Annie Wu and Victor Shi

How Gen Z Will Govern

Air Date: February 27, 2023

Political strategists Annie Wu and Victor Shi discuss how Gen Z will govern.


Heffner: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome our guests today, Gen Z, political activist Annie Wu and Victor Shi, welcome to you both.

Wu: Hi. Thanks for having us.

Shi: Thanks much for having me.

Heffner: Um, Victor, let me start with you. You were a delegate, if I recall. You were one of the youngest delegates, if not the youngest delegate ever, um, to one of our recent political conventions. Um, were you the first Gen Z delegate? Is that fair to say?

Shi: Um, so I know that there were other Gen Z delegates, um, starting in 2016. So I, I’m not quite sure. I was the first Gen Z delegate. I was, um, I got elected as the youngest delegate for Joe Biden, but I think in Gen Z sphere, definitely by far not the first.

Heffner:  And that leads my first question, which is, what is the difference in your mind between a Millennial and a Gen Z member?

Shi: So, I think Gen Z is really unique and I think distinguishes from Millennials in the sense that Millennials, I think, grew up before nine 11. I think nine 11 was a key kind of marker, um, between Gen Z and Millennials in terms of how we view the world. So Gen Z is in terms of just demographics, more diverse, uh, than Millennials. We’re also, um, more educated. We tend to come from a more kind of diverse socioeconomic background. So I think a lot of those traits distinguish us, uh, us from, um, Millennials. And then also the fact that I think more Gen Zers are on social media compared to Millennials. So if you look at, um, just the number of Gen Zers that have, um, at least one social media platform, it’s really, I think a lot higher than that in Millennials. So I think those are some of the key differences in kind of just how we look at the world and our perspective on it.

Heffner: Annie, let me ask you that same question. How do you compare millennials in Gen Z? Do you see it the same way or differently?

Wu: Yeah, so I usually use the example, it’s a dark one, but of nine 11 usually as well. And I, I’m actually like a “Zillennial.” I, some people say I’m a Gen Z, some people say I’m a Millennial. During nine 11, I was in kindergarten, so I didn’t really understand what was going on. Um, and like Millennials, I would say had Facebook for kind of what it was was originally purposed for, which was high schoolers and college students. That was very specific. Whereas Facebook really came into fruition when I was in like middle school. Um, I didn’t have one at the time, but um, I was a little too young. But yeah, I’m like kind of in between. And I really do agree with Victor that it’s a bit of how people see the world, how people utilize things. I think Millennials grew up in a very curated version of social media with Instagram, like very filtered, and at the beginning, um, how it was used and that, and with influencers as well, and Millennials, when you look at things like TikTok and how they communicate, it’s very like unrefined. It’s very just raw and authentic. Um, and I think that when I think about my personality of just different things with growing up, like I, I remember dial up internet, I didn’t really get it. Um, but you know, most Gen Zs wouldn’t. Uh, I, I think there’s definitely facets of, of both, uh, which is really interesting. And then my work being largely like online as well as me just having a perpetually online “pop culturey” personality. A lot of people tend to think I’m like a lot younger than I am, just cuz I like understand that language and I’m in that space.

Heffner: You most recently were a digital strategist for the Fetterman for Senate campaign…the subject of a recent New York Times story and profile of your work. What was the most illuminating experience you, you had at that intersection of Gen Z and traditional political life? Um, you know, that, that that will never escape you, that kind of, the, the, the ultimate or culminating insight from your experience running digital ops for Senator Fetterman?

Wu: Yeah, I think with, you know, the expansive like social media world now, there’s so many platforms, there’s so many people on different platforms. There’s different generations on different platforms, but at the same time, other generations are trying to understand these, these other platforms as well. There are, you know, now Gen X and even older generations on TikTok trying to understand that and see, you know, what the kids are up to, but also what’s going on there cuz it’s so prevalent as well as, you know, there are, there are young people on Instagram and Twitter, there are older people on Instagram and Twitter. So I think it was trying to make sure that we’re reaching all of those different audiences in a way that’s authentic. Um, we did a very fun, like real doc, or Doctors You Trust More Than Oz, uh, video. And we intentionally included, you know, doctors like Dr. Nick from The Simpsons, um, and then Dr. Drakken, which was from Kim Possible, but more, a little bit more Millennial. And then there was Dr. Dr. Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb, which is a little more Gen Z. Uh, there’s, you know, know people from Grey’s Anatomy and Scrubs that is, is more of maybe a Gen X or a a mom-type age. Uh, so it was really interesting when we had content like that and the amount of comments and people that resonated with all of the different references that we were making. And it wasn’t just, you know, only young people. And I think that that shows too that we really do need to be investing in these spaces.

