Generally speaking, I don’t feel completely safe in my country. I don’t feel like it’s a place where people like me can always succeed given in the given circumstances, whether that be where they’re born their economic situation, it seems like a variety of factors that have been largely propagated by our political system, over the past few decades have disenfranchised people like me. That’s awful.


What you just said to me is awful. Why is it happening?


I think it’s an overall neglect of the lower population, not necessarily lower, but just a certain demographic of Americans are misrepresented or not represented at all, within our political system. Those needs are neglected as a result. And we live in a country where some people prosper, while others are left to fend for themselves. Do you agree with this?


I do. I think looking at right now like immigration, it’s a really large problem. And I last night NBC and like we were talking about how, like the left side finally brought it to the floor. But then as soon as they did the right floor, took it off. And we’re just letting it sit there till November. Why are we not solving it right now?


What does this mean for the country? We have these divisions, and these issues and things aren’t happening for so many people? What is what does this mean for America?


I think it means that we’re just not moving forward and not having progress, especially if we can’t talk about what’s going on and try to come up with a solution, especially if we’re keep having the us versus them mentality that’s in the party system. And we’re not listening to the other side. So we can’t come to a solution. Why do we not demand change?


I feel like the political climate today is so driven off of hate for the other side of the other party, that we don’t have an identification or love for our own party, which then just drives even farther negative partisanship. And so it’s hard to they’re not people aren’t willing to work together anymore. And I think that’s the problem is that we all collectively want change. But we’re not willing to work with the other side of people with different views in order to create that change. So a few of you talked about immigration, you’re on the literally on the line. It’s where you live, it’s what you see. Why is immigration tearing this country apart?


I’m just gonna share a small story. When I was younger, with my dad, we biked along the border for miles and miles. And then because it’s a nice plane, there’s just like a terrain for Jeep to go by. And I mean, you can see the border on the border wall. It’s like 12 foot of wire, and there’s barbed wires, there’s armed officers, it seems hostile. But what people really want to do when they come to the border or stop Mexicans, people don’t understand that there’s people from Venezuela, from Colombia, from Argentina, whose governments are collapsing, there’s people die, there’s people starving because their societies have collapsed to the ground, their savings have been erased because of inflation. And their This means they want a job. That’s what they want. They don’t want to steal, they don’t want to mug you or anything. They just want a job. And that’s why they come to America. And it’s a big wave. I think this past summer, I saw a huge refugee camp, just outside the border full of tons of people who were not, it was tense, it was not like, it was not a nice place to go. There was also a building that burned down because of a fire. Nobody cares. People just think of them as immigrants, so squatters, and their people at the end of the day, we’re all people.


So should we just let people in if they want to come?


No, again, going back to this place, it’s not a place to accept success. Nobody said that. And when you define America, it’s not perfect. That’s not what it is. It’s opportunities, this place is hard, this place is difficult. But then again, going back, if you really want if you really want to try hard, you want to work for your family, you have the opportunity to do that. And that’s why I believe we should continue to strive for here is accept those people and understand that, that their life is going to be hard. And it’s not going to change. It’s going to be harder here just because of where you’re at on the social status here. And we need to be able to accept them and give them those opportunities to succeed. Should we turn down that wall and invite people in?


I don’t think we should just invite anybody in. I think you have to be able to like, I mean, like Johnny said, like, you have to prove that you want the opportunity that you want to work here. But I think like for our whole country’s history, like there’s been like strict rules. was like Ellis Island, like, you had to like, work your way up and come in and emigrate like legally and stuff. So I don’t think we should just tear it on the wall and let anyone in. Because at the end of the day, America is still America. And like, we have to kind of like we have that identity we have that, like ideology that we’ve had for so long. And I think like, it’s a nation of immigrants. So I think people should be let in. But I think opening the borders is not the way to do that.


What’s wrong with that?


Um, I do agree with him, actually, it isn’t anything crazy to think that’s happening right there. But at the end, America is a country that must protect itself. I’m also an American citizen. So I have both views. You notice that those aren’t just American voices, that the young people were speaking from across the globe, there is a concern about the future that’s very deep, and negativity about what’s happening right now that is, is obvious. And yet they believe that there is nothing they can overcome. And just maybe that optimism from the young people can be applied to their parents and grandparents as well. What should we do with immigration?


I think the immigration policy can become a lot more humane. I feel like at the end of the day, like he was saying, there’s still people that are looking for a better life, and how they’re being treated right now is brutal. It’s not okay, at all. So I think that I don’t think that opening the border is necessarily the correct the correct way to solve the issue. But there are people looking to change their lives to better themselves. So I’d be like a better screening process and allowing people in is okay to people who are watching this are going to want to know what keeps you awake at night? What are you afraid of? I’m going to ask you both your hopes and dreams and your fears. And I want to start with fears, since we’re so negative as a society. If there’s one thing that keeps you awake at night, in a sense, it is what Third World War? Why?


