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The Civic and Political Attitudes of Young White Men

CIRCLE research from the past two election cycles reveals that young White men vote differently and participate in civic activism at lower rates than their peers.

In the 2018 midterms, two-thirds of all young voters (ages 18-29) supported their Democratic candidate for Congress, the widest partisan youth vote choice gap in the past quarter century. This striking divergence between young people and the general population may inaccurately suggest that young people are an ideologically liberal monolith. In reality, young people have a diverse and complex set of political opinions and partisan preferences, and differences emerge when we examine youth across race and gender.

In this analysis, we are taking a deeper dive into the civic engagement habits and voting patterns of young White men, a complex group with views ranging across the ideological spectrum and with varied conceptions of political efficacy. In many ways, young White men are well positioned to participate in civic life. On average, they are more likely to graduate high school and attend college than young men of color; benefit from racial and gender-based privileges; receive inherited wealth; attain economic security through upward mobility; and report fewer barriers to voting, among other factors. 

However, compared to youth of color and young White women:

  • As a group, young White men are the most likely to say they are qualified to participate in politics, but are the least likely to feel represented by public officials and political parties.
  • Young White men are less likely to identify as part of a generational movement and are less likely to hear about politics from their peers.
  • Young White men are less likely to participate in political activism or take a variety of civic actions, and they view many social movements more negatively. 

How Young White Men Diverge from Larger Youth Trends in Voting

Young White men are an important voting bloc in national elections for two key reasons. First, they form a sizable and sometimes disproportionate swath of the American electorate. Over one-third of all voters under age 30 in 2018 were young White men, and the turnout rate among young White men was higher than among young Latino and Black men, according to our analysis of 2018 Census Current Population Survey (CPS) data.[1] In some pivotal swing states like Iowa, Ohio, and New Hampshire, young White men make up a larger share of the population compared to national averages. 

Second, young White men tend to vote differently than young people as a whole, and if past trends persist they could be swing voters in the 2020 general election. According to CIRCLE’s 2016 post-election poll, young White men ages 18-24 preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 22 percentage points, whereas young White women, young women of color, and young men of color preferred Clinton by margins ranging from 15 to 60 percentage points. Two years later, young White men still preferred Republicans, but by a much smaller margin: according to CIRCLE’s 2018 post-election survey, 18- to 24-year-old young White men preferred the Republican candidate for Congress over the Democratic candidate by just 7 percentage points. While the gap narrowed substantially in just two years, young White men remained the only racial/gender subgroup of youth to side with the GOP—both young men of color and young White women voted for the Democratic candidate by a margin of 30 percentage points, and, remarkably, young women of color voted blue by a margin of over 80 percentage points.

Young White Men Most Confident in their Efficacy, but Least Likely to Feel Heard

One of the major factors that can lead to engagement among youth is a sense of political power and civic agency. If young people believe that they have the power to effect change—as 81% of youth ages 18-24 did in the lead-up to the 2018 midterms—they may be more willing to participate in elections, in activism, and in civic life more broadly. In past analyses we have found that political efficacy and enthusiasm can be a crucial predictor of future engagement, but only if combined with concrete information about voting and tangible opportunities to participate. 

For young White men, self-perceived civic efficacy was relatively high: 39% of said they were well-qualified to participate in politics, a higher rate than that of young men of color, young White women, and young women of color. But despite their belief in their own qualifications, young White men voiced sentiments of exclusion from civic institutions and from their peers. 

According to CIRCLE’s 2018 polling, young White men were the least likely subgroup of youth to feel heard by their elected officials. About 60% of them believed that public officials did not care about what people like them thought, compared to 44% of young White women and about half of young men of color. This difference is especially striking given the overrepresentation of White men in political offices nationwide: according to the Reflective Democracy campaign, White men make up 31% of the American population but hold almost two-thirds of elected offices in the United States.

