Politics & society, Arts & culture

Can Taylor Swift shape the future of U.S. democracy? Yes, she can.

Millennials and Gen Z are mired in fatalism. Leaders at the Berkeley Institute for Young Americans say Swift and other young icons might inspire millions to feel hope — and power.

By Edward Lempinen

During a dynamic performance, Taylor Swift flexes muscles in her left arm as she sings

With her popularity soaring and some 270 million social media followers worldwide, Taylor Swift could be a political force again in 2024 if she decides to endorse a candidate, Berkeley scholars say. 

In October 2020, just a few weeks before the U.S. presidential election, global pop hyper-star Taylor Swift issued a brief, carefully worded statement endorsing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. The Democratic nominees, Swift said, recognized "that people of color deserve to feel safe and represented, women deserve the right to choose what happens to their bodies, and that the LGBTQIA+ community deserves to be acknowledged and included."

Few campaign endorsements are remembered nearly four years later. But this one aligned almost perfectly with the core values of Millennials and Gen Z, say the leaders of the UC Berkeley Institute for Young Americans, and it still offers a lens onto how young voters will swing this fall.

Now, as the Super Bowl, Election 2024 and the Taylor Swift phenomenon converge in an almost hallucinatory American moment, the Institute’s researchers say that the pop star could influence tens of millions of young voters, even as she incites feverish conspiracy theories among MAGA supporters of far-right Republican Donald Trump.

Sarah Swanbeck, the Institute’s executive director, and Erin Heys, its policy director, are both Millennials. They’ve done deep thinking about the zeitgeist of young people, and have even argued that 17-year-olds should have the right to vote.

The political dynamics of the current moment are hardly frivolous, they said in a recent interview — and the stakes for U.S. democracy are enormous.

Millennials and Gen Z today comprise nearly half of the U.S. electorate. Surprisingly, the researchers said, both young liberals and young conservatives share many of the egalitarian values expressed by Swift. But they’re broadly disillusioned with the political and economic system. If Swift can persuade a bloc of them to vote, she becomes a powerful force.

The Berkeley News interview with Swanbeck and Heys has been edited for length and clarity.

Berkeley News: Taylor Swift has been using her celebrity to support small-d democratic values to tens of millions of fans in the U.S. and worldwide. Can we use her and her popular appeal as a lens for understanding young Americans — Millennials and members of Gen Z?

Erin Heys: I think Taylor Swift is a really interesting case study of a Millennial. She’s a 34-year-old woman, has this massive fan base with a lot of young people following her and her music.

Sarah Swanbeck, executive director of the Berkeley Institute for Young Americans (left) and Erin Heys, the institute's policy director, in their UC Berkeley headquarters

Sarah Swanbeck, executive director of the Berkeley Institute for Young Americans (left), and Erin Heys, the institute's policy director, in their UC Berkeley headquarters.

Brandon Sánchez Mejia/UC Berkeley

She comes out being comfortable making some political statements, talking about her support for LGBTQ rights, abortion rights and racial equality. At least in part, she feels comfortable in that space because she's exemplifying what we call egalitarian values among young people, Millennials and Gen Z.

We've done a little deeper dive by launching this project a few years ago during the 2020 election. What we found is that there is a measurable difference in young people showing these egalitarian values compared with older generations.

They care more about things like racial equity. They care more about social issues. They care more about the redistribution of wealth and power in society. So when Taylor Swift comes forward and says these things, it's actually not as much of a surprise to her audience, because those values do resonate with a lot of young people.

[A Swift endorsement] could really change the game for those people who, in the current moment, feel disillusioned with the whole political and economic system.
Erin Heys 

She doesn’t see it as a commercial risk?

Heys: I think she feels pretty empowered. From our research, we can see that among young Democrats and conservatives, support for egalitarian values and attitudes are much higher.

But in the last few days we’ve also seen this explosive reaction against her. She endorsed Biden and Harris in 2020. Now her boyfriend, Travis Kelce, will play in the Super Bowl with the Kansas City Chiefs, and she may be at the game to cheer him on. This whole dynamic seems to short-circuit a sector of American conservatives — many of them see a huge conspiracy at work. Does this tell us something about how the right views young voters, as embodied in Taylor Swift?

Sarah Swanbeck: Historically, neither party, but particularly the Republican Party, has done a good job of engaging young voters. Now these concerns are coming from a lot of elected conservatives, who tend to be older, and it suggests that they are concerned.

They seem to be fearful about what one young Millennial could potentially do to turn out voters.

Why do they feel threatened?

Heys: In 2020, voters 18 to 29 years old voted for Biden at 61%. Trump only had 37% of the youth vote. There have been a lot of issues internally within the Republican Party about how to capture even the young conservative vote.

We’ve heard from young conservatives telling us that they care about programs like health care for all. They want government to do something about climate change, and many actually support abortion rights. That seems completely contradictory to the values and attitudes of older conservatives.

Let’s look at the big picture: The Berkeley Institute for Young Americans has been doing a lot of study and communication about the conditions confronting young people in this country and worldwide. What have you learned?

Swanbeck: Millennials and Gen Z are the first generations that are predicted to be worse off economically than their parents’ generation. More and more, this idea of the American dream, access to opportunity, the chance to move up, things like buying your first home — those things feel out of reach to young people.

