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By Aidan Mattis
The United States is a nation fascinated by politics. The level of political activity among civilians varies widely from those who don’t vote and don’t care, straight through to those who vote in every election and talk about nothing else. American news media, entertainment media, higher education, and much more constantly debate and discuss the political issues of the given day. On college campuses, political organizations are some of the most active and involved clubs around. This facet of American life is dominated by citizens over the age of eighteen, yet by no means is it limited to full fledged adult citizens. High School students across the country get involved with organizations like Young Republicans, Young Democrats, Turning Point USA, Junior Statesmen of America (JSA), and so on.
While these organizations give students a great chance to voice opinions and discuss issues, high school is also a formative and extremely socially complex time in many people’s lives. So what is it that drives young adults to politics? What challenges do they face? What do they think of current events? I sat down with three students from Conestoga Senior High School to ask these questions. Nikko Markakos, Michael Malarkey, and Luke Scilovati are three members of the Class of 2018, and all three are currently 0r have been involved with JSA. Nikko, Michael, and Luke all have conservative leanings. Markakos attempted to start a Turning Point USA chapter at the school, but has been unsuccessful so far. The Young Democrats President Matthew Soderberg was contacted for interview but no one came forward.
Why did you get involved in JSA?
Junior Statesmen of America is like a Model UN for American Politics. Students gather at conventions to debate and discuss current issues and propose hypothetical solutions. Scilovati had been engaged in political discourse via social media, where he first interacted with Nikko and Michael in a political sense. He decided he “wanted to get more involved in real life, rather than just online.” Seeing JSA as an opportunity to do this, he joined.
Nikko decided to get involved after watching the series “House of Cards,” realizing that “[he] wanted to get involved and learn about the modern political climate, to meet with [his] fellow junior statesmen to discuss various issues.” Joining the organization as a freshman, he ran for president and was elected in a dead tie with fellow student (now former Young Democrats President) Hannah Hyams of the Class of 2016. Markakos, a Republican, and Hyams, a Democrat, were appointed co-presidents. The following year the Faculty Advisor to the club announced that there would be no more elections in JSA and that executive positions would be appointed in the future. Markakos felt that this was due to the election of a conservative to a leadership position, and felt frustrated by the event.
“In a school like Conestoga, which tends to be liberal leaning, it’s nice to spend time with other people who think like you.” Michael expressed that while discourse and interaction with those who hold differing beliefs and values is important, he often feels alienated by some of his peers. “It’s nice to discuss modern issues, current events and whatnot, and give our perspectives and opinions on them.”
As public school students, what do you think of Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos?
“I think all this paranoia about her destroying the public education system is ridiculous,” Michael remarked, “it kind of makes sense because the whole point of her as a pick is to reduce federal involvement in the sector.” DeVos’s nomination has been heralded as a major victory for school choice advocates, but she has faced attacks from teachers unions and the left in general. Her policies reflect an extremely pro-charter school agenda, which her critics claim will harm already failing public schools. Luke observed that the failure of the public school system was likely the main reason for DeVos’s nomination, suggesting that “if you look at kids in the inner cities…school choice is very important because they have less [resources] in public schools.” Charter schools have a mixed record regarding their ability to effectively replace or supplement public schools, but there are a great deal of success stories.
What challenges do you face as a young conservative?
Michael referred to an anecdotal experience he had in class: “I was in government, and it was purely a seminar class where we discuss opinions.” He continued, “I said the two biggest liberal myths are the wage gap and the gunshow loophole. Not a single person agreed with me and they all just snickered…it extends to the curriculum.”
Malarkey was frustrated by the lack of discussion and the fact that he was simply laughed at rather than engaged. Markakos supported Michael’s point, explaining that “Especially in government class, you get a little nervous to speak to what you believe because the slightest opinion can cause a negative reaction.” Luke assented, saying that “We try to voice our opinions against things like socialism, the moment you say anything everyone just laughs at us.”
High School is a turbulent time emotionally and academically, and it’s difficult to be active in a sphere of discussion as polarizing as politics. The struggles experienced by the young people interviewed in this article are not limited to them, nor are they limited to conservatives in all places. The biggest issue, it seems, stems from an unwillingness to communicate with one another – in this case, to even treat conservative and libertarian leaning classmates with respect. In our high schools, students are not properly taught how to debate and discuss, but instead that it’s okay for their only argument to be derision and laughter. Until this issue is resolved, it is unlikely that we will move forward as a nation.