Neither did young White men feel effectively represented by political parties—institutions that can offer an entry point into the ecosystem of electoral engagement at the national and local levels. Past CIRCLE research has found that young people overall are more reticent to identify as members of political parties and more doubtful of their efficacy, and among White men, this skepticism was even more apparent. Fewer than 3 in 10 young White men said that being a member of a political party amplified their voices, lower than the 39% of young women and the 38% of young men of color who said the same. Just 19% of young White men said they would even consider joining a political party if they knew how to do so locally—a rate less than half that of young women of color and significantly below those of young men of color and young White women. Furthermore, over half of young White men said that party leaders sometimes prevented their preferred candidates from running, a significantly higher rate than that of all other groups and a potential motivation for their distrust in parties.[2] It is perhaps not surprising, then, that before the 2018 midterms, young White men supported third-party candidates at the highest rate among all youth.

Our polling data also suggests that young White men’s sense of political efficacy does not necessarily reflect or translate to a desire to participate alongside their peers. In the lead-up to the 2018 midterms, young White men received the least amount of contact from other young people about political issues or elections, and they were least likely to report an increase in the number of young people in their communities who were talking about politics and elections. Not only did young White men seem disconnected from the activism of other young people, but they were also the least willing to assign blame to older generations or consider them in opposition to their own. Young White men were the least likely to worry that “older generations haven’t thought enough about young people’s futures” and the least likely to agree with a stronger version of that statement: “Older generations haven’t done enough to secure our future—it’s time to do something and change things for the better ourselves.” 

In short, even while young White men report strong trust in their own abilities to participate in politics, our data suggest that in some key ways they feel more detached from the ecosystem of political engagement than other youth. Only 37% of all young White men said they feel part of a group or movement that was voting to express their views—a rate between 9 and 19 percentage points lower than all other groups.

Young White Men Less Likely to Engage through Civic and Political Action

The confidence of young White men in their own ability to participate raises another notable incongruity: this belief often fails to translate into actually participating in politics outside of the voting booth. Our polling data from the 2018 electoral cycle reveals that young White men are less likely to have participated in democratic processes through a variety of civic actions, especially in the context of political campaigns and issue-based activism.

We asked youth in our survey about how often they performed any of a series of civic actions like volunteering for campaigns, supporting candidates for office, or advocating for issues they care about. Across 15 specific actions, ranging from following a campaign on social media to participating in acts of civil disobedience, we gauged whether young people had done these actions previously or would consider taking these actions in the future. Just 18% of all young White men said they performed at least one of these actions, a lower rate than young  men of color, young women of color, and young White women. Young White men also expressed the most aversion to even the possibility of taking one of these actions; for most of the 15 measures, they had the lowest rates of either having done the action already or considering the action in the future. We also found that, as one might expect for a group of youth that’s largely skeptical about political parties, young White men were especially disinterested in traditional political activism associated with parties and campaigns—like volunteering for a campaign, attending a campaign rally, or donating to a party or campaign.

Young White men bucked this trend in two notable areas where they showed equal or greater interest in performing civic actions compared to other youth. The first was in lower-effort political activities, such as displaying a sticker supporting a candidate or following candidates on social media. Young White men reported having done both activities, or being inclined to perform them in the future, at higher rates than young men of color and similar rates to young women of color (though still at lower rates than young White women). The gap between these less time-consuming actions and higher-effort actions like volunteering for a campaign seem to indicate that, for young White men, deeper investment in electoral politics was relatively less appealing in the 2018 electoral cycle.    

The second exception was voting in primary, local, and national elections, which young White men did or considered doing at higher rates than young people of color, though at lower rates than young White women. These findings are consistent with the higher turnout rates of young White men in recent elections compared to young men of color, which suggests that while young White men vote somewhat frequently, they often do not supplement these voting habits with other forms of civic action. This gap might be partially explained by young White men demonstrating less concern for the outcomes of the election. In fact, young White men were the least likely to say that the results of the 2018 midterms would make a significant impact on their communities—and least likely to say that the election results motivated them to get politically involved.   

