Won’t get fooled again: Gen Z all done with old rationales for war
As negotiations between Iran and the United States on a return to the 2015 nuclear agreement continue, neoconservative commentators are scrambling to undermine diplomacy and advocate for a war they’ve wanted all along. But the Biden administration and hawks in Congress should be careful not to overestimate the American public’s support for an open military conflict with Tehran.
In particular, Washington policymakers should consider that the opposition to such a confrontation grows more politically powerful each year and nowhere is it stronger than in the generation born between the late 1990s and the early 2010s, known as Gen Z.
The conventional wisdom that young people don’t vote appears increasingly inaccurate. The 2020 presidential election saw a 50 percent turnout among 18-29 year-olds, an 11-point increase from 2016 — more than double the overall increase in turnout by all other age groups. Gen Z played a key role in President Biden’s victory, and with each year that passes, this demographic comprises a bigger share of the American electorate.
Gen Z has also shown an enormous propensity for grassroots organizing and political protest. We’re on track to be the most racially and ethnically diverse and best-educated generation ever. In other words, it is a key segment of the electorate, and our political power is only going to grow.
Additionally, Gen Z cares immensely about foreign policy. Just look at the mass mobilization of young Americans last May protesting Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza and the violence in East Jerusalem. According to a nationwide online survey conducted by the Center for American Progress in 2019, two-thirds of Gen Z voters say that the foreign policy decisions the government makes matter to them and their families.
Gen Zers have also grown up navigating the fallout of the post-9/11 wars. The same survey found that over 70 percent of these voters, a higher proportion than any other age group, agree that “the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan were a waste of time, lives, and taxpayer money and they did nothing to make us safer at home.” And two-thirds of Gen Z voters believe that the United States “should prioritize economic and diplomatic efforts, rather than military action, to protect our interests around the world.”
This healthy skepticism about military intervention translates into concrete policy preferences on Iran. According to a poll taken in the last days of 2021, Gen Z approves of the Iranian nuclear agreement by a 40-point margin, the largest spread of all generations polled. Steps to promote diplomacy, such as lifting all sanctions on Iran to jumpstart nuclear negotiations or responding with increased diplomacy if negotiations don’t succeed, enjoy a higher approval rating than military interventions among both the general public and Gen Z voters.
And while advocates of the military option insist that striking Iran’s nuclear facilities will be a simple, one-shot operation, doing so would almost certainly ensnare the United States in a broader regional conflict. Iran, in conjunction with its strategic partners including Hezbollah in Lebanon and militias in Iraq, would likely retaliate by attacking Israel and U.S. forces in the region.
According to General Kenneth McKenzie, Commander of U.S. Central Command, Iran has ballistic missile capabilities that enable it to “strike effectively across the breadth and depth of the Middle East” with accuracy and volume. The consequences of taking the military option could be a regional war on multiple fronts, which the former Iran team chief at the Department of Defense assessed as potentially “so much worse than Iraq.” It’s a scenario that is very unlikely to appeal to people my age, let alone those who would be most directly engaged.
Indeed, it’s easy to underestimate how unpopular a war with Iran might be with young voters like me, because we have little representation in the foreign policy discourse and in the media. With the oldest members of Gen Z turning 25 this year, you’re not likely to see our voices among the foreign policy elite, but you will hear us at the ballot box and in the streets.
The idea that military action is the key to defending American lives rings deeply hollow for a generation that has seen many of their families battered by two historic recessions, a pandemic that soon will have killed one million Americans, and the impacts of accelerating climate change. We have grown up in a nation perpetually at war and watched our country reap what those wars have sown: the suffering of our veterans and the diversion of desperately needed funds to maintain basic infrastructure and the social safety net to the Pentagon and military contractors, the excessive militarization of police departments, massive fossil fuel emissions, and the fracturing of American democracy itself.
Young voters are unlikely to look kindly on an administration or a Congress that chooses to embroil the United States in yet another war, leaving our generation saddled with the consequences for decades to come. Policymakers ought to worry less about the political cost of concessions that may be necessary to reach an agreement with Iran, and more about the political costs, particularly with young voters, of the alternative.