One of the most popular ideas in American politics is that a large majority of voters under 40 are “woke.” Originating in the Black activist community during the 1960s, the term, intended as a signal to other Black Americans to watch out for police brutality and systemic racism, became more prominent during the 2014 Black Lives Matter movement. Today, it has become a catchall for being progressive or liberal and is more likely to be used pejoratively.
Conservative politicians have made wokeness a major talking point and some, such as Florida governor and prospective presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, have pursued aggressive policy agendas to reduce what he and others consider to be the indoctrinating effects of wokeness on K-12 and higher education.
As researchers of the political attitudes of different generations, we think the portrayal of young voters as woke on all issues is wrong, particularly for those 18-24. This group—referred to as Gen Z—is not a monolithic group and has attitudes that run contrary to their depiction, which raises real questions about how they may impact politics in the 2022 midterm elections and beyond.
Gen Z has been shaped by mass shootings in schools, horrible instances of racial injustice like George Floyd’s murder, and the COVID-19 pandemic. This, according to researchers, has made them more tolerant of differences, empathetic to the needs of marginalized people, and desirous of government being more active in solving societal problems, all of which are left-leaning ideas.
We have found in recent Meredith Polls that, on many social issues—abortion rights, protection for LGBTQ+ persons, legalization of marijuana—Gen Z voters do possess some of the most liberal views. In the most recent Meredith Poll, almost half of Gen Z respondents wanted to expand access to abortion beyond what is guaranteed by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, while only 29 percent of millennial respondents felt the same.
However, a deeper examination of the polling data reveals some significant gender differences within Gen Z. Males are significantly less supportive—30 percent less—of expanding abortion access or even retaining the provisions established under Roe v. Wade than Gen Z women.
Recent political science research has found that Gen Z is more likely to prefer women and Black candidates for political office to white male candidates, which seems to confirm the view that wokeness and its accompanying dislike for white males have infected Gen Z. Our findings, however, do not support this research.
We found similar differences between Gen Z men and women on the topic of women as political leaders. Over 40 percent of Gen Z men prefer a male political leader—the highest among men of any generation—while 35 percent of Gen Z women prefer a female political leader (second only to boomer generation women). Why do Gen Z men prefer a male political leader? The polling data shows 66 percent of Gen Z men believe women “aren’t tough enough” for politics. On the other side, 75 percent of Gen Z women said women’s toughness is not one of the factors keeping women out of politics—instead, 90 percent of Gen Z women believe there are not more women in political office because men hold women back.
Although gender differences exist on some policy issues within Gen Z that make it challenging to characterize the generation as uniformly woke, it is Gen Z’s views on democracy and the potential use of political violence that are stunning. When asked whether it was more important to have a strong leader or protect democracy, over half of Gen Z respondents stated it was more important to have a strong leader. No other generational group was close to 50 percent in preferring a strong leader over democracy.
Also, when asked if force should be used if the American way of life was disappearing, two-thirds of Gen Z respondents agreed, while no other generational group had a majority of respondents in favor of using force to protect the American way of life.
The results from our work suggest there is a strong conservative element within Gen Z on policy issues and the role of women in politics—a shift to more traditional views among the male population. Illiberalism is also strong within Gen Z—both in males and females—which should be concerning to all Americans. Coupled with the fact President Biden’s approval among Gen Z has dropped precipitously from the highs enjoyed by former President Obama, it is apparent both sides have mischaracterized this generation greatly.