Well, obviously, there’s nuclear weapons and very powerful countries. And I know it’s a possibility that a third world woke a third world war could escalate to that. If there’s one thing that keeps you awake at night, it’s what?


I’m not sure how the government is spending our tax dollars that bothers you more than anything else.


I think so


what bothers you about that?


It’s going to wars that we’re not in beating genocide. I don’t think that that’s okay.


What keeps you awake at night?


The possibility of losing our Constitution?


Why does that keep you awake?


Because I mean, it’s like America is like called, like, the great experiment and stuff. And it’s worked for, like 250 years. And I think that our current political state is just like leading us more towards a path that’s becoming more and more fragile. And if we lose that, I don’t know if we’re ever going to be able to get it back. Because other countries have tried. It hasn’t worked as well.


Anything keep you awake at night, the new generation of kids are growing up addicted to screens.


You hear that? But they took your screens away? Correct? You can’t do that. Maybe that’s why you’re so articulate. I’m curious about that. What keeps you awake at night, American democracy, backsliding?




I think that like the, the events that have happened in this country, in the past three years, have have violated a lot of like democratic norms. I think if we continue to normalize it. It’ll get to a point where like, What even was saying were like, the constitutional process that has existed in this country for two or three years, was put in jeopardy.


Can you give me a specific example?


I think like what happened on January 6, regardless of like, Donald Trump’s involvement, the idea that a group of people were able to make Congress like stop doing what it was supposed to do, constitutionally. And that there are members of Congress who only objected because they were scared for their life. I think that there’s something about Congress willing to question legitimate votes or like people’s votes, just because they’re afraid of their own life and what people can do to them.


So if you could say one thing to remember Congress now about what happened on January 6, they were standing where I’m standing, what would you tell them?


They should do anything they can to make sure isn’t happening and what keeps you awake at night?


Oh, the fact that nowadays, we’re not able to have civil discussions about politics. Damn you.


Just just testing you. Who do you blame for that? Or what? I think, again, it kind of ties back to the idea of the internet having a lot of information out there. And it’s just kind of feeding into that. So our visions and our points of views become very one sided. I think our beliefs kind of become conviction and then I’m very prideful.


What keeps you awake at night, global warming, because I’m just because I feel like we’re not making enough concrete action and we’re not devoting our time as is As in, we really don’t have a lot of time to like change trajectory before it’s, we’re gonna see the consequences.


What one thing keeps you awake at night, that as a globe, we have the resources to solve issues and we’re not doing enough about it. Who do you blame for that? All of us, myself, everyone, people up on stage,


I think that everyone can no matter how small it is, I’ve done a lot of work is particularly with the global water issue. And the more that I do, the more that I learned, there’s more I should be doing, and every small bit can count. And we have like, we have more than for example, for the, like lack of access to food. Across the globe, we have an excess of food, and yet there’s people starving to death.


What keeps you awake at night?


Well, I’ve lost the ability to be able to like consistently think for themselves.


Why is that a problem?


We just follow trends, and we’re not voting for the right person, because it’s what policies that they want to make. It’s because we want to not vote for somebody in particular, it’s what’s the cause? I’m not sure. Can we solve it? Yeah. By doing what?


Educating people? Is our education system? Not here, necessarily. But are we doing what we need to do to educate people to solve that problem? Who do you blame for that?


Everyone new sources, social media?


What keeps you awake at night? Bed? Well, that’s a wonderful thought, humanity, why does humanity keep you awake?


I think we’re on a dangerous trend, like many of the sentiments that have been shared by my peers. I feel as if, as a global community, not only in America, we focus too much on the negative, more trying to find the division and the similarities. And I think that’s going to tear our collective global community apart in the coming years, who’s trying to divide us? I think, generally, it can come from the common or the common person, you and me to the top leaders of the most powerful nations in the world, it seems more often than not, then people pride themselves more about being right. And disagreeing. Rather than trying to find the commonality among the individual and agreeing with someone in order to be able to work towards a better, how do we fix it?


I think it has to come from each and every one of us. I think having dialogues like these are very important to learning more about the world around us around the people around us, and to learn to celebrate and appreciate the differences more so than things that differentiate us apart and trying to sort ourselves into a sort of hierarchy. Whereas each person is competing for a sort of status, that doesn’t really mean much in the end.


