Ozarks Tonight: Teens and Politics

For this edition of Ozarks Tonight I’m joined by two young men embodying the idealism of youth, friends both 18 years of age who ended up on different sides of the political aisle.

First, we have Sam Smith who is the chair of High School Democrats of Missouri and his friend Will Shafer. And Will has worked for the Trump and Cruz campaigns.

Obviously, that's in the past.

Now, good evening gentlemen, let's get right down to it. You two are outliers. Right? Two sides of the political spectrum. Yes. But, also, you happen to represent an interest in politics that many folks your age don't share. Why do you think that is?

Sam: Politics is an incredibly complex thing. Whenever it comes to me, for instance, trying to get people involved, I often find that people's idea of what politics is especially whenever you're young is so skewed that they don't really want to get involved because they're afraid of what it might be. You know, you see it on TV, you see, you know, crazy attacks on gerrymandering and inciting certain kinds of hatred in other people, and you see that and who would want to be a part of that?

Brian: So people just say forget it. Too much for me. Will?

Will: I know for me growing up I wanted to be involved, but I think a lot of people don't necessarily have that drive growing up. It's more sports oriented or school oriented. For me, my parents they kind of pushed this for me because they knew it was a big passion of mine. As well as I do think there's most definitely the idea that politics is a messy game, and who really wants to touch it?

Brian: But what's so interesting about that you talk about sports, you talk about entertainment today and everything else, none of that is just boring or passive, right? Politics is exciting in some ways. Politics is conflictual. Why then do you not see more young people I think seeing that they have a voice that needs to be heard and seeing that their voice getting involved in what's going on is going to make a difference for them, and for their kids, and for their grandkids? What's the problem?

Sam: I think it's mostly a failure to communicate on the sides of both parties. Especially right now. Both of our political parties are aging. We have the oldest president in American history. You look at our minority leader, our majority leader, I mean our minority leader in the Senate, everybody's really, really old. And I think that skews down even to local politics, and because of that, young people feel like they don't have a place. And so, that's really what I go for is to try and give people that position.

Brian: And Will, what are you doing out there?

Will: I think the message for both parties in a sense is slightly off for the young generation. They're not necessarily trying to get 18-year-olds out there to the polls.

Brian: Right, you all are good for putting up posters, and they'll give you some pizza and that sort of thing, right? Alright, now you two are friends. You're both 18. And one here has a Democratic symbol--the lapel pin from the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Will, you've got the Republican elephant, which is great. How do you two get along? You seem pretty friendly. You came here tonight together, so we know that you're not necessarily fighting off camera. What's going on?

Sam: Well, we disagree politically, but really it's good to have someone to talk to. Someone who also pays attention to politics and someone who is really informed. And usually we find out that being in this region a lot of the things that are grievances, we share the same problems we just have different ideas for what the solution should be.

Will: For me growing up, I tended to surround myself with people who'd challenge me, challenge my ideas, cause I never wanted someone to simply say 'you know will, you're right 100%', cause I knew a lot of the time I wasn't.

Brian: A lot of people want that. They want the affirmation of being told 'no, you're right. I agree with you 100%' right? So you two don't kill each other when you fight, anything like that?

Sam: Not yet

Brian: Okay, so how do we bottle this secret sauce because, as you know, there's a lot of polarization in the country right now a lot of people vilifying the other side? You two seem to have a good, even keel relationship. What's your secret, what should we do, and how should we take this to the rest of the country?

Sam: To me I think the secret is exposure. If you can pull someone out the echo chamber they grew up in politically. Either if you live in the city and you only get Democratic views or you live in the country or your parents are one political side very strongly, if you can pull someone out and say 'hey come to my meeting or let's go canvass together' or something like that, you can introduce them to other ideas, and i think whenever you do that you decrease the fear and you decrease the hate they have towards the other side.

Will: I think it's mainly a communication issue. The other side doesn't really want to chat with the other side at all.

Brian: Which side would that be, Will?

Will: Both sides, honestly. Most of us, we don't want to talk to each other. We just want, politicians just want to kind of make their campaign promises, get them fulfilled, or make it at least look like they tried to.

(Brian Calfano holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of North Texas and is associate professor the political science and journalism departments at Cincinnati University. He has published over 50 academic journal articles and other manuscripts on public opinion, religion and politics, media, and related topics.)  

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