Heffner: You said, if I recall correctly, that the candidate himself in the campaign really embraced your strategy, um, as the architect and leading voice of digital operations, uh, on social media. One of the things I thought during the course of the Fetterman-Oz campaign was, would there be any blowback, you know, from folks who see the social media piece as, uh, kind of icing on a cake and not the batter of public policy and what should really concern us? Um, w was there any concern at all that focusing too attentively on, uh, social was going to be perceived as, um, a elitist, if you will?

Wu: Yeah, so I was a social media producer. We had a really wonderful and expansive digital team as well as I think just a really intelligent, witty team, overall, that understood not everything about the internet, but understood why it was relevant. And I think, you know, obviously I was not there in the primary, and when John, um, had his stroke, they had to figure out how we were gonna continue to reach voters, um, when he couldn’t, when he was going through recovery and couldn’t traditionally be on the trail. And so with so many people being online, and like we saw in 2020, which was an election essentially all through digital methods, uh, for the most part, like I think people understood that there’s really the ability to get to people there. And it doesn’t necessarily need to be through traditional like ads on, on television. While those are super important, and I don’t think those are going away, we need to be utilizing these other types of platforms. And so even if, you know, our campaign manager, for example, who’s very just incredible to work with and so smart, um, and for me as a young person in politics, I just looked at our campaign all of the time and was like able to learn so much. Um, but at the same time, I think like he d he doesn’t have a TikTok. He didn’t, he doesn’t know what TikTok is, and he even said, you know, I, I’m still not downloading it. Um, but he understood that there were large amounts of people there that we could be reaching and reaching in a different way as well as then those TikToks could be brought over to Twitter or even traditional media and have people reporting on this viral TikTok. And I think then as they were happening and as people saw the numbers of seeing half a million, a million, multiples millions of people viewing these, these short fun videos, um, you can’t really argue that there’s not a value there. And so I think that was very understood on our campaign, which is, which is really nice, um, as a young person when it’s sometimes not taken seriously the this this space of the internet.

Heffner: Victor, let me ask you, um, you host the iGen Politics podcast. You’re an undergraduate, um, yourself, I believe at UCLA Class of 2024. Um, you do a podcast with Jill Wine-Banks, who you may be curious to learn if you don’t know already was a guest on The Open Mind many, many years ago, um, a a leading lawyer and, uh, investigator of, uh, corruption during the Watergate era. Um, let me ask that same question of you as an observer, as a bystander, not the one making, um, the Instagram, but watching Annie and her colleagues witty, wonderful, wonderfully entertaining and engaging creations. Uh, were you at all concerned that, um, in a state that is a Rust Belt state, um, there could be a backlash against, um, you know, a a a too prolific use of, of social media?


Shi: So first of all, I think Annie nailed it completely on the head. I think just as an observer, what I saw from the Fetterman campaign and uh, a lot of other campaigns across the country this time around was, you know, when we talk about how we reach people, I think I come from an organizing background, and so they tell you we have to meet people where they are. And so part of that I think is two-pronged to this environment. First you have kind of the the traditional model of meeting people where they are, which is, you know, in-person settings, you go other to their churches, you meet people in coffee shops. I think that works for a particular subset of, uh, a demographic that is older. But for younger people, I think, and Annie did this so well and her campaign, did this so well, uh, you have to meet young people where they are digitally. And I think that’s the difference between the two generations and I guess the younger generation and the older generations that you have to kind of meet young people online, in online spaces because that’s where the majority of young people are. That’s where we consume our information. And so I wasn’t quite concerned about, um, you know, campaigns looking to elitist by, um, going to social media platforms and, and reaching people were there and that way, because that’s how you have to, I guess that’s the only way that you can reach people, um, on a campaign for young people especially. And so, um, I think there were kind of two kind of especially organizing tactics at play here. Um, it was, you know, both in person as well as on online. I think that made a huge difference, um, for, for reaching just the general electorate. I think it would be a different case if it was just online. But, um, it was, it was both, both worlds. I think that’s what made it particularly, um, effective in this election.

