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Members of Congress get a lot of calls from people wanting things, most of which receive polite regrets from staffers. But lately one particular call is consistently getting past the gatekeepers: the one from Chris Evans.
Yes, that Chris Evans.
For a year and a half, the 39-year-old megastar (he turns 40 on June 13), best known for playing Captain America in the Marvel movies, has been quietly working the halls of the Capitol, occasionally in person, in an effort to persuade senators and representatives to put aside their hyper-partisan hyperbole and explain, in under two minutes, their views on politics and policy to a new generation of young potential voters.
The two-minute interviews are posted to A Starting Point, an app and website that Evans co-founded with director and actor Mark Kassen and health care entrepreneur and philanthropist Joe Kiani. Politicos talking policy may seem like heavy fare for the TikTok cohort, but the venture has so far defied gravity. It has more than 140,000 Instagram followers and 72,000 followers on Twitter—big numbers for politics-only content, especially given the site’s non-partisan approach. (In spite of the focus on the TikTok generation, A Starting Point isn’t active there, conceding that territory to younger posters.) “I love the idea of getting concise information from the people who are most involved in the political process, in their own words, without any journalistic spin,” says Evans. “This is about understanding who these people in office are, and how they’re voting.”
The site gives politicians a chance to weigh in any time on any topic. But much of the action revolves around pairs of opposing-party politicians pressing their disagreement around current hotly debated issues. Thus the home page recently featured dueling videos from Republican Ohio Representative Dave Joyce and Democratic Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer arguing about federal cannabis policy, and Democratic California Rep. Katie Porter exchanging points and counterpoints with South Dakota Republican Rep. Dusty Johnson on eliminating the filibuster.
“When I was a teenager, politics felt like something that was far away from what mattered to me,” says Evans. “Maybe if I had had a chance to listen to powerful voices from someone like a Katie Porter, I’d have been inspired and curious.”
The youth vote has for decades been so unreliable that political campaigns considered it barely worth their time and effort, compared to the more certain payoff from older voters. Millennials, now mostly in their 30s, started to bend that curve, proving to be relatively eager voters. But the younger Generation Z, which includes a raft of new voters each year, has accelerated the trend. About 55 percent of eligible voters between the ages of 18-to-29 voted in the 2020 elections, compared to 44 percent in 2016, according to Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).
That jump, which is bigger than other age groups saw in 2020, helped lift the youth vote to 17 percent of all votes cast, the most since the voting age was lowered in 1970. And further increases may be in store for future elections, says CIRCLE Deputy Director Abby Kiesa. The 2020 increase was particularly outsized among 18- and 19-year-olds, suggesting they and the sub-18 voters who will come of age in 2022 and 2024 may bring a fresh surge in numbers centered on ever-younger voters. “These kinds of increases among young voters are unheard of,” she says.
The 10- to 25-year-olds that Evans is targeting have been largely ignored by politicians. That may be because Gen Z, having been almost literally raised on Snapchat videos, has shown little interest in traditional sources of information. “They’re savvy consumers of digital media, but candidates have rarely spoken to them directly to address what especially matters to them,” says Elizabeth Matto, director of the Center for Youth Political Participation at Rutgers University. “Any way elected officials can engage them online in an unfiltered way is going to resonate with them.”
It’s increasingly difficult to ignore Gen Z. These young voters do more than just turn out on election night: they are also quick to engage in the grassroots of politics, including petitions, campaigns and protests. That passion for the issues and the willingness to act on them, together with a social-media-centric world view, is starting to reshape the political landscape. That short clips of babbling politicians can strike a chord with these youthful voters could be a harbinger of an historic shift in the American electorate.
Diverse and Passionate
Beyond their numbers and propensity for voting, Gen Zers are also the most diverse generation in modern American history. According to a census analysis, half of them are people of color—four percent more than millennials and 20 percent more than Baby Boomers. That means racial justice isn’t just an abstract principle they believe in—it’s often a personal struggle for them, their families and their friends. “It’s not that we’re trying to be the interface between younger generations and politics,” says Kassen. “But we know from our interactions with them that they’re not interested in traditional narratives.”
