From the Classroom

College students could be spending their time partying outside of the classroom. Instead, they’re thinking 30-50 years ahead about the future of politics.

With midterms on the horizon, and an unclear future for the Democratic Party, young progressives have not given up hope.

A picture of a college student in pink blazer and white pants shaking hands with Hillary Clinton.

It was a Wednesday night at 7 p.m. in the Ronald Tutor Campus Center, and while most college students were tucked away in their dorms or the library getting ready for finals season, these 30 students were debating over whether to get rid of the congressional filibuster.

In a weed-themed PowerPoint presentation to honor 4/20, the marijuana holiday, Trojan Democrats president and USC junior Sydney Brown stood at a podium to get people excited about upcoming political activities happening on and off campus.

A photo of a student giving a Powerpoint presentation.

She announced a gathering of college-aged Democrats and Republicans at the home of American political and communications consultant Frank Luntz, as well as a headquarters launch and canvassing event the following week for Rep. Karen Bass, who the club has endorsed to become the next mayor of Los Angeles.

A photo of a student with Rep. Karen Bass.

The hour-long meeting in the spacious forum-style room complete with overlooking views of campus and downtown Los Angeles covered everything from COVID-19 news to community resources in South LA. These undergrads, spanning from freshmen to seniors across different disciplinary majors, ultimately took a deep dive into the latest on abortion bans across America and the hottest political topics.

With involvement on campus ranging from Undergraduate Student Government to Center for the Political Future, Brown, 21, also works as a political strategist for The Next 50. The organization invests in down-ballot candidates in swing districts and states across the country all under the age of 50, which she says prioritizes women and people of color to foster and create a more representative democracy.

“I truthfully do feel I wouldn’t rather spend my time doing anything else. So I love it. I love it all,” Brown said after describing her busy schedule.

A photo of a young women holding a sign at a protest.

As the Democratic Party inches closer to what could be a very bad midterm election season for President Biden, young progressives, like Brown, have not given up hope. College students in California and Texas could be spending their time away from the classroom out shopping or partying; instead, these particular students are thinking 30-50 years ahead. Worried about climate change, student loan debt and universal health care, they’re going door to door, registering people to vote and volunteering with organizations to support their top candidates and advocate for the values they believe in.

In the most recent midterm election cycles, among 18-29-year-olds, voter turnout increased from 20% in 2014 to 36% in 2018 when Democrats won back control of the House, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It’s almost four years later and a poll done by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School estimated that young voters are on track to match the 2018 midterms turnout. Out of the 2,024 18-29-year-olds surveyed in March, more than six months ahead of the midterm elections, the data found that 36% of young Americans reported that they will “definitely” be voting compared to 37% at this stage in 2018.

The poll also found young voters to be more disillusioned by the efficacy of voting, all warning signs that interest in voting in the midterms in November could be waning. The study found that agreement with the statement “I don’t believe my vote will make a real difference,” increased from 31% in 2018 to 42% in 2022.

“More young Americans feel that they can’t make a tangible impact via political involvement and that politics can’t meet the challenges that we’re facing. Those feelings could ultimately impact turnout,” said Kate Gundersen, 21, a student at Harvard University in a video released by the Institute of Politics.

Young voter turnout may come across as low, however, the voting rate among college students in particular more than doubled from 2014 to the 2018 midterms. According to Forbes, the surge in college student voting more than doubled from 19% in 2014 to 40% in 2018. Voting behavior patterns also revealed that at 99% of campuses, students were more likely to vote in the 2018 midterm elections than in 2014, and that the voting rates were similar among private doctoral universities at 42% and public two-year colleges at 37.8%.

That’s exactly why Brown and her fellow activists are so passionate about politics this particular Wednesday night, especially since most were too young to vote back in the 2018 midterms, and this November will be their first opportunity to do so.

Brown, who majors in political science with a minor in law and social justice, credits her political start dating back to the sixth grade when a Black man she identifies as one of her greatest mentors, like a “father figure” in her life, was wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for a violent crime that he did not commit. “I went and visited this individual while he was in jail, and I did the whole, you know, put your hand on the glass because you can’t actually touch each other,” she said. “So after he got arrested, I watched how the American criminal justice system was just extraordinarily racist and failed him at every juncture.”

Even though his case was ultimately expunged after he got out of jail, the injustice and societal barriers that Brown witnessed this man experience continued to impact her. It motivated her through her various involvements in the political realm, be it volunteering with campaigns, congressional internships on Capitol Hill with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey or leading the charge with Trojan Democrats.

A photo of a student at Capitol Hill.

“It’s what I’ve dedicated my life to,” Brown said. “And so I have a very clear vision and a very deep understanding about how important it is, and knowing that what I’m doing benefits other people allows me to prioritize that over a zealous social life that other USC kids experience.”

For another college student halfway across the country, evangelizing progressive ideas is not so easy. University of Texas at Dallas senior Kevin Patterson said Donald Trump winning the presidential election in 2016 was the fuel that got him engaged in politics. “I didn’t even know what I was going to do post high school, but that literally lit the fire,” Patterson said. “There’s really something wrong in this country for that to take place.”

Patterson, 21, participated in his first political campaign two years later during the 2018 midterms when he phone-banked at a local community college on the weekends for then-Senate hopeful Beto O’Rourke, a congressman. Soon after, he got involved in city council campaigns to better grasp the impact of local politics. “I really understood the different dynamics of inner city politics and how Republicans are able to really see these local city council nonpartisan races, because they just say low taxes, and they get out their main base,” he said.

That’s what led Patterson to go block-walking on the streets of Dallas’ 30th Congressional District on a sunny Saturday afternoon in February — the only weekend of early voting in the primary. Although he spent more time leaving literature on doorsteps, Patterson did reach three voters to share state Rep. Jasmine Crockett’s policies and values while reporters observed. In his mind, that’s still a victory.

A photo of students walking in protest with a student holding up a sign.

Patterson, an active member of progressive organizations Our Revolution North Texas and Sunrise Movement Dallas, said he has worked hard to engage with youth members and galvanize youth voters. Back in 2020, Patterson helped Crockett win her state race by just 90 votes.

“Those 90 votes really transformed the state of politics in the nation,” he said. Crockett, who is now in the runoff, could become the next member of Congress coming out of Dallas.

Patterson said he believes that the Democratic Party is not posing a big enough threat to Texas Republicans, which is why voters are not coming out. “In these elections, there’s so low voter turnout. As a youth generation, or as progressive-minded people or just Democrats in general, if we were able to just bring the people out who voted in the 2020 Democratic primaries, we would win by humongous numbers,” he said.

And sometimes it helps when the candidates themselves are closer in age to this huge group of voters the progressives are trying to motivate.

Jimmy Biblarz, 29, a candidate for Los Angeles City Council, said he believes that oftentimes college students are not treated as constituents because they’re considered transient. “But if you actually look at it, tons of UCLA students are registered,” he said. All of UCLA is in the 5th District which he’s running for.

Biblarz thinks that young people are the least represented group in politics, and that issues such as housing affordability, transit and climate don’t get represented enough in government. “Working to engage young people in the importance of politics is the cause of my life,” he said.

Brown, who believes her purpose in life is to create the highest good for all through avenues of public service, has a quote from a 53-year-old senator as her phone screensaver. “Cory Booker told me on a Zoom call that, ‘In order to stay resilient in life, you need to remember your purpose and not your position,’” she said.

“It was one of the most meaningful quotes I think I’ve ever heard.”

A photo of a student next to Cory Booker with "Cory 2020" being projected on wall behind them.