Just being able to make a living wage and afford the basic necessities of living — those feel very out of reach to young people.

Turning back to the values study that we've done, another value that we found that was very high among millennials and Gen Z was a sense of fatalism. They feel hopeless about the future. They feel like they have no agency or control over their own lives — or their fate.

Young people just want older politicians to understand the gravity of the world that they're living in, the gravity of the problems that they're facing. Often they feel dismissed...
Sarah Swanbeck
A lot of people told us that they thought the American dream is dead for their generation, or very hard to achieve, or only achievable for some, like the college-educated class. They told us it is much harder to achieve as a minority in this country. And so a lot of young people have a very fatalistic outlook on both politics and the economy.

Heys: In addition to that, we see young people really concerned about the political system itself and feeling that it's been taken over by special interests and dark money. We’ve had young people tell us, both those who voted and did not vote, that they didn't really think their vote matters anymore because the political system has been captured by the economic elite.

Are these feelings shared both by young Republicans and young Democrats?

Heys: Yes. We found that young people who voted for Trump were just as fatalistic as those who voted for Biden. Fatalism just runs high across the political spectrum. It also runs high among those who are college-educated, and the data show us that those with a high school education or less are even more fatalistic.

Can you elaborate on this a bit? What’s your sense of how young people are reacting — politically and in other ways — to this challenging landscape?

Swanbeck: More and more, we're seeing young people who don't identify with either political party. Their reaction is, "Actually, I'm not seeing either party come to the table with solutions that would actually help me or my life." Here in California, lots of young people who are registering to vote are not identifying with any political party.

Heys: A lot of young people had high hopes for Biden during the 2020 election, but they have been disappointed. They think he hasn't been strong enough on climate change, and there’s his recent backpedaling on immigration and the war in Gaza. When it comes down to the cost-of-living crisis, young people aren't really seeing that the Biden administration has done enough.

And so, one big fear that's been well-documented in the media is that they’ll just sit out this election.

Is that a substantial risk? Don’t some voters typically express this frustration early in the campaign, but then, in the end, come out to vote?

Swanbeck: That’s the million-dollar question.

Heys: We can tie it back to Taylor Swift. The Biden administration has been really trying to court her endorsement, or endorsements from other social media influencers. So maybe young voters can say, "Okay, these people talk to us. They speak to the issues that are important to me. They share my values, and they're saying that democracy is really at stake here, so I'm going to get on board with this."

Flanked by Kansas City Chiefs stars Patrick Mahomes (left) and Travis Kelce (right), President Joe Biden celebrated the Chiefs Super Bowl win last year at the White House

Flanked by Kansas City Chiefs stars Patrick Mahomes (left) and Travis Kelce (right), President Joe Biden celebrated the football team's Super Bowl win last year at the White House. Photos like this, and Kelce's romance with megastar Taylor Swift, help to fuel right-wing conspiracy theories about their threat to Republican candidates.

Hannah Foslien, official White House photo

There's still plenty of time for the Biden administration to get young leaders and influencers to come out and support him. That could really change the game for those people who, in the current moment, feel disillusioned with the whole political and economic system.

Political leaders are usually older — what could they do to address the structural or systemic concerns that young people have?

Heys: When we think about what's happening to young people today, we think about it in terms of risk. There are new risks in society for younger generations that weren't necessarily experienced by older generations, even when they were a similar age: climate change, AI, political divisiveness and potential threats to democracy. New economic and social risks that are unique to younger generations.

What younger people want is for government to reconceptualize its role in society and to not just go along with the strategy that's been in place for the last 50 years. Small government, deregulated markets, a laissez-faire economy — this isn't really working to address young people's needs anymore.

There’s a sense that we need to rethink some social safety-net programs around unemployment insurance, higher education funding, the student-debt crisis, having better family policies in place, and addressing the cost-of-living crisis.

For so long, the American dream has been predicated on success in the education system alone. But that doesn't really seem to be working anymore. A lot of young people today say getting a college degree just isn't worth the debt. It's not worth the risk. Some who have gone through the system have told us they feel almost like it’s an albatross around their neck they carry through the rest of their life.

Swanbeck: Young people just want older politicians to understand the gravity of the world that they're living in, the gravity of the problems that they're facing. Often they feel dismissed, as though the older generation is saying, "Well, I struggled too when I was your age. This is part of the life course. You’ll grow out of it."

But young people are trying to get older politicians to understand: Actually, we’re at a crisis point on a number of fronts — political crises, economic crises, environmental crises. And it’s serious.

Let’s circle back to the start of our conversation: Can Taylor Swift have a meaningful or even a decisive impact on this election?

Heys: The youth vote, as we all know, is going to be crucial in this election. It did a lot to determine the 2020 election and even the 2022 midterms.

Taylor Swift has over 270 million followers on Instagram. If she does make an endorsement, she has the potential to sway a lot of young voters. She and other cultural influencers can do a lot to signal to young people, "Hey, your vote does matter."

But at the end of the day, I think political campaigns need to be really serious about shaping a policy agenda that's going to speak to young people's socio-economic risks. Many young voters will see that as more important than celebrity endorsements.