Heffner: And do you think it made a difference, the fact that Annie and, and Senator Fetterman man’s target was someone who had many homes, maybe more than a dozen homes, uh, who was using crudité, uh, as an example of a, of an inflated, um, expense, uh, you know, like a party decoration, a food, not, you know, a corndog at, at the local Sam’s Club, um, you know, did, did that make a difference? Uh, the fact that that, uh, John Fetterman was, was running against, um, a a television elitist television personality?

Shi: I mean, I think absolutely. I think at the end of the day, you know, it’s a candid quality that matters. Just a quote, Mitch McConnell. Um, for this, this election particularly, I think especially in Pennsylvania, you saw two very different candidates. You saw someone like John Fetterman who was so authentic, who presented himself in this way that not many politicians do. And I think gets appreciated in a state like Pennsylvania, I think maybe even across the country where someone who is just relatable, who is personable, who can speak to the issues, I think a lot of people care about. And then you have someone like Dr. Roz, who frankly I think was just the complete opposite, who was a little bit unrelatable, wasn’t even kind of his primary residence, wasn’t in Pennsylvania. Um, you know, said things like crudité. And so I think there were these two really distinct realities. And at the end of the day, when you have a voter who’s looking at these two candidates in front of them, it’s hard not to choose the person who leads with compassion, who’s authentic and who has actual values and, you know, wrote against someone like Dr. Oz. So I think absolutely the candidate, um, that doc that I guess John Fetterman ran against Dr. Oz, um, definitely mattered in the outcome of the election.

Heffner: I do wanna come back to you, Victor, on this intergenerational political question, uh, of how we can improve, um, public service and the results of public service. But first I must ask Annie, because she was boots on the ground there. Um, you know, I I came to know Mayor Fetterman before Lieutenant Governor on The Open Mind, and he was probably the first elected that I booked through and his AOL account, right? We were just trading emails, my Gmail, his AOL. Um, and that’s, I presume how he served the residents, the citizens of Braddock, PA. Um, and and I know you’ve said often on camera, he’s been, he was a pleasure to work with. Um, how do you, how do you extrapolate, uh, multiply that level of auth authenticity in, in our, in our political life? Or is that just like a, a genie in a Fetterman bottle? Like you can’t, you can’t replicate that.

Shi: Yeah. Um, I mean, I think similar to what Victor said, it’s all about authenticity. And, and obviously there were a lot of very unique dynamics in this race. It was such a key state. These were two such interesting, unique personalities on both sides, um, that really foiled each other. Um, but at the same time, I think, think as people have asked me like, how do we replicate this? How do you copy and paste it? It’s not a copy and paste situation, right? If, if you’re gonna have a candidate, for example, like Pete Buttigieg, um, or have a candidate like Amy Klobuchar, you know, doing some of the memes or some of the things that we were doing in the ways we were doing them that wouldn’t feel authentic, right? And that goes with digital. And when we’re talking about like, not coming off elitist and not coming off as trying to utilize these spaces in inauthentic ways. And so I think it’s, you can take certain, um, larger aspects of what we were doing on digital, of meeting people where they were at in person and then showing that to the people online. You can take that in the aspect of showing the personality of the behind the scenes. You know, there was a lot of John with his kids and his dogs and his family because he, the, his family’s a large part of his life. Um, it was that he likes Sheetz, and that’s a quirky little, you know, fact about him. But it’s, it’s very relatable.

Heffner: Not not bed sheets he likes

Wu: No, he likes Sheetz, he

Heffner: Hot dogs and, uh, hamburgers and roadside stops

Wu: Stops gas station stop that has, you know, a lot of different snacks and foods. Yeah. Um, and he likes that. He, he likes the Steelers like these, these things about him that are genuine and make him relatable to people. Everyone has that. And they might be different. They might be, you know, that, that someone likes to cook things or someone likes to go on runs or whatever it might be. And I think it’s just finding those aspects of a candidate and highlighting them, because at the end of the day, people wanna connect, and that includes with politicians, and they want people in, like we see with I think why John resonated. They want people who they relate to and they feel like they can relate to. And so we, we need to show that. And that’s so much by talking and reaching them and communicating who they are, and that’s who they are as a whole person, including their policies, but also including the other parts of them and like how they, how they care for people in their community.

