Victor Shi on Young Voters and the Politics of Generation Z
Part of a Series
Youth organizer and podcaster Victor Shi joins Daniella to discuss what motivates young voters, the influence of social media on U.S. elections, and what politicians and pundits can learn from Gen Z activists. Daniella also breaks down the FBI search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home and talks with Navin Nayak, president and executive director for CAP Action, about recent primaries and the upcoming midterm elections.
Learn more about the podcast here.
Daniella Gibbs Léger: Hey everyone, welcome back to “The Tent,” your place for politics, policy, and progress. I’m Daniella Gibbs Léger. Today, we’re talking to Victor Shi, the youngest Biden delegate and co-host of the “Intergenerational Politics” podcast, where he and his co-host, Jill Wine-Banks, aim to represent and engage all generations in politics. We’ll be discussing issues that motivate young voters, the influence of social media on our elections, and what we can learn from Gen Z leaders and activists. So, stay tuned. But first, you know we’ve got to get to some news.
Remember a few months ago when we learned that former President [Donald] Trump took 15 boxes of classified documents that belong to the federal government with him to Mar-a-Lago after he left the office? Well, the National Archives rightfully asked the Department of Justice to investigate the matter earlier this year. Cut to this week: FBI agents just searched Trump’s home in Mar-a-Lago after obtaining a legal search warrant from a federal judge.
Now, there is a lot of speculation out there, and I do not want to play guessing games, but here are a couple of things we should be clear about. One: In order to conduct a search, the FBI—which is currently run by Trump-appointed director Christopher Wray, by the way—had to request a warrant from a federal judge that listed the specific information they were looking for at Mar-a-Lago, and why it would likely be evidence of a crime. The notion—which Trump is spreading—that this is a politically motivated attack or a fishing expedition is ridiculous nonsense. The FBI also had to get signoff from the highest level of their leadership and very likely the Justice Department and Merrick Garland himself before conducting the search. So, this is just very competent agents doing their jobs. And in due time, we’ll know why they searched the home and what they found. So, don’t listen to any of those Republicans feigning outrage over this legitimate search of Trump’s home.
Now, let’s turn to some news that does warrant some time and analysis: the latest primaries and the upcoming midterm elections. Here to update us on the latest developments is Navin Nayak, president and executive director of CAP Action. Navin, thanks for joining us again on “The Tent.”
Navin Nayak: Great to be here, Daniella.
Gibbs Léger: So first, we obviously had another set of primary results come in on Tuesday night. Could you just give us an overview of notable results from the last two weeks and races we should be watching in particular?
Nayak: Sure, there’s been a lot of developments. You know, in some respects, not too surprising, given what’s going on in the Republican Party, but a lot of attention on Arizona where Blake Masters won an incredibly nasty and competitive primary for the Republican nomination in [the] U.S. Senate. And obviously, this is a guy who has overwhelming ties to sort of MAGA extremism on Social Security, on abortion, and was endorsed by Donald Trump. And then at the gubernatorial level, Kari Lake, who [is a] first-time politician—incredibly close ties to Donald Trump and the MAGA movement—and both of them still contend that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and should be overturned.
And that’s just at the top of the ticket. If we have time, the attorney general’s race was astounding in terms of who won the Republican nomination there, and secretary of state. And there’s a ticket in Arizona, kind of top to bottom, that is sort of led by these extremists that puts a lot of our future elections in the state of Arizona into question. So, I think that’s really been one of the highlights.
I think that last night in Wisconsin, where the biggest question was really the governor’s race, [former] President Trump endorsed Tim Michaels, who kind of squeaked out a victory—very similar to Donald Trump, [a] sort of first-time politician, a business guy. And he has basically vowed to overturn the 2020 results and try and move the 10 Electoral College votes in Wisconsin from the last election to Donald Trump. I have no idea how you do that or what that means, but that’s never stopped them. I think those are—obviously, happy to go into more of the details—some of the highlights in terms of the last two weeks of primaries.
