Where do political views come from?

As high school students grow closer in age to official legal status, political talk becomes more prevalent in everyday conversations than ever before. Research suggests that family demographics and personal experiences are the most influential factors in determining an individuals’ political views.

Since the passing of the 26th Amendment in 1971, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, America’s young adults have had the opportunity to actively shape democracy.

Today, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), 21 percent of all eligible voters in the U.S. are 18 to 29 years old. For most high schoolers who are not eighteen, this means finding other ways to be politically active.

Research conducted by political scientists at the University of California, Davis suggested that high school and college settings provide the perfect context for political socialization. In other words, it is the time period when people are most likely to be influenced by the world around them. According to Benjamin Highton, professor at the UC Davis Department of Political Science, these formative events can determine much about a person’s future interest in politics.

“There’s a lot of variation in how knowledgeable and how interested teens are in politics,” Highton said. “Many factors go into the development of a person’s world views.”

One of those factors can be family, Highton said. Often, the first place political scientists look at for research is someone’s home environment.

“If someone grows up with parents who are active and engaged, then they are much more likely to also be active and engaged,” Highton said. “That’s not to say that kids are always perfect carbon-copies of their parents—nothing is set in stone. Family gives us a starting place, but as someone gains their own life experience away from their parents, it can lead them to adopt different world views.”

Family is the most important source for political judgements and decisions, Daniel Larsen, AP government teacher, said. People are in many ways prewired to view issues the way their family does, according to Larsen.

“Though we want to imagine ourselves as independent thinkers, our gender, race, class, religion, neighborhood and education play an important role in our political socialization,” Larsen said.

Technology has also opened the door to many impactful political events. Today, there are more outlets for news than ever before. Mass media such as newspapers, television and the internet have made information about current events available at the click of a button.

The biggest issue is discerning trustworthy sources from the stream of information the internet provides people with, Larsen said. He believes that an overly partisan media provides real danger to a healthy democracy.

“News literacy is our challenge,” Larsen said. “Unfortunately, too many Americans only use sources they agree with. News literacy says we are best informed when we listen to and watch sources that provide information on both sides of an issue.”

Once a teen is accurately informed, there are many opportunities for them to become active and engaged in politics. Activities, both modern and traditional, exist on many levels within the community, Larsen said.

“We are living in the golden age of civics participation,” Larsens said. “Now, it’s so much easier to get involved. It has been said that Twitter is the homepage of politics—social media is to us what the Agora was to the Greeks.”

The state of Illinois allows 17 year olds to vote in primary elections. This gives high schoolers a chance to experience politics firsthand, Larsen said.

“Dozens of Stevenson students will be serving as election judges on Nov. 4 or serving as voting registrars and registering many of their classmates to vote,” Larsen said. “Campaigns are also always looking for eager help, regardless of age.”

Numerous Stevenson students took the initiative to become politically active. Nuha Hamid ’15 has found many ways to exercise her interest in civics. Hamid, Secretary General for Stevenson’s Model United Nations and member of Political Action Club, has already gained more exposure to the changing world of civics.

“In September, I was a moderator for the student-run debate at Political Action Club’s  2014 Campaign Fair and Candidate Forum,” Hamid said. “Brad Schneider, Bob Dold, candidates from the 59th State Representative race and Lieutenant Governor candidate Paul Vallas were there to speak and participate in the debate. I think it was really helpful for kids to see who these people are and what they represent.”

According to CIRCLE, there are 17 million eligible voters between 18 to 21 years old, demonstrating that students like Hamid have an impact. Larsen said participating in political events is very important to today’s youth.

“Samuel Huntington said ‘Democracies are created not by causes but by causers’,”Larsen said. “We need not wait for an issue or a crisis to inspire us. Rather, fundamental to any education is a rich civics experience.”

All young adults, even those who are politically active, are often impacted by the world around them, Highton said. Teens are very susceptible to outside influences when it comes to their beliefs, according to Highton.

“Political science research shows that there are many factors that contribute to our views on the world, Highton said. “Our parents and life experiences carry a heavy impact.”