Heffner: Victor, uh, you host a, a podcast, uh, and, and a discussion program that grapples with the intergenerational political, um, issues we have today. Um, we talked about what informs or shapes Gen Z versus Millennials. And I, by the way, I don’t know what comes after Gen Z, right? You could maybe tell me if, do we have a post-Z Generation? We may, because you were, as you were talking about the impact of nine 11 as an older Millennial, I related to your analyses, respectively. I, and I think something like Newtown or the Pulse, uh, massacre, um, are much more formative in the minds of, of po of Gen Z, uh, as opposed to Millennials. Um, it might be the Gifford’s assassination attempt or, or one of those other twos that I mentioned. Uh, Parklands certainly too comes to mind. Uh, the Tree of Synagogue massacre, uh, a lot of gun violence massacres in particular, but now Gen Z is poised to try to do something Millennials were admittedly not able to do in the Obama administration, which is actually achieve some level of sustained change. And I would argue that, that separate from the Affordable Care Act, there was very little sustainable change enacted by Millennials, whereas Gen Z wants to do that now, are they gonna be able to do that? And, and what, what do they want to do first?

Shi: So I think part of the reason why you have this generation that is kind of voting in the way that they are and acting the way that they are is because when we look at the world, there really isn’t an instance where we saw the world kind of come together and enact things that we deeply care about. Um, aside from, I think this administration has, I think, done a good job of trying to build those coalitions and try to get those policies passed that affect our lives. But if you think about the differences, you know, between Jill’s generation, which is my coho, she’s a Baby Boomer, although I think technically a Silent Generation, but she says that she doesn’t like to be silent, but she, her generation saw Nixon and, and the downfall of Nixon and, and the Republican Party that ultimately embraced facts, that was a time when, um, the media coalesced around one narrative where, um, the facts mattered. Maybe the opinion was different, but at least people could agree on facts. If you look at, you know, future generations, um, nine 11 was a time when our country came together and solved issues in a bipartisan way. But really for this generation, for Gen Z and, and, and, and kind of this generation that I find myself in for a lot of the things that we care about, whether it be climate change or, or mass shootings, we just haven’t seen a lot of people agree, uh, to and enact the changes that need to be enacted. And so I think part of the thing that we are now doing is we’re taking into our own hands, um, which is why I think you see a lot of Gen Zers now running for office, which is why you see a lot of Gen Zers turning out to vote and historic numbers because we know that the systems that are in place just aren’t representative and aren’t, uh, kind of equipped to enact and, and kind of meet the challenges that we are hoping for. And so I think right now what you see is, you know, we saw this in 2018. We saw this in 2020 and again a few weeks ago in the 2022 midterm elections, which is young people are very energized. We are definitely, um, out there making our voices heard. And so I think now that we’ve done it three times in a row, I think a lot of pressure is growing on Democrats and the Biden administration to really sustain the [inaudible] by including young voices at the table and show young people kind of why it’s important that we continue go doing this and kind of what our vote will translate into in the future elections.

Heffner: Annie, what’s the single most important legislation that, uh, Senator Fetterman in the new class, uh, could enact that would make you feel empowered? Not just on the campaign side, but in the governing side, whether that’s expanding the court, the Supreme Court or lower courts, um, or other systemic or policy changes, but a single thing that that is most on your mind, and then not just on your mind, but other Gen Zers minds.

Wu: Yeah, I mean, I think something that is necessary prior to doing a lot of the change and protections and, um, pushes forward for progress that we want, we need to get rid of the filibuster. Um, it’s a very antiquated, inherently very racist, um, old, you know, thing in place that just is really unnecessary and is halting so many of the things that you just named. Um, so if we were able to get rid of the filibuster, and I think John being in the Senate to be potentially a 51st vote, I know we need, you know, more than we, we potentially need more than that, um, with, with how certain senators have been been acting. But I think if we were able to get rid of that, you know, we’re able to do so many of the different things that are important to keep pushing us forward and that are things that young people, but all, all people in this country should care about. Whether it is, you know, codifying Roe v. Wade and protecting abortion rights, um, whether it’s doing things to protect our environment, whether it is, you know, making sure there is common sense gun policy, that is, you know, that I think it was an article that just came out, um, in The New York Times saying that the number one cause of death for, for young people is gun violence. And so I think there’s, there’s so many important issues right now, and there is this, this big thing in the way, um, that is stopping us from being able to do so many of those things. And just me being pragmatic, you know, I, I think that would be my, my my first summer to do if, if, if it’s possible.

