by Michael McDevitt
A study of adolescents living in red and blue counties during the 2006 midterm elections shows a striking pattern of Democratic youth thriving in political expression and debate when exposed to Republican ideological climates. Democratic adolescents were more likely to talk with parents and friends about politics, disagree openly, test opinions, and listen to opponents if they lived in Republican counties compared with Democratic youth living in liberal or balanced counties. Compared to Republican youth residing in the same communities, Democratic youth in Republican counties were also more likely to engage in political discussion, to pay attention to news media, and to express confidence in their ability to comprehend campaign issues. The frequency of disagreeing in conversations predicted support for liberal activism. Disagreeing was a particularly strong predictor of supporting liberal activism for youth living in red counties.
These findings support the theory—proposed by McDevitt and colleagues in other studies—that young people sometimes express political identities through conflict and disagreement, not because they come to share the views of parents, teachers, or majorities in their communities. The research in summarized in CIRCLE Working Paper #68 “Spiral of Rebellion: Conflict Seeking of Democratic Adolescents in Republican Counties.”
The same pattern was not found for Republican youth in Democratic counties during the 2006 elections; they were not more politically expressive when exposed to hostile ideological climates. However, Republican identity (like Democratic identity) correlated with knowledge of the political parties. The results suggest that Democratic identity is frequently expressed in deliberative and conflict-seeking activities, while Republican identity is often grounded in knowledge. Overall, the study suggests the value of peer-centered, critical discussion as a strategy for youth political mobilization.