Des Moines, Iowa, U.S.A. – In the heartland of America, bundled up in layers of winter wear and anticipation, I set out for the Iowa Caucus, where the frigid winds carried not just the chill of a record-breaking winter but also the whispers of a political drama about to unfold.
As a teenager from the sunny and liberal state of California, the record cold weather, flat plains, and Republican nature of Iowa were very foreign concepts.
The Iowa Caucus, a landmark moment in the United States presidential election process, is the first electoral event of the primary season.
Presidential candidates spend months crossing the state’s 99 counties, hosting town hall meetings and engaging in grassroots campaigning, all in an effort to foster a personal connection with potential supporters.
It was at these very events that I not only met with presidential candidates Vivek Ramaswamy, Ron DeSantis, and Nikki Haley, but I also had the opportunity to interact with caucusgoers of all ages, genders, and parties.
At a time when polarization in our nation is undoubtedly at its height, it was important for me to determine if my generation, the future leaders of the world, have a chance at uniting, conversing, and deliberating with those who share opposing beliefs. As such, I went into every event hoping to find answers to the question of whether or not members of Gen Z believe in cross-party dialogue. Iowa – a landlocked state with a recent history of turning red – was the perfect place to put my question to the test.
My quest began at an early morning Vivek Ramaswamy event, where Iowans gathered in a barbeque restaurant to hear the candidate preach his platform of “Truth.”
After listening to an hour of Ramaswamy preaching about “reverse racism being real” and how “human flourishing requires fossil fuels,” I spoke to Jack Nolan, a Gez Z first-time caucusgoer.
Surprisingly, he was displeased with Ramaswamy’s extremely partisan views, saying, “Even though I am a Republican, I have different ideals and ideas that don’t always align with the party, so I think it is absolutely essential to be able to speak with people who have all kinds of views.”
His comment resonated with a refreshing openness. Witnessing the next generation of voters like Nolan expressing an openness is a testament to the constant evolution of political discourse. It showed that conversation truly has the ability to go beyond party lines and barriers, resulting in a collaborative future in American politics.
Shortly after my conversation with Nolan, I felt a sense of defeat as I encountered 18-year-old twins John and Kailey Kotch. Their apathy towards the Caucus, paired with the comment that they were “forced by their parents to come to the event and had zero interest in caucusing,” cast a shadow on the democratic process.
The realization that members of my generation, despite having the privilege of being part of a rare political experience right in front of them, still remained indifferent and uninterested, left me disheartened.
But I was still determined to see if active political participation and cross-party interaction was of interest to other Gen Zers.
My glimmer of hope occurred in yet another barbecue restaurant, though this time, the room was adorned with hot pink signs, feather boas and the lively tunes of country music. This spirited setting unmistakably marked the venue for a Haley event.
As the crowd rushed in line for a selfie with the candidate after her speech, my attention veered toward a different prospect – Haley’s daughter Rena.
Intrigued by the possibility of gaining her insight on the Gen Z perspective, I sought to engage her in conversation.
Rena exhibited an infectious enthusiasm for the idea of Republicans and Democrats engaging not only in conversation but also in the exchange of opinions, all with the ultimate goal of “reaching solutions that satisfy both sides.”
Her unique perspective as the daughter of a presidential candidate added a new layer to the narrative and reflected the changing dynamics within political families. It underscored a new generation’s inclination towards fostering dialogue and seeking common ground, even within the confines of partisan politics.
Hopefully, the younger members of political families can pave the way for politicians to champion unity over division.
As the day unfolded, it came time for the final event: a DeSantis rally. I was hopeful from my previous encounters, but the awareness that DeSantis – known for his staunch rightward stance and for being accompanied by dedicated supporters – injected a tinge of apprehension.
After standing in the crowded room for two hours, listening to governors and congressmen preach about DeSantis’ policies, the candidate himself finally spoke.
For the entirety of the speech, my attention remained fixated on a girl who appeared to be around my age, wearing cowboy boots and a bright orange flannel.
Standing out as one of the youngest attendees in the crowd, she seemed to have arrived devoid of friends or family. Intrigued, I wasted no time in approaching her as soon as the rally concluded.
Cameron Cantonwine reported that she was in fact unhappy with the “nasty insults” made by DeSantis about the “other side.” She said that “politics needs to be more than just knocking people down, and even though I am a Republican who leans more conservative, I am still willing to vote for someone who’s either left or right.”
Cantonwine’s outlook displays the evolving expectations of Gen Z voters, even within traditionally conservative circles, for more respectful and constructive political discourse.
I was surprised by her willingness to depart from rigid party allegiances and recognize that political ideologies are nuanced.
This encounter was yet another testament to the emergence of a more open-minded political landscape that I am confident Gen Z can put into practice.
My encounters with individuals like Cantonwine, Nolan and Rena Haley provided glimpses into a generation that defies the stereotypical partisan divides, seeking cross-party dialogue and embracing a broader spectrum of political perspectives.
The desire for meaningful engagement, evident in their dissatisfaction with polarizing narratives and their willingness to explore candidates beyond party lines, paints a picture of a generation eager to move beyond the limitations of traditional political allegiances.
Gen Z showcased a determination to propel the nation forward by navigating the complexities of politics with open minds, genuine dialogue and a collective vision for a more unified and inclusive future.
Still, there needs to be a larger collective urgency within Gen Z to actively participate in politics and democracy. It is only acting not as passive observers, but as agents of change, that Gen Z can improve the future of American politics.
Talia Zafari is a student reporter from Los Angeles, California who traveled to Iowa in early January to report on the Iowa Caucuses.