It’s no secret that teen activism is on the rise in Santa Fe, across New Mexico and even around the world — a trend many say is inspired by the current president.
“I definitely have witnessed an increase in teen activism within Trump’s presidency,” says Anna Wechsler, a senior at Santa Fe High who said she has “definitely been more politically active in the past four years.”
“Many teens strongly dislike Trump, which has led to increased activism in opposition of him and his policies,” she added.
In a study from the Washington Post leading up to the 2016 presidential election, a third of young people — both Democrats and Republicans — claimed they were dissatisfied with the U.S. political system’s ability to meet their needs. When asked the question again a year later, a staggering 53 percent of Democrat-identifying girls held that same belief.
Similarly, between 2016 and 2017, adolescent Democrat-identifying girls’ interest in political discourse rose from 16 percent to 28 percent, according to the same study. Local Generation Z girls say this growing awareness is linked to the Trump administration’s seemingly sexist views of women and its efforts to limit access to abortion and birth control.
Wechsler said she personally worries for the future of some of her rights as a woman, including abortion, following the addition of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Now more than ever, Wechsler said, she feels obligated to pay more attention to politics. Leading up to the Nov. 3 election, she has watched all of the debates, researched presidential candidates and organized support rallies “to ensure that my political opinions and beliefs are being put out into the open,” she said.
“In the past, I have not been as politically active as I have been recently, but I still made sure that I was engaged in different political activities, such as marches,” she said.
Some experts attribute teens’ exposure to politics to social media. Previous generations did not have the same access to news as millennials or Generation Z, increasing the latter’s relative knowledge of politics by default.
In June, fans of Korean pop, better known as K-pop, used the social media app TikTok to decrease the number of attendees at a Trump rally in Tulsa, Okla. With viral videos, they encouraged teens to reserve free tickets to the rally so supporters who actually wanted to attend couldn’t.
Michael Knight, a registered independent voter in his 50s, believes each generation succeeding the previous one has had easier access to political discourse. Social media, he said, has been Gen Z’s driving factor.
“It’s not only Trump. The Me Too movement, police brutality, women’s movements — they came to be somewhat on their own. [Trump] just hasn’t necessarily helped,” Knight said.
Knight added that social media has helped create a nation full of politically and socially aware adolescents. But really, he said, online platforms are just the beginning of young people’s growing effort to make their voices heard.
“Social media is one thing, but transferring that passion into the real world is far more powerful,” Knight said.
In 2018, the youth-led March for Our Lives movement harnessed over 800,000 protesters to rally in the nation’s capital. Organized by students, this march, held in support of legislation to prevent gun violence, is now known as one of the largest protests in Washington, D.C., ever recorded. The social media hashtag #MarchForOurLives quickly became a national trend and is credited for helping give the idea wings.
Another prime example of social media’s role as a catalyst for change came in 2019 when Swedish activist Greta Thunberg became the face of climate strikes all over the world. Though kids under 18 years old are not yet old enough to vote, they, like Thunberg, now know they can make a difference.
Without marches and protests, individuals with a large following online can create that same momentum. Claudia Conway, the 16-year-old daughter of Kellyanne Conway, is one of them. Her mother, a former counselor to President Trump, is a widely known Republican figure, and Claudia Conway has used her social media platform — mainly TikTok — to express opposing views to those of her family and spread awareness of her perception of the realities of the White House.
Yet, alongside the benefits of social media are more damaging powers. The internet has contributed to polarizing our nation and creating partisan alliances pitted against each other. For example, microtargeting — when websites collect users’ information, such as their search history and liked posts — creates messages and ads that cater to a user’s preferences and support whatever their beliefs may be. This type of online system interferes with a user’s ability to learn or challenge their beliefs in unbiased, factual ways.
In a left-leaning city like Santa Fe, many voters don’t see the other side much at all — sometimes causing them to even forget just how divided the country really is. When a pro-Trump rally was held in town last month, some said it was a sort of wake-up call.
“Watching the parade of Trump supporters march through town was weird to see,” said Anna Knight, a junior at Santa Fe Preparatory School. “It felt like they’d been hiding and all decided to show their faces at the same time.”
“Because we live in Santa Fe, we hardly see the conservative side of the spectrum,” agreed Knight. But, “that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Teens here just need to educate themselves more about the right because they’re not witnessing it firsthand.”
Whatever political party or causes teens choose to protest or support, it’s never been easier to get involved. And with such a tense election just around the corner, many Santa Feans believe young people’s opinions and actions couldn’t be more critical.
“Walking the walk is more important than talking the talk,” said Knight. “If you want to make a contribution, then you have to get up, be loud and show that you really care. Words mean nothing if your actions don’t match them.”