October 26, 2021

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How Is Your Generation Changing Politics?

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Have you ever been involved in activism on behalf of a particular candidate or cause? If you have, what inspired you to do so? If you have not, what might motivate you? Do you think a direct message on Twitter from another teenager could bring you into the fold?

Dana Depelteau, a hotel manager, had just gone public with a long-shot candidacy for mayor in Boston when he noticed that someone in city politics was going after him online.

The effect of this attack, he said, was lightning-fast and pervasive. The morning after he announced his candidacy on Twitter, he showed up at his local barbershop and, while staring at himself in the mirror, overheard a customer describing his views as white supremacist.

“I’m thinking, ‘Man, politics is dirty,’” recalled Mr. Depelteau. He rushed home to fire back at his critic, a sharp-edged progressive who had dug up some of Mr. Depelteau’s old social media posts and was recirculating them online. But that, he discovered, was a big mistake.

“I didn’t know how old she was,” he explained. “I just knew she was a prominent person.”

That is how he became aware of Calla Walsh, a leader in the group of activists known here as the Markeyverse. Ms. Walsh, a 16-year-old high school junior, has many of the attributes of Generation Z: She likes to refer to people (like the president) as “bestie.” She occasionally gets called away from political events to babysit her little brother. She is slightly in the doghouse, parent-wise, for getting a C+ in precalculus.

She is also representative of an influential new force in Democratic politics, activists who cut their teeth on the presidential campaigns of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

The full strength of these activists — many of whom are not old enough to vote — did not become clear until last fall, when they were key to one of the year’s most surprising upsets, helping Senator Edward J. Markey defeat a primary challenge from Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, who had been heavily favored to win.

In conversation, Ms. Walsh tends to downplay her movement, describing them as “Markey teens” and “theater kids” who “formerly ran, like, Taylor Swift or K-pop stan accounts.”

But the Markeyverse carried out a devastating political maneuver, firmly fixing the idea of Senator Markey as a left-wing icon and Representative Kennedy as challenging him from the right. They carried out ambitious digital organizing, using social media to conjure up an in-person work force — “an army of 16-year-olds,” as one political veteran put it, who can “do anything on the internet.”

They are viewed apprehensively by many in Massachusetts’ Democratic establishment, who say that they smear their opponents and are never held accountable; that they turn on their allies at the first whiff of a scandal; and that they are attacking Democrats in a coordinated effort to push the whole party to the left, much as the Tea Party did, on the right, to the Republicans.

Ms. Walsh, for one, is cheerfully aware of all those critiques.

In a podcast this spring, she recalled the day last summer when the Kennedy campaign singled her out in a statement, charging that negative campaigning online had created a vicious, dangerous atmosphere.

“I won’t lie, I was terrified,” she said. But then, she said, the fear evaporated.

“That’s when I realized I had a stake in this game: They are scared of me, a random teenager on the internet who just happened to be doing some organizing with her friends,” she said. “I think that made us all think, ‘Hey, they’re scared of us. We have power over them.’”

Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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