Also differentiating Gen Z are the extraordinary events that have taken place during some of their most impressionable years. They have seen the emergence of mass shootings, in schools and elsewhere, as a standard feature of American life; they’ve watched cellphone and bodycam videos of Black people shot to death or suffocated by police; they’ve lived through four years of the most polarizing president of modern times; they’ve been trapped in the deadliest pandemic in a century; they’ve been pummeled by increasingly extreme weather events; and they’ve watched insurrectionists mob the Capitol as a third of Americans refuse to accept the results of a presidential election. Then throw in economic upheaval that has stalled many of them on the path to financial independence.
These events affect everyone, of course, but to young people they are likely to be formative.
While the full impact of these experiences on the worldviews of Gen Zs can’t yet be calculated, it’s clear that as a group, they are not interested in taking any of it lying down. That became apparent after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17 people. “Students quickly organized political responses, not only marching, but identifying the positions that members of Congress were taking on gun control, and engaging other young people to register to vote,” says Matto. Swedish Gen Z activist Greta Thunberg, meanwhile, demonstrated that same year how a 15-year-old could draw global attention to the environment.
Seeing that these sorts of efforts can swing elections and affect policy, Gen Zs have become all the more politically engaged—and impatient. “They don’t want to see that politicians are trying, and they don’t want to achieve moral victories,” says Brent Cohen, executive director of Generation Progress, a progressive political advocacy group focused on younger voters. “They want to see which politicians can make it happen and get bills passed.” To get Gen Zs to vote in ever-larger and even election-swinging numbers, he says, many candidates are going to give young people the kind of attention that until now has been reserved for undecided voters in swing states.
Talia Joseph, 19, is looking forward to flexing that sort of newfound political muscle. As an incoming freshman this fall at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, she is not only a youth voter but a swing-state voter as well. “People my age realize how much of an impact our vote had in 2020,” she says. “I like Joe Biden, but he’s not perfect. If he makes any policies we don’t approve of, we know we can pressure him.” Joseph, who’s one year older than Thunberg, is active in fundraising and organizing aimed at turning up the heat on the administration in combating climate change.
How are Gen Zs making up their minds on the issues? As the first “digital natives”—that is, people born into the age of ubiquitous internet access—they’re less dependent on traditional media to get a sense of what’s happening. “My parents check the news every day to catch up on the issues,” says Joseph. “My friends and I get all that from social media.”
By social media, she doesn’t mean Facebook and Twitter. Despite all the attention those platforms have attracted for their roles in influencing the last two presidential elections, Gen Zs tend to focus on YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. More than 100 million Americans are active on TikTok alone, and most of them are Gen Z; in the 18 months after January 2018, activity on the platform increased eightfold. Trump started trying, unsuccessfully, to shut TikTok down in July 2020, claiming the Chinese-owned app presented a security risk. It also has been ground zero for mostly progressive Gen Z activity. Case in point: when a million ticket requests came in online for a June-2020 Trump rally and only 6,200 people showed up, the difference was widely attributed to young TikTok activists eager to thwart the then-president.
Chris Evans wasn’t thinking about any of that back in 2017 when he used Google to search for an unfamiliar legislative acronym he had heard on the TV news. He doesn’t recall the acronym, but he clearly remembers his frustration in having to wade through search results that failed to deliver a quick, clear answer about the policy issue he was concerned about. “You can find a 30-second video on how to do almost anything,” Evans says. “But where do you go to get a quick breakdown on a political issue, and hear what both sides have to say about it? It felt like a big missing piece to me.”
To provide that piece, Evans recruited Kassen, a friend since working together on the 2011 film Puncture, and Kiani. The three co-founded A Starting Point to fill the gap in here-are-the-issues online information. Since they were aiming at Gen Z, they decided to stick with short videos. To keep the tenor informational—and to avoid vicious, snarky food-fights—the site has no comments or “likes.” “You have these curious young voters who throw in a political comment on a website, and suddenly they’re bombarded with vitriol,” says Evans. “We didn’t want to be part of that nasty landscape.”
Evans was also determined to let both sides have their say. That was a tough decision for him, he admits, given that he himself is an outspoken progressive. “We saw a lot of people in one party really show a shortage of integrity in recent years,” he says. “That makes it hard to put them on the same plane as the other party.”
The feeling, at first, was mutual. Many of the conservative members of Congress Evans approached turned him down initially, fearing that yet another Hollywood liberal was out to make them look bad on a left-leaning media outlet. But he slowly won over many skeptics by, he says, giving them equal time, with no partisan editing or editorializing. Still, the site draws the line at falsehoods, baseless claims and conspiracy theories. There are Republicans on the site arguing for tighter restrictions on voting, but none cite the alleged theft of the 2020 election as justification. “Whether we like what they say or not, everyone we have on the site deserves to be there, because they won the vote of the people,” says Kiani. “We give them a chance to say what they stand for, without hyperbole, and without anyone interpreting it.”