Gibbs Léger: Right, or one might call them “low lights.” I’m trying to figure out if you [need] a time machine in order to carry out what the Wisconsin candidate wants to do. You know, it seems like we are seeing a growing number of MAGA extremist candidates running in these primaries across the country. So, is it safe to say now that Republicans just are the MAGA party now, as we like to say on the show? And, I mean, you touched on it a little bit in Arizona, but can you talk about the dangers these MAGA candidates would pose if elected?
Nayak: Yeah, it’s a great question, and I think the reality is that the party has been taken over by MAGA extremists. And I think the press sometimes has the wrong view of these primaries, where the lens they’re using is, “Did Donald Trump endorse the candidate?” or “Is Donald Trump opposed to the candidate?” And that’s sort of irrelevant. That’s like Donald Trump’s scorecard. But the reality is that all of these candidates in these primaries are MAGA extremists. They all kind of adhere to this idea that the only elections that are legitimate elections are the ones they win. And that if they don’t win an election, that there must have been fraud, or some sort of illegality. And Kari Lake is a great example of this in Arizona, where—even before the votes were cast—she was calling into question the primary results, and was going to challenge the results, of course, until she won, in which case there isn’t any fraud. And so, that’s a consistent view of all of these candidates.
Similarly, they’re all sort of aligned on the notion that they’re not going to allow states to just decide abortion rights. Overturning Roe was not sufficient. All of them are sort of pushing for a national ban on abortion, and in most cases, with no exceptions for rape and incest. So, even the candidates that Donald Trump didn’t support—the ones that Mike Pence supported, for example—hold these sorts of extreme views. They might be different in style, and maybe a little less bombastic, but on a policy level, in terms of the positions they’re pushing when it comes to privatizing or ending Social Security, when it comes to allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drugs or just even having Medicare, there’s a real consistency across the party.
I think the end of this month may be the official nail in the coffin on this question, because if [Rep.] Liz Cheney (R-WY) doesn’t win her primary in Wyoming, and all signs point to that being the outcome, she really is sort of one of the few remaining alternatives to MAGA extremism in the party. And again—I can’t believe I’m saying that, but that is the world we live in—she really is sort of carrying this sense that there are limits to what you should be pushing as a credible candidate in a democracy. And I think if she loses, it’ll just sort of be the actual moment, from a signaling perspective, that MAGA has taken over.
Gibbs Léger: Yeah, and you mentioned Roe v. Wade and the aftermath of that. You know, we saw last week that even in ruby-red states like Kansas, there’s overwhelming support for pro-choice policies, which is in stark contrast to what these candidates are saying and what some states are doing, like in Indiana. So clearly, these bans are totally out of step with the public stance on abortion rights. So, given that, how do you think the Dobbs decision is shaping the primaries? And how do you think it’ll impact the midterms this fall?
Nayak: I mean, what’s astounding to me is that, on the Republican side, all it has done is shape them to be more extreme. Right? It is sort of astounding that you’re not seeing this conversation on the Republican side of, “Oh, Roe has been overturned. You know, we’ve been pushing that forever. Now, let’s sort of work at the state level to figure out how to restrict abortion.” You’re seeing what happened in Indiana this past week, where they passed a draconian law that bans abortion completely in the state. And it’s the first one to be passed, formally, since Roe has been overturned. And my big takeaway on this is sort of a simple maxim in politics, which is: The worst thing you can do in politics is take something important away from the American people. And when politicians from either party are viewed as taking something away, there is usually a pretty clear backlash.
The example I would use is that in 2010, when people didn’t really understand what the Affordable Care Act—Obamacare—was going to do, there was a lot of scare tactics from Republicans, and I think a lot of Americans were worried that even if I had health care, the quality of my health care was at risk, and I might lose it. I might lose my doctor. And it really did drive a backlash. Now that Obamacare has been in place for almost a decade, you can see that it’s incredibly popular and in fact, the Republican push in 2018 to take it away had a huge backlash. And so, my big takeaway from Kansas is: They have a right in their state constitution to protect a right to abortion and Republicans were basically trying to take away that constitutional right, and I think the backlash was overwhelming.