Some of you are really, really smart. It’s amazing to me that I’m talking to people from high school, when a lot of my college students can do what y’all are doing here. What keeps you awake at night, losing the values and democratic ideals that this country was built on these


specific hard work? Oh, by the way, this is really, I really care about this. And I really am impressed with you all, this is not fake, this is real. And you’re breaking my heart. Why is the value of hard work? in jeopardy.


It’s what this country was founded on, I think we, the United States stands for individualism and freedom of opportunity. And for you to be able to go in the world and find something that you can put your heart and soul into, and work hard for that. And to make a contribution out of that, whether it’s small, whether it’s for your family, whether it’s for the common good, that’s what is important. And I think our perspective and mindset has gotten too far away from that.


How do we get it back? I don’t know. But you have to know.


I don’t. And I think that’s what I want to try to figure out. Who should teach you this? Who should come up with the answer. I think families are a huge outlet and resource to build perspective to build attitudes and to build ideals. And I think teaching the individualism that each individual to have that mindset can stem at a family environment in a school environment.


What keeps you awake at night, now leaving a great legacy? And why does that bother you so much?


Well, again, I think going back to when this country was built on hard work, and that community, yes, we give people the opportunity to succeed by themselves. But what is the point of succeeding by yourself if you’re not dealing with other people, if you don’t have those people around you?


What keeps you awake at night, in a country that desperately needs to be able to build social connections with each other in order to fix everything that’s been going on the past couple of years? I think we’re only getting farther away from that. And why is that? I believe that especially within our generation, the generations that are coming after us with the world of social media, it’s causing people to be crying To be online, and I don’t think that they’re getting the real face to face connections and learning how to interact with others in the way that they need to be.


So I agree with you, how do we fix it?


I feel like it’s part of what I love about Culver is that we are able to have that 100% time on our phones, and we’re actually around interacting with each other. And we’re learning how to form those connections. But I think there needs to be more places and more education on that, and how to do that with others for the younger kids.


What keeps you awake at night?


How the global water is falling apart?


And be specific?


Yeah, let me explain. So I think we’re stuck in a Cold War era mindset. Because right now, the United States and its allies who promote democratic ideals are always pointing fingers at totalitarian regimes for messing up the world, when in fact, this is not fostering any form of cooperation. And the United Nations is just useless. In my opinion, it’s not doing us any good. It’s not doing anything that’s realistic. When I look at what’s going on in Palestine, and Israel, for a third time, the United States has rejected the resolution for a ceasefire, humanitarian ceasefire in the region. And how much did that show about how the global order is falling apart, the human rights organization of United Nations being kicked out of the Gaza Strip, because they’re accused of supporting the terrorists in those regions. And I think that just goes to show how much we’re failing to cooperate in the world together today. And all of these problems are preventing us. And what we really need to do to fix this is to move on from the past, not let the past influence our decision making in the present because things have changed. I think another way of fixing it is to have more young people in charge. Yeah. You have two people for eight years and older, who is going through running for president in the United States? What type of mindset do they have? How does that differ from our mindset, they’re still suck in 80 years ago, Vladimir Putin, why did he start the war, his mindset is still stuck in the Cold War kind of mindset. That’s why when NATO is trying to increase his influence to Ukraine, Russia decides to start a war, they felt like they’re being threatened, and they’re still stuck in the Cold War, this will impact their ability to make their own decisions. I think that’s what’s keeping us from creating a peaceful global order is that we’re so stuck in the past, and we need to move on.


What keeps you awake?


What keeps me awake, is Israeli a mass conflict, specifically, the US is role in the conflict being that the US is acting as an international police, but they’re doing so in order to support the Israeli side. And there’s also like, a concentration of saturation in American media, we only show the Israeli side of a conflict and not the Palestinian side. So that’s what keeps me awake.


You look at the election that’s coming up. And I’m not going to ask you who you support. But what does it say about America? When the Democrats are going to nominate Joe Biden, and the Republicans are going to nominate Donald Trump? What does that say about America?


Okay, so with the election of Donald Trump and Joe Biden and but then competing with each other, to me, what this looks like is, yes, I reimagined what happened before. But also, I think that things are also like getting this close because of the pandemic, which allowed for us to be more enclosed in ourselves, so I can close in our ideas and our opinions, especially like it’s like a rematch. Like, it’s like it’s making America more authoritarian sort of democratic, because ideally, the candidates who should be running for this election should be like, people who are not Donald Trump, people who are not dying, because, you know, we’ve seen like, how their administration is controlled things in America. And what I would personally want is like all people who have a unique perspective, I have to run as president, somebody else. I don’t know who said it earlier, but someone was talking about how we’re not voting based on like, our own values, but we’re voting to keep someone else out of office or the other party out of office. And so I think that goes to show like, once again, we’re just having a rematch, and no one really cares who’s in office. It’s just to keep the other personnel.


