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Young Americans are raising alarms about the state of U.S. democracy in a new poll

Students wait in line to cast their ballot at a polling station on the campus of the University of California, Irvine, on Nov. 6, 2018.
Robyn Beck
AFP via Getty Images
Students wait in line to cast their ballot at a polling station on the campus of the University of California, Irvine, on Nov. 6, 2018.

A majority of young Americans are worried about the state of democracy in the U.S., according to a new poll released this week by the Harvard University Kennedy School's Institute of Politics.

The poll found that 52% of young people in the U.S. believe that the country's democracy is either "in trouble" or "a failed democracy." Just 7% said that democracy in the United States is "healthy."

There are significant partisan divides. While young Democrats are roughly evenly split on whether U.S. democracy is functioning or in trouble, 70% of young Republicans reported that the country was either a democracy in trouble, or a failed democracy.

John Della Volpe, the Institute of Politics polling director, said that after turning out in record numbers in last year's elections, "young Americans are sounding the alarm."

"When they look at the America they will soon inherit, they see a democracy and climate in peril — and Washington as more interested in confrontation than compromise," said Della Volpe, who advised the Biden presidential campaign on the youth vote. "Despite this, they seem as determined as ever to fight for the change they seek."

The Harvard Youth Poll is one of the most extensive efforts to poll young Americans, who are notoriously difficult to survey. The poll of 2,109 18- to 29-year-old U.S. residents was conducted between Oct. 26 and Nov. 8, with interviews in English and Spanish.

The poll also found that nearly half of young Republicans say there is a 50% chance or better that they will see a second civil war in their lifetime, compared to 32% of young Democrats and 38% of independent or unaffiliated voters.

Della Volpe said that along with Republicans, young people without college experience, Latino young people and those who indicated that they lived in small towns were more likely to say they believed a civil war could occur in their lifetimes.

Young people have somewhat bleak views of Biden

While young voters leaned heavily Democratic in the 2020 election, the Harvard Youth Poll found that President Biden's job approval rating is at 46% among voters age 18-29, while 51% disapprove.

That's a 13-point drop since the last Harvard Youth Poll in March, when 59% of Americans 18-29 said they approved of Biden's job performance.

President Biden takes a selfie with a supporter after speaking at the Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount, Minn., on Tuesday.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden takes a selfie with a supporter after speaking at the Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount, Minn., on Tuesday.

The findings come as Democrats are looking ahead to next year's midterm elections and attempting to energize key parts of their base, including the youngest generation of voters who are less likely to participate in non-presidential elections.

Biden receives higher approval ratings from young Democrats than Republicans: 75% of young Democrats said they approved of Biden's job performance now, compared to 9% of Republicans and 39% of independent or unaffiliated voters.

All told, 45% of young people said they believed the Biden administration cares about their generation, while 38% disagreed.

When asked about key issues, young voters gave Biden the highest approval rating for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. His lowest rating, meanwhile, comes from his handling of gun violence, which has been a galvanizing issue for many young Americans.

But disapproval among young people isn't limited to Biden. A majority of young people also disapprove of how Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are doing their jobs, according to the poll, with Republicans faring worse among the predominantly left-leaning age group.

In terms of favorability, those ages 18-29 are split on Biden. The poll found that 46% view him favorably, compared to 44% who view him unfavorably. Young people reported dimmer views of former President Donald Trump as well. His favorable rating was 30%, and unfavorable rating was 63%.

Mental health and lingering pandemic effects

The poll also raises some significant concerns about the mental health of those between the ages of 18-29 in the United States. The poll found that more than half (51%) of young Americans reported "feeling down, depressed, or hopeless" at times, and roughly a quarter reported thoughts of self-harm over a two-week period.

"Between 50-55 million young Americans are in this cohort, which means every day there are millions of millions of millions ... who are struggling with this on a regular basis," said Della Volpe.

A majority of 18- to 29-year-olds also reported that the coronavirus pandemic has changed them, with 14% saying that they had become a "very different person." Young Democrats were more likely than young Republicans to say that the pandemic had changed them.

But overall, a majority said the pandemic has had a negative impact on their life. On that issue, there is no partisan divide: 51% of Democrats, 51% of Republicans and 52% of independents all say the pandemic has had a negative impact on their life.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.

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