My hope is that if you’re in California, if you’re in Vermont, if you’re in states where today, you think you might be protected, that people really appreciate that the MAGA Republican agenda at the national level is to ban abortion across the country. And so, there’s a real motivation for people who do want to protect these fundamental freedoms to actually make sure that their voices are heard in November, because a lot more is at stake, and a lot more could be lost.
Gibbs Léger: And so, this November—just the last question here—voters are going to have to decide between what has recently—especially—been a very effective Democratic Party and an out-of-touch MAGA extremist Republican Party. So, what other issues do you see being major motivating factors for voters when they go to the polls in November? And how should progressives be communicating about these issues?
Nayak: It’s a great question. I mean, I think on the one hand, the landscape has changed so dramatically in the past month—not only with the overturning of Roe and, before that, all the tragic gun violence shootings that I think really sort of shifted the landscape—but Democrats have just achieved some huge victories that are going to be really meaningful for the American people, seniors on prescription drugs, these real investments in trying to tackle the threat of climate change, which I think should be really energizing for young people. And of course, continuing to get phenomenal job numbers in terms of job growth.
So, I think the short answer, though, for Democrats is that they really do have a story to tell now about the work they’ve done to build the kind of America that centers working people and that tries to actually rebuild the middle class by lowering costs, creating good paying jobs, and actually investing in industries that create jobs here in America, and actually asking the wealthy to pay for all those things. And by contrast, you know, the Republican Party—MAGA extremists—are really pushing an agenda that just involves not just tearing down all of those things, but really stripping away the core freedoms and rights that a lot of Americans have enjoyed. We’ve been talking about abortion, obviously, as one of those core fundamental rights that women have enjoyed in this country for 50 years, but also social security, which is a huge right—not only something people have paid for, but this sort of pact we make with our seniors to be able to retire with some dignity. That’s on the chopping block. Medicare is on the chopping block. I think there’s a real contrast in terms of not only what Democrats are trying to build and the freedoms they’re fighting to protect, but everything that Republicans are trying to strip away from the American people.
Gibbs Léger: Well, Navin, thank you so much for helping us break down the latest primary and midterm news, and we hope you’ll come back sometime as the midterms get closer to help us make sense of these ongoing issues.
Nayak: Great to be here.
Gibbs Léger: If there’s anything else you’d like us to cover on the pod, hit us up on Twitter @TheTentPod, that’s @TheTentPod. And please let us know what you think of the show. You can rate and review us wherever you’re streaming from, and we really appreciate your feedback. Stick around for our interview with Victor Shi in just a beat.
Gibbs Léger: Victor Shi is a youth organizer, activist, and co-host of the “Intergenerational Politics” podcast. At just 17 years old, he was the youngest elected delegate for [President] Joe Biden in 2020, amassing over 42,000 votes in Illinois’s 10th congressional district. Currently, he is an intern at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and a junior at [the University of California at Los Angeles], where he studies political science and American literature and culture. Victor, thank you so much for joining us on “The Tent.”
Victor Shi: Thank you so much for having me.
Gibbs Léger: So, I’m gonna go ahead and venture a guess that a good portion of our audience maybe would not consider themselves Gen Z-ers. But today, I really want to get into the experiences and priorities of young voters in America. What are a few key issues that are motivating young people as the midterms approach this fall?
Shi: Yeah, so there are so many issues that affect young people, and I think a lot of them have to do with just how much of an immediate impact they have on our lives. And there’s so many, so you can’t really distill it into like a top three issue for each person. But I think generally, what you see in polling and what you see when you talk to young people, is that a lot of it goes around climate change. So, climate change is one of the really big issues because a lot of what’s going to happen will impact our lives and our grandchildren’s lives. So that’s one really big issue.
But you also have things like, for instance, abortion. That’s something that is really immediate in our lives because we grew up with abortion rights, and then we saw this Republican Supreme Court literally strip it away from our own lives. You see a lot of young women, you saw Kansas—by the time we’re recording this—last week, they voted on the abortion question, and more people actually ended up voting for that abortion question than even the candidates themselves. I think that speaks to just how much young people, and just people, care about abortion rights.
