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Opposite Of Radical: Today's Youth Trust Uncle Sam

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Opposite Of Radical: Today's Youth Trust Uncle Sam

Opposite Of Radical: Today's Youth Trust Uncle Sam

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

When it comes to trust in government, young people stand out. Public opinion polls show they have more faith and less anger than their elders. NPR's Tovia Smith looks at whether it's just the innocence of youth or something deeper that this generation may carry with them.

TOVIA SMITH: A generation ago, they vowed never to trust anyone over 30. But as it turns out, those under 30 today are actually the most trusting of all.

Ms. BRITTANY TUCKER (Student, Northeastern University): As of now, I trust the government. I feel like they are trying to do what is best for us and for their constituents.

SMITH: Brittany Tucker is a poli-sci major at Northeastern University who believes in her government. The percent of young people who agree with her is significantly higher than older people, though it's worth noting it's still only about a third of the younger set who say they trust government all or most of the time - and it's often with caveats. As another poli-sci major, Jennifer Kral, puts it, everything's relative.

Ms. JENNIFER KRAL (Student, Northeastern University): I definitely think that politicians are given a really bad rap. There are certainly plenty of CEOs and executives out there that are just as bad, and that we certainly shouldn't be the pointing fingers simply because they're politicians.

Unidentified Man: Let's start with the office of president. Are there any nominations for the office of president?

Ms. KRAL: I nominate Brittany Tucker.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Both Kral and Tucker made their first foray last week into what they still see as the noble pursuit of politics: running for office in their College Democrats' club.

Unidentified Man: All those in favor of electing Brittany Tucker, please signify by saying aye.

Unidentified Group: Aye.

Unidentified Man: All opposed? They ayes have it. Congratulations, Ms. Tucker.

(Soundbite of cheering, applause)

SMITH: Like so many of her peers, Tucker was inspired to get into politics by the campaign of Barack Obama.

Mr. TUCKER: It gives you hope, and that hope, like, turns into trust in the government, because you believe that, like, things can change, or, like, good things can happen.

SMITH: Analysts say that Obama-love may be what's propping up young people's trust. Most under-30s supported Obama in 2008 and still do today. But that doesn't explain everything. Even young Republicans who believe the best government is less government are also more trusting than their elders. Jay Altschuler, a member of Northeastern's College Republicans, says it's basically blissful ignorance.

Mr. JAY ALTSCHULER (Student, Northeastern College): We haven't had a lot of experience with government, for the most part.

SMITH: Attitudes will change, as one expert put it, when you people grow up and get mugged by reality.

Altschuler and fellow GOP student Michael Sabo agree.

Mr. MICHAEL SABO (Student, Northeastern College): The second they get a paycheck and they see what comes out of it...

Mr. ALTSCHULER: I think we're all here about to learn the hard way.

Mr. SABO: I think we all are.

SMITH: If history is any guide, they may be right. Polls going back to 1958 show that trust always begins to head south sometime after age 30. But there are some clues that this generation may be different.

Dr. PETER LEVINE (Researcher, Tufts University): The millennials are quite positive towards other big institutions like corporations and the military and faith. So it does give you a feeling that it's a different generation.

SMITH: Tufts University researcher Peter Levine says young people today are not angry or alienated like previous generations were.

Dr. LEVINE: They don't define themselves in terms of opposition or trying to smash everything. They don't have a generation gap, really. They really cite their parents as role models and as political guides. The current thing is you call your mom on your cell phone to find out what she thinks, which I really don't think was a '60s attitude.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Indeed, it may be why young people today are largely not swayed by the Tea Party. Mention the Tea Party, and they're likely to either scoff or shrug.

Mr. WILL DUCOMB (Student, Northeastern College): What do you mean about the Tea Party?

Ms. JEN TROST (Student, Northeastern College): The Boston Tea Party?

SMITH: Like Northeastern senior Will DuComb and Jen Trost, nearly half of young people say they don't follow politics.

Ms. TROST: I figure I'll work on that as I get older. I really don't follow it at all. I've just been studying.

Mr. DUCOMB: Yeah, I just care about my finals.

SMITH: It's a pretty good bet that these young people will begin to care more as they start looking for work in coming years. And their feelings for government may hinge on the economy. If the recession ends sooner, young people may give the government the credit and their eternal trust. But if the economic downturn persists, their positive attitudes most likely will not.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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