Senators in the legislative chambers of the Nebraska Legislature

By Nick McConnell

Senior year of high school is full of big decisions, and many 18-year-olds are hit with another one when they register to vote: Democrat or Republican?

Like an increasing number of young people, Ethan Glenn, a chemical engineering major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, decided not to decide, registering as non-partisan.

This is becoming more common across the country, and Nebraska is seeing the effects. According to recent reporting by NET, almost 8 percent more Nebraskans who are registered to vote identify as non-partisan than did in the year 2000. NPR has reported that young people are more likely to identify as non-partisan.

 “I really don’t feel like I belong in either group,” Glenn said, adding that he doesn’t fit neatly into one party ideologically. He said that the partisanship and vitriol of the 2016 election made it more clear he didn’t want to choose a party.

Glenn’s only inclination to join a party came from his inability to vote in a primary in Nebraska, but now that the Democrats have opened theirs, he’s even more comfortable voting as a non-partisan.

“Now I don’t have to feel as bad for not picking a party,” he said.

While he recognizes that the moment is hyper-partisan, Glenn said he has hope that political discourse will improve in the coming years. He said he thinks people have cooled down since 2016, and he’s optimistic that the fatigue from the last election will keep this one from becoming so heated.

Despite his strong views on protecting the environment and gun control, Glenn said, he strives to look at all of a candidate’s policies before he votes. Generally, however, he said he doesn’t trust the parties to get anything done.

“I just wish that the government would, you know, function,” he said.

UNL political science professor John Hibbing said many young people share similar sentiments.

“Young people hate the two-party system,” he said.

Their abundant distaste for partisanship might be born out of the fact that political parties are so polarized now, Hibbing said. He chalks this up to the issues that are currently at the core of the national conversation.

Hibbing urged caution, though, when looking at data about non-partisans because many of them consistently vote for the same party every time. While they maintain they are independent, he said, often they are driven by their predispositions to one side of the political spectrum, particularly on certain divisive issues.

Tax code, he explained, is an example of a less intense issue that people seem more able to disagree about sensibly. Issues of identity, however, such as immigration and LGBTQ+ rights, are more stark examples of what he calls “in group/out group” issues. These issues force voters and policymakers to view their decision with a more personal lens, making their moral judgments more clear and leading to more violent partisan fights.

This vitriolic disagreement causes the two parties to talk past each other instead of engaging with one another, which leads to gridlock, Hibbing said. This gridlock is making parties less attractive generally, particularly to young people.

The only way out is to reframe the national debate, likely meaning the country needs to pick less contentious issues to discuss, he said. A major development in foreign policy or a major tragedy could bring people together in a similar way to 9/11. He thinks U.S. political culture is not particularly likely to change, however.

“I’m not very optimistic,” he said.

Not everyone is totally ready to give up on political parties quite yet, however.

Andrew Graff, a sophomore philosophy and political science major at UNL, said he registered online on his 18th birthday, as soon as he was allowed to. He chose his party for a very specific reason.

“The reason I’m a Democrat is because of Trump,” he said.

Republicans’ reluctance to reign in President Trump, both as a candidate and as an elected official, made Graff question their values as a party, and thus he decided to register as a Democrat, he said. Since coming to college from his hometown of McCook, Nebraska, he said he’s become more liberal.

Although he doesn’t support raising the voting age, Graff said he thinks that 18 is a very impressionable age, and that many young people think and vote the same way that their parents do because of their outsized influence.

Even though political parties generally may turn many young people off, the parties haven’t lost hope of reaching them.

The Nebraska Democratic Party actively seeks out young people through Young Democrats clubs throughout the University of Nebraska system and in high schools, said executive director Jim Roberts. These programs work to increase voter registration as well as access for young people to vote by mail, he said.

Justin Pinkerman, director of media relations for Gov. Pete Ricketts, said the governor reaches out to young people through the Governor’s Youth Advisory Council, a group of high school students who gather with the governor to discuss issues affecting young people. They also meet yearly with legislators at an annual luncheon. He said they offer insight on matters including education, health, foster care and economic development.

Yet for Graff, one of his main frustrations with the current political process is the encroachment of money into campaigns and governing. He said he believes many politicians are more beholden to special interest groups than they are to their own constituencies.

Graff said he planned to support Bernie Sanders in the state primary because he appreciates the senator’s consistent record on the issues and his commitment to the people. He said the process has made him less comfortable with the Democratic party establishment because he thinks they favor former Vice President Joe Biden. Graff said he would consider a third party further to the left of the Democrats if he found them to be politically viable.

These kinds of fights within parties are not uncommon, Hibbing said, and they can even be healthy when the party does not have an incumbent president. He said tough primary battles can help strengthen candidates for general elections while forcing the party to coalesce around a central message.

In Nebraska, Hibbing said, the non-partisan Nebraska Unicameral gives the pretense of being immune from polarization, but it is not. In addition to a strong partisan divide in Nebraska, deep urban vs rural divides in the state often percolate into the Legislature, he said.

Despite increasing numbers of non-partisan voters, the two mainstream parties still exert a considerable amount of political force in Nebraska. Republicans control the executive branch and a majority in the Legislature, but Democrats still have a voice in the Unicameral, and they control many seats in local government in Nebraska’s major population centers.

Most Nebraskans are united in their wish for a strong agricultural economy, Roberts said, and while the two parties differ on approach, he said he believes they often have similar core goals. He said he believes that the Unicameral is a useful tool to expedite those goals, and he thinks its non-partisan nature serves to help legislators compromise.

That spirit of cooperation isn’t common around the country, he said.

“It’s very unique,” Roberts said, “especially when you talk to folks in Washington.”

Polarization has been worse in the past, but Roberts said he thinks its recent rise has been spurred on by both parties playing to their respective core bases instead of reaching out to other voters. He offered conservative talk radio as an example of discourse that led to polarization.

The Democratic Party has experienced tremendous growth in metropolitan areas and in the suburbs, Roberts said, but rural areas are trending more Republican. He said the largest variable will be Latino voters that are coming into the state, and Democrats are making a concerted effort to reach out to these new voters.

Pinkerman said the governor encourages bipartisanship by meeting with legislators on both sides to discuss their concerns and find solutions.

Many people tell the governor’s office that Nebraska has seen the effects of polarization less than other states, Pinkerman said. Looking to the future, he said, Ricketts hopes to strengthen the Nebraskan economy and bridge the urban-rural divide.

Clearly, voices on both sides of the aisle are working to pull non-partisans to their side, but Glenn said all the yelling and fighting prevalent in discourse today isn’t likely to convince him to get off the fence anytime soon.

“That just kind of gets me out of politics in general.”