And then the other one, I think, is gun violence. We are a generation that has really felt the impact of mass shooters and mass shootings—Sandy Hook was one of them, [and] Parkland. And we have to go through mass shooter drills almost on a constant basis. I’m thinking back to Illinois and the high school that I went to. We had about two gun shooter drills per semester. A voice would come over the intercom and say, “Please prepare for this lockdown drill.” And it was really scary. And so I think a lot of young people are facing those three issues.
But some other things I’m hearing about are just things like the cost of education are really big, or how we can live in a society that is getting more expensive and have a livable wage. I think there’s a lot of issues that impact young people, but climate change, the cost of education, gun violence, and abortion rights I think are top of mind for a lot of young people.
Gibbs Léger: So, related, here at CAP Action, we’ve been talking a lot about the Inflation Reduction Act this week, and what a win that was along with other legislation, like the CHIPS and Science Act, the [Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics] PACT Act, the bipartisan gun safety law, etc. But I want to know—like, really—are young people talking about these accomplishments in the same way, at all? Are they excited about the climate parts of the [Inflation Reduction Act]? What are you hearing from your peers about these achievements? What’s the narrative?
Shi: I mean, there’s definitely no doubt that these are really big achievements—historic, consequential. And what you’re seeing with young people is that you have a lot of really passionate young people—you think about David Hogg, Greta Thunberg, recently, Olivia Giuliani—these are all people who are using their platform and are really, really engaged. But you also have this other slice of the young electorate that really just doesn’t care about politics, that are completely detached. I mean, I remember when the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp hearings were going on. So many people, at least where I was at the time—Los Angeles—were really tuned in. But something like January 6, not many people tuned into that hearing. I think young people are definitely engaged, and I think something like the Inflation Reduction Act—specifically the climate investment that’s in that act—is really going to reach young people. I think it’s up to now President Biden and also Democrats to do their part to reach young people, because so much of what’s happening, like I said, [is] really, really important stuff. They’re really consequential, but now it’s, “How do we get that message to young people?” because young people are energized; we care about climate change. It’s one of the biggest issues facing our generation. And so as long as we know that what happened with the Inflation Reduction Act impacts our lives, I think that’s going to be key for Democrats and President Biden going forward.
Gibbs Léger: So, related, let’s talk about this political system. It’s very much dominated by people who are older. And campaigns can fall short of understanding the needs and motivations of young people and what they care about. What do you think are some of the common misconceptions that folks have about their youngest constituents and voters? You know, the tropes are they’re either lazy, or they are unrealistic about how things work.
Shi: You touched on such an important point. I think that’s one of the things a lot of young people are frustrated about, is that the average age of elected officials just isn’t representative of our age. The average age of both presidents running in 2020 [was] over 75. The average age of Congress, I think, is mid-60s. The same is true for state and local elected officials. So fundamentally, there’s this mismatch between how someone like Joe Biden or Donald Trump can communicate with young people.
I think for young people, what’s going to be really key in terms of campaigns, is you just have to really kind of tap into what young people are feeling. And it’s a lot of nontraditional platforms. So, you saw that really with [Sen.] Jon Ossoff (D-GA) and [Sen.] Reverend [Raphael] Warnock (D-GA). They might not be traditionally the most effective messengers, but they were able to go on social media platforms like TikTok, like Twitch, and go kind of beyond the Facebooks and Twitters of the world and reach young people that way. So, I think that’s one of the ways that a lot of candidates can pierce through that generational divide.
And I think also, what’s interesting is you’re starting to see a lot more young activists and celebrities really be the messengers on some of these issues. And I think a lot of that resonates with young people because we find it more relatable when we hear it from our peers. And so, when we hear it from someone like David Hogg, we just find it a lot more relatable than someone like [Sen.] Patrick Leahy (D-VT) or [Sen.] Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) who are in their 80s and who probably can’t really relate to a lot of the things that we’re going through. So, I think what we saw in Georgia was really interesting and some of those nontraditional platforms were key.
Gibbs Léger: Yeah, I also really love the dynamic of the two of them together and how they played off of each other.
