Though, historically, young people have predominated in civic participation, the twentieth century saw the 18-to-25 cohort become less and less involved in politics. By the 2016 US presidential election, only about 42% of this age group turned out to vote, as compared to an average upwards of 60% for older age groups.
One person seeking to change these numbers in Sruthi Palaniappan (Harvard ’20), who at 18 years old was one of the youngest delegates at 2016 Democratic National Convention last summer.
An Iowa native, Palaniappan wanted to attend the DNC because she didn’t see anyone in her age demographic getting involved in the political process. After running at the precinct, county, and district levels, she was elected to the Iowa state delegation to the DNC.
“I think too many of us assume we don’t have enough knowledge or importance to get involved,” Palaniappan said. “I just wanted to elevate the importance of civic engagement, of young people getting involved in the political process.”
Palaniappan described her experience at the DNC as “incredible” and “surreal.”
She interacted with the other delegates from Iowa and met political figures like U.S. senators Cory Booker, Tim Kaine, and Bernie Sanders. The experience left her emboldened in her desire to see more young people in politics.
“There were lots of people there who said they were impressed by my dedication and involvement,” Palaniappan said. “They kept telling me that young people need more of a voice.”
Since then, Palaniappan has been able to share her experiences to motivate other young people to start getting involved at a young age.
After coming to Harvard in fall 2016, shortly after the DNC concluded in July, Palaniappan has joined Harvard Democrats, an organization that she praises for giving voices to important issues and avenues for students to directly engage with political leaders on the issues important to youths. However, even at an Ivy League school, Palaniappan found a big contrast between students who were and were not politically active.
“There are pockets of campus that are extremely involved and vocal [about political issues] but other groups that are out of touch with these issues and the system,” Palaniappan said. “If people are not involved in any programs specific to politics, there’s not a big way for them to hear about issues and become involved.”
She does acknowledge some progress on this front.
“There’s a bigger push within cultural organizations to get speakers that are involved in politics and activism. It’s exciting to see people who may not generally be involved in politics dedicating themselves to specific issues, like DACA,” Palaniappan said.
So perhaps the issue underlying young adults’ lackluster political participation is not apathy, as many assume, but rather inability to find the right outlet. On this basis, she stresses the importance of educating children about civic engagement early on.
“I wouldn’t say that a lot of people feel they are connected within this space,” Palaniappan said. “Certain students may feel this isn’t a space they’re most comfortable in, and that the issues most important to them aren’t being reflected in the existing organizations.”
Through Harvard’s Phillips Brooks House Association, Palaniappan has taught weekly civics courses in fifth grade classrooms around Boston since the beginning of her freshman year. She focuses on emphasizing additional ways to become involved in the political process and not limiting involvement to voting.
“I think this is an extremely effective and direct way to teach young people about the importance of civic engagement, expand their interest in civic engagement at a young age, and help them form habits so that they feel a duty to become involved,” Palaniappan said.
Palaniappan believes that nationwide education programs like this could make a huge impact: “It would let young people know they can make a difference…I want the opportunity to be there for everyone, regardless of their background. It’s easy for me to advocate issues like this that directly impact other young people because I am able to put myself in their position directly. I know I would have benefitted from a class like this when I was in fifth grade.”
Palaniappan cites education as playing a large role in her life, and she is particularly interested in early childhood education: “During election season, I was able to ask candidates what they planned to do about early childhood education. I think it is important to set young children up on a path toward success. If there’s already a disparity in early education, it’s hard for kids to catch up once primary education starts.”
The same logic applies to the transition from primary and secondary education into young adulthood. Though her involvement in Harvard Democrats has provided unique opportunities to converse with policymakers and have her opinions heard, Palaniappan recognizes that “not all schools may be able to provide the opportunities that Harvard does” in regards to political participation. However, civic education programs in primary schooling would enable students across the nation to carry their political knowledge, ideas, and ambitions into young adulthood, fostering political participation wherever they end up, across the nation.
In recent weeks, the world has seen the effects of efforts made by people like Palaniappan. Recent historic US special Senate and state elections, including that of Danica Roem, who became the first openly transgender person to be elected to the Virginia legislature, suggest the growing influence of young voters. In another part of the world, New Zealand reported a 6.5% increase in young voter turnout in its most recent elections.
Though this progress is encouraging, we still have a long way to go in promoting the widespread participation of young people in politics. Palaniappan insisted that with increased outreach, young people can foster civic engagement from a young age and improve the future of world politics.
“There will always be people who will doubt your abilities because you’re young,” Palaniappan said. “We have to let young people know they can make a difference, even if it’s just in the local community. They can get involved. They don’t have to be put down by the huge federal system.”
“It all starts with teaching kids who their representatives are and how to get in contact with them, and [encouraging] young kids to start thinking about issues and how they’re relevant to their lives.”