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Why High School Students are Natural-Born Populists

Say what you will about The Donald and Bernie; the dynamics of this year’s presidential election are unusual. To have strong populist voices on the right and left of the political spectrum at the same time isn’t exactly business as usual, which has me wondering why populism is getting such traction these days.

I was in grad school when I first read Richard Hofstadter’s famous 1964 article about populism. I didn’t think much about it then—it was the Clinton/Bush era, a time when established, old-school political families gripped the reins of government while the anti-establishment factions that held sway in the ’60s and ’70s were essentially marginalized.

So why is populism once again resonating with young people? Hofstadter pointed to a style of conspiratorial paranoia provoked by distrust of fringe or extreme political elements but I don’t think that’s applicable for 21st-century teenagers. I talk with high school students every day, and I think populism’s draw may have more to do with how they perceive the entrenched power structures under which they live. This perception nurtures a sense of powerlessness (imagined or actual) in the face of the enormous, impersonal organizations and institutions that dictate so many aspects of their lives—where they will work, where they will live, and what they will do. For 18-year-old students who can be sent off to war but who often can’t choose their own bedtimes, that prospect can spark anger, resentment, or even alienation.

So it makes sense that young people—who tend to see issues in terms that are black and white, or good and bad—will respond to populism, which offers hope for an element of control and self-determinism in a society that can appear imperious and autocratic. They feel acutely the power of asymmetry in their lives, and need practice and guidance in discerning and analyzing the areas that are, in fact, gray. We educators need to recognize and respect the influence we wield in helping teens understand and get comfortable with those gray areas so they can make sound decisions. We must also become more comfortable sharing power with students in ways that are authentic and not superficial.


Read a critique of the Hofstadter article.