Young White Men Less Willing to Support, Participate in Social Movements

Beyond electoral politics, young people can also participate in civic life through issue-based movements. Participating in or even just supporting social and political movements—across a variety of causes—can serve as an on-ramp to civic engagement and can empower young people to make their voices heard. Movement participation is also associated with electoral participation: our polling data shows that young people who participated in social movements were 16 percentage points more likely to cast a ballot in 2018. 

Aligning with these movements was a less frequent pathway to engagement for young White men, who were the least likely group of youth to participate in or support many popular civic movements in America. In 2018, we asked young people to report their levels of support for (or opposition to) a variety of movements from across the political spectrum—which included both liberal causes like the environmental and pro-choice movements as well as conservative movements like Make America Great Again and pro-gun rights activism. We found that just 20% of young White male respondents said that they had been active in at least one of 12 major social movements. In contrast, one-third of young men of color and young White women—and almost two in five young women of color—had participated in at least one. Young White men were not just the least likely to participate in movements, but they were also the most likely to say they oppose movements supported by other young people, such as the Dreamer movement, the gun violence prevention movement, and Black Lives Matter.[3]

One contributing factor for their opposition to progressive movements could be that young White men who did not participate in movements were more likely to have different ideological tendencies. Two-fifths of youth who had participated in at least one of the 12 movements we asked about preferred the Democratic candidate in 2018, whereas just 31% of movement participants planned to vote for the Republican candidate.[4] In addition, movements that were most strongly supported by young White men were associated with the Republican Party, including Make America Great Again and the gun rights movements. However, we found that among Democratic voters young White men still trailed young women and young people of color in support for progressive movements and in frequency of participation, indicating that this disparity to some extent crosses the partisan divide.  

This gap between young White men and others may have wide-ranging civic implications because participation in movements is associated not just with higher voting rates but also with deeper political engagement. More than half (55%) of young White men who are active in at least one movement say they feel well-qualified to participate in politics, compared to just 35% of young White men who are not. Among young White men, movement participants were more likely to receive outreach from other young people in their communities about political issues and to know young people who were making positive change. They were also twice as likely to say the 2018 midterms motivated them to become more involved and, crucially, over three times as likely to perform any of the above-mentioned civic actions. By serving as an entry point for youth into deeper political engagement, participation in movements can compel policymakers and community leaders to heed the voices of young people, enabling them to effect change in their communities between election cycles and potentially reducing the number of young White men and other youth who feel unheard by their public officials.


Young people are poised to have a big impact at the ballot box in 2020 and beyond, and it is critical that youth from all backgrounds have the skills and efficacy they need to participate in elections and civic life. The attitudes and experiences of young White men serve as a useful reminder that, in order to support their civic development, different groups of young people may have different needs. Young White men in particular display an appetite for civic and political engagement, as evidenced in their willingness to vote and their strong belief in their political knowledge. Yet across other forms of civic action, they demonstrate less enthusiasm for—and less involvement in—deeper political engagement. These deficits provide an opportunity for campaigns and other stakeholders in civic life to ensure that all young people have the power to be active participants in democracy.

[1] Young women voted at higher rates than both young White men and young men of color, according to our analysis of the CPS.

[2] Young White male Democrats were 20 percentage points more likely to agree with this statement, perhaps revealing some lingering distrust of the Democratic Party after the 2016 primary process.

[3] Young White men were also the most likely in our poll to oppose the pro-choice movement and the #MeToo movement, along with others, but the differences between them and the second-highest subgroup were not statistically significant.

[4] Other partisan differences emerged among young White men when we compared Democratic voters to Republican voters. Young White men who voted for Democrats were also more likely to consider themselves part of a political generation and to believe in their own political efficacy, compared to those who voted for Republicans.

Authors: Kristian Lundberg, Abby Kiesa, Peter de Guzman, Alberto Medina