Shi: Yes, yes.
Gibbs Léger: It was very adorable. So, speaking of what I think are some successful campaigns, you see people like [Lt. Gov.] John Fetterman (D) in Pennsylvania that are leaning into being creative, being funny as a way to engage young people. So, I think I already know the answer to this—because you just said this—but what is the role, do you think, of social media and digital platforms moving forward in terms of engaging young people?
Shi: So, I remember I was a field organizer on the Biden campaign in 2020 and took my fall quarter off to do that. And one of the things that they trained us to do is, you have to meet people where they are and at the time it was all virtual. So, you couldn’t go to the coffee shop and talk to a volunteer, organizer, or leader, and have that conversation with them. So, it was all virtual. And I think for young people, there’s really no way to reach us without using social media, and not just things like Facebook and Twitter, which are more traditional ones, or not things like cable news. Young people just don’t really watch cable news. Ninety-seven percent of young people have at least one social media platform. So, when we talk about meeting young people where we are, it’s a lot of social media, finding these platforms that young people engage on. And kind of what you said with John Fetterman, he’s kind of a case in point of a candidate who is really using social media in an interesting way. He’s creating these really hilarious, amusing videos that are piercing through to my generation, because we love being amused. Our attention spans are short. And so, if we can find something that’s different, that’s unconventional, I think it really resonates with us. And there’s this authenticity that I think John Fetterman brings that attracts a lot of young people. And so, I think, for campaigns going forward—I think we really saw this with [Rep.] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), we saw this in Georgia—there is going to be a new way for campaigns, I think, to reach young voters, and that happens through interesting social media platforms and really interesting ways to organize digitally.
Gibbs Léger: So, when the Dobbs decision was handed down a few weeks ago, we saw this really—as you mentioned—the sad and haunting idea that young people today are growing up in a world where they have fewer rights than their parents did. So, how do you think that might impact the way your peers vote? Is that something that’s really deeply felt?
Shi: So, there was a lot of discussion about whether Dobbs would be one of those decisions that get young people out to vote, because historically, in midterm elections, young people don’t really go out to vote. We find that there isn’t much of an urgency, and there’s a lot of misconceptions for how young people vote. But in 2018, we saw that change a little bit. We saw a historic number of young people turn out to vote in 2018 and 2020, a lot of young people who turned out to vote, especially in Georgia, which helped both senators win, and also President Biden. And so I think Dobbs is going to be key.
When the leaked decision came out, I think people were really scared. But then when the Dobbs decision actually came out, I think a lot of young people really felt the immediate nature of our rights being threatened. And you saw protests erupt across the country. And you saw, especially in Kansas—kind of going back to that—between Dobbs and Kansas, I think it was nearly 40,000 people have registered to vote. You saw a lot of young people take part in that—a lot of women especially, too—but a lot of young people took part of that because there is this kind of feeling that we feel like our rights are being under attack. And there was a Harvard youth poll recently that showed that young people do feel like their livelihoods, their rights are under attack. And you see that case in point with something like abortion where we grew up knowing that—at least at least my peers grew up knowing that—they could access safe abortions. But now that reality is no longer true. And so, I think abortion then becomes a much more tangible issue for young people when they turn out to vote.
Gibbs Léger: So finally, I want to talk strategy and bring it back around to the more hopeful side of things, because we always do like to end on a hopeful note here. And I think that in addition to a lot of anger among younger voters, that there is a lot of hope for what the future could look like thanks to their activism and engagement. So, what about your generation brings you hope? And what do you think candidates, politicians, or pundits should be learning from the leadership that you and so many other young organizers bring to the table?
Shi: Yeah, so I’ll answer the second question first: I think, at the end of the day, for a lot of pundits, elected officials, [and] people who are in politics who might be older than us, the most important thing is just to listen to our ideas. I think a lot of the times we feel like we were talked at, but we aren’t really included in the conversation so if candidates or pundits can just listen to the conversations that we’re having and listen to what we have to say instead of jumping to conclusions or saying that we are just a detached electorate, I think that would go a long way in helping kind of understand this voting bloc.