A lot of you are going to vote for the first time. Some of you aren’t from the country, but I want you to participate in this question anyway. If you are, or could be voting in November, are you voting for a candidate or against a candidate? Tell me the truth. All of you need to participate? Will your vote in November be for one of the candidates or against one of the candidates? Who says four? Raise your hands 123 Who says against I hope you get the whole shot here. Why against?


I think generally The like, The old saying is you’re picking, you’re picking the lesser of two evils when it comes to your presidential elections every four years, it seems that no matter what the two candidates stand on, there never seems to be a sort of a right fit for any given person, you’re always going to have some natural disagreements is, and that’s normal. But it always feels like there’s certain key points, whether that be their aspect of their character, or their policies that always seems to sort of create a division internally, that makes you want to pick the other person because of their negatives, rather than their positives. Why against?


I think I dislike one candidate more than I like the other candidate, and our voting system has come to the point where it’s all the extremists, I think there’s very few moderate candidates that are really part of the legislature and the government. Why against?


I think one is more likely to bring the country downs than the other. I mean, still, both not my top choices. But again, back to the lesser of two evils.


Why against


I agree with the lesser of two evils, there’s one bad option, there’s a worse option. And within I feel like there’s certain rights and certain things within the government in the country that I believe I would like my kids to have in me to still have that could be on the line with certain candidates.


Why against?


I agree, I think, looking at both of them, I don’t completely agree with both of them. I don’t think they’re perfect. And that’s okay. You know, people aren’t perfect ideas aren’t perfect, though, just going back to it. I think there’s one candidate that I believe focuses on the ideals that we need right now and currently, and then their next four years as president, that we really need to focus on and harness on, rather than the other candidates.


Why against?


I think that this is, again, lesser of two evils. And I think it’s very dangerous. This what Putin wants to see, because Putin just said a few weeks ago that, you know, for Russia, it’s more beneficial that Biden wins over Trump. And he’s kind of using that mentality, because people wants to go against what Russia wants. And it’s hard to decipher what Putin really wants right now, because it does he want Biden to win so that Russia could have an easier time, or is using the mindset of Americans that they want to go against Russia so that they would vote for Trump to get Russia hard time. And I think it’s a very dangerous thing in American society today.


Your leaders, your political leaders are standing in front of you right now. There are 16 of you, I want eight of you to tell them what they need to know. If as the president or the Congress or a senator or governor standing right here, I’m giving you the power. What would you tell them to make this place better for you and for the country, look at each other’s humans? Explain when so both my parents worked on Capitol Hill right after college, and they would see they’d go to the bars after work and Luger and Nixon would get a beer together at the end of the day. They were so their ideals were completely opposite. But at the end of the day, they went and they got a beer together. And they laughed and they joked and I think that is just so far from gone, and the society that I think we need to find common ground and look at each other as humans, and that’s how work is gonna get done.


What would you tell them to retire? I do the jokes here. Why retire?


They’re too old. I don’t think like both Joe Biden and Donald Trump like they were already during the Civil Rights Movement. Like I don’t like theirs. They don’t represent like the country like they grew up there their mindsets from a different time. What would you tell them,


I would tell them that people want to see leaders with like pride for our country, I feel like no one in the office anymore, whether it’s Republican or Democrat, has pride for America. And like what we feel as a country the past 250 years, it’s people that just want to push forward their beliefs and push forward their ideology. And like for young voters like us that are going to be voting for the first time, I want to see someone that’s going to like no matter what they believe in is going to stand for America, internationally and domestically. And that’s something that kind of worries me.


What would you tell them?


You’re serving America, you’re serving people. So when you’re making decisions, you still have these people in mind?


What would you tell them? Be able to listen to each other and have a civil conversation?


Do you think they’re able to? Would you tell them? Change is inevitable? So you might as well embrace it?


Can they know? What would you say by the way, we’re getting more and more pessimistic here. But what would you tell them?


How America could benefit from humble leadership? Are they humble?




What would you tell them?


Be future oriented and make decisions with the future in mind, this current set of events


I’m sorry. I’m actually emotional. But I’m sorry that they’re not delivering this to you. I think you have a right to it. I think everything you’ve said is so impressive. You’re shockingly good. And you deserve a government and leaders who are as good as you are. And I hope you get there. But as you so courageously concluded, I’m not sure if we’re there. But at least we’re going to try. If these young people are accurate, we got challenges ahead, but nothing that we can solve. If they’re right. There is no challenge we cannot overcome. And no hurdle we cannot exceed. Let’s hope so. On behalf of straighter news, America speaks and the Culver academies, I’m Frank Luntz, have a great day

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