The videos on A Starting Point offer a chance to see politicians when they aren’t pandering to the hard-line voters of their parties or sparring with journalists probing for controversy. The results often have the feel of a relaxed conversation. Some are purely personal: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer recalls in one video that he first got hooked on politics after a fellow student at Harvard invited him to knock on doors for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential primary campaign—an offer Schumer accepted only because he wanted a break from his gloom at having just been cut from the freshman basketball team.
Others show members of Congress known for being combative looking for ways to turn down the heat. Representative Dan Crenshaw, a Republican from Texas, insists that despite sharp divisions in the Senate, members of Congress engage in a great deal of behind-the-scenes bipartisan cooperation on many issues. And there are frank assessments: Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, warns in one video that bipartisanship won’t get far until more voters get behind it—a weak prospect in the current political climate.
Most of the videos show members making their cases on the issues in a calmer, less pointed way than they might on Meet the Press. Ilhan Omar, the outspoken Democratic representative from Minnesota, politely criticizes the Trump administration for abandoning the Iran deal that limited that country’s nuclear-weapon program and tweaks the Biden administration for being too slow to rejoin it.
The insistence on letting both sides have their unfiltered say appeals to the Gen Z cohort. It’s not that they’re split between the two parties; only a fifth of them approve of Trump, and about two-thirds voted for Biden—the biggest margin by far of any age group, and the most lopsided youth vote in modern history. At the same time, progressive young voters appear to be more open-minded than older voters: a third of non-Republican Gen Zs say that they’d consider voting Republican in future elections, according to a 2020 survey conducted by the non-profit Niskanen Center.
Regardless of their political affiliation, Gen Zs tend to resent either side trying to win them over with spin, says Matto, which may be why a site like A Starting Point, which is willing to provide unfiltered political exposition, is likely to resonate with them. “They crave and seek out authenticity,” she says. “This is a generation that can spot BS a mile away.”
Jeremy Sutherland, a 23-year-old who graduated Northwestern University last year with a degree in theater, exemplifies that interest in hearing both sides. “I’m pretty liberal, and I’m not really looking to change my opinion on that,” he says. “But I place value on hearing from people who disagree with me, and I want to understand where their opinions are coming from.”
Its relatively non-partisan approach has also helped A Starting Point catch on as a classroom tool, via a partnership with the Close Up Foundation, which offers a range of civic-engagement programs to high schools. Another partnership, with grassroots political organizing group BridgeUSA, is increasing the site’s visibility on college campuses.
An Overwhelming Force
All this effort to politically engage Gen Z may seem unnecessary, given that they’re already unusually engaged. But as big as their voting numbers were in 2020, notes CIRCLE’s Kiesa, there are reasons to believe there’s room to improve on them. “Young people are much less likely to be contacted by campaigns or other forms of outreach,” she says. “Republicans in particular haven’t done a wonderful job of reaching out.”
The mechanics of registering and voting also tend to work heavily against Gen Z. “Many of them are changing their addresses as they move to college, or change where they live at college, or move to a new city after college,” Kiesa says. “That means there are structural barriers around how to register or re-register, or where to vote.” High schools usually do little to help students figure it all out, he adds, and the information they get at college can be hit-or-miss. Meanwhile, new election laws being pushed through by red states are certain to make it more challenging for young people to vote.
If they can overcome those barriers, Gen Z could become an overwhelming force in elections. Research has long supported the notion that the earlier someone becomes involved in politics, the more likely they are to stay involved. Gen Z’s growing numbers are projected to comprise 29 percent of the vote by 2036, according to an analysis by political advocacy group States of Change. (In April, Newsweek and ASP teamed up to create a cross-platform series exploring Gen Z’s impact on American politics.)
Gen Z proved to be a decisive force for Biden, but may ultimately be up for grabs. “I don’t believe you’re going to see a big shift to the right in this generation,” says Cohen. “But that doesn’t mean they won’t vote Republican, if the party represents itself the right way.”
That would call for some change on the part of the GOP and its candidates—at the very least, they’d have to figure out how to effectively make their cases on TikTok and Snapchat.
Or they could just ask Chris Evans.