What makes me hopeful for the future is the power of young people. I mean, you see just how well we can organize, how we’re able to take these organizing tools and apply [them] in different ways and that we aren’t afraid [of] change. I think this generation is one that is deeply hungry for change because a lot of the issues that we talked about earlier are just things that we’ve experienced all our lives. And so it’s something that I think young people are really good at; we always push the conversation to places where it might be uncomfortable, but that’s what ultimately brings change. And you see this with the climate change provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, you see it with the gun violence bill that got passed. Sure, it doesn’t go far enough. But it’s still something and I think a lot of that has to do with some of the conversations and restructuring of the narrative that young people are pushing. And so I’m hopeful that a lot of the conversations that we once had are really changing in a good direction with young people.
Gibbs Léger: Well, Victor Shi, I want to thank you so much for your activism and your hopefulness today, and thank you for joining us on “The Tent.”
Shi: Thanks so much for having me. This is great.
Gibbs Léger: As always, thanks for listening. Be sure to go back and check out previous episodes. So, while I was on vacation last week, a couple of things happened. One, there were two episodes of “The Bachelorette” that I had to catch up on. But perhaps more important, Beyoncé released her full album. Don’t ask me to pick a favorite song, because I can’t, because the whole album is fire—zero skips. She did not take her foot off my neck the entire time. I love it. Now what I need is to find a club where they will just play the album from start to finish and then start back at the beginning. If you know of one in [Washington,] D.C., hit me up on Twitter. And yes, I will perhaps be the oldest person in the club but I don’t care because it’s amazing and this is my music in my generation. So, get off my lawn.
Anyway, let’s talk about “The Bachelorette” for a minute. Sam is not here. Oh, my goodness, there’s so much to talk about. I will just start with: Guys, just be honest about your feelings. Like, if you were feeling Gabby, then don’t take Rachel’s rose, then just tell her, “Actually, I have a stronger connection with Gabby and I would like to pursue that.” Like, don’t wait until the very end. I refuse to believe there was no way that dude—why am I blanking on his name? Is it Jacob?—that he could not have figured out a way to go and talk to her before the actual rose ceremony. I just don’t believe that. So, I think that was a punk move. However, people who were saying that Gabby shouldn’t have kept them around: I’m sorry, did Rachel not keep Hayden around after he called Gabby “a little rough around the edges?” And it was only when she found out that Hayden was talking smack about her that she sent him home. So, let’s not be all down on Gabby for wanting to try and explore something with somebody who she obviously had a natural spark with.
Anyway, this show—I can’t believe we’re two weeks away from hometowns. Where has this season gone? I feel like it’s flashing before my eyes. I am very much Team Tino. I was Team Nate until Sam texted me while on her vacation, “Oh, Nate’s shady. Go look at Reality Steve.” I don’t want it to be true, but it looks like there were some pretty good receipts that he’s not a great guy. So, who are we going to root for on Gabby’s team? I don’t know. I’m going to see what happens next week, but I’m very heartbroken and he better not break her heart. Anyway, those are my hot takes about “The Bachelorette.” If you have hot takes that you would like to share with me, you know I’m on Twitter @dgibber123.
So, [I’ve] got to remind you that we are still in a panini, panorama. It’s still happening. Get yourself boosted if you haven’t already. And you know, if you’re around a lot of people you might want to mask up, because getting COVID, it may not put you in hospital, but it disrupts your life. Take it from me. Anyway, take care of yourselves, and we’ll talk to you again next week.
“The Tent” is a podcast from the Center for American Progress Action Fund. It’s hosted by me, Daniella Gibbs Léger. Erin Phillips is our lead producer. Kelly McCoy is our supervising producer. Tricia Woodcome is our booking producer, and Sam Signorelli is our digital producer. Rachel Lim provided research and production support for this episode. You can find us on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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Politics. Policy. Progress. All under one big tent. Produced by CAP Action, “The Tent” is a news and politics podcast hosted by Daniella Gibbs Léger. Listen each Thursday for episodes exploring topics that progressives are focused on.