Heffner: Uh, Victor, is it fair to say that abolishing the filibuster either didn’t occur to Millennials or their predecessor generations or, uh, wasn’t viewed as, uh, a, an ideal or, uh, maybe a, a realistic political goal? Um, whatever it is, the, the fact is that Millennials didn’t have the fortitude it, it took to, to get the country there if it was important to accomplish that in order to make progress.

Shi: Well, you know, I, I think the filibuster is a, is a topic that I don’t think enough Americans know about. Even now, I think it’s starting to get a lot of attention based off of what happened, uh, back in, during the Obama administration with Mitch McConnell blocking a Supreme Court justice, and then now with a lot of these key pieces of legislature and, um, not being a able to pass because you need at least, I think it’s 60 majority votes, uh, in order to get these things passed. So a lot of, a lot of these things, I think, are things that Millennials and and older generations just maybe didn’t think about. But it’s something that this generation, I think is particularly aware of. Cause voting rights and, and codifying roe and a lot of these things that are deeply kind of immediate in our lives, um, we need the filibuster to be eliminator at least dramatically, um, amended. And I think that’s part of the thing that I think seeing someone like John Fetterman and then, um, uh, Reverend Warnock down in Georgia win his reelection, the runoff, that’s why it’s gonna be so important because now at least some of the issues will now be able to be, um, brought up in hearings. Um, now every single, um, committee in the Senate will be able to have a majority of Democrats. So a lot of these issues, I think are gonna have a much easier time of being brought to the hou being brought to the Senate floor to a vote. And then of course, you have the House, which is Republican control, but it seems like, um, based off of the politics of where we are, it’s gonna be hard to get Republicans to kind of unify in one thing, and maybe it’s gonna be easier for I think, Democrats to hopefully convince some Republicans of, of the importance to pass, um, these kinds of legislation.

Heffner: It is an objective fact, not, not any kind of emotional opinion that Gen Z from political ideology is the least diverse in the sense that it’s the most progressive or liberal if you want to use that moniker. Um, so I just want to ask you plainly, do you know Gen Z conservatives and, and if so, how do they differ from, uh, Millennial, uh, or other generational conservatives starting with Victor and then Annie?

Shi: I think in general for Generation Z I’m not quite sure if I would even say that Generation Z um, particularly feels strongly about the Democratic Party, either. I think what you see in a lot of the research shows that Generation Z cares more about the values rather than a particular party. Um, and, and you see this kind of across the board at the end of the day, I think whether you’re a conservative or a Democrat, and I do know some conservative Gen Zers, sure, the process might be different in terms of how you reach some sort of policy, but the end of the day, I think for a lot of Gen Zers who are conservative and Democrat, at the end of the day, we wanna see just our lives improved. We wanna see more representation of young people in government in places where change can be affected. And so, um, those are the types of things where I think that young people can agree on, no matter which party you come from. And I think it’s less of a political ideology or political ID for, um, a lot of Gen Zers and more about, okay, what issues do our candidates that we’re supporting care about? And at the end end, at the end of the day, who’s gonna actually, um, go to, you know, Congress or go to an elected body and, um, make the change that we wanna see in our lives.

Heffner: Annie?

Wu: Yeah, I would echo so much of that. I think that with Gen Z, they, they don’t have this stronghold in, in a party per se. Um, I think that they, like Victor said, they, they wanna see their lives improve. And I think, uh, you, you brought up, you know, Obama administration, I think that’s such a differentiating factor with Gen Z versus Millennials that a lot of Millennials, Obama oh eight was one of their first elections, or their first times being really engaged in the political process. Gen Zs not so much. A lot of them, you know, were, were very young. Um, they couldn’t vote yet. I remember, I mean, I was in early middle school, um, and I always say that I wish I was just a bit older that I understood the magnitude, but I think, you know, they saw systems like voting systems working and seeing progress made there, the, the big hope slogan of, of, of his campaign. And so, and then I think Gen Z, a lot of their first understanding of politics, their intro to politics, maybe their first election or first election, they were, you know, unable to understand was 2016. Um, and based on that outcome, like very, very different. Yeah. And so I think it’s, it’s a lot of thought into, you know, and I think that with the filibuster too, that they’re thinking, you know, are, are the systems working? Are things are, is are the institutions working? And so they’re not as aligned with, I have to be going by the institution or how historically things have been done. I think they’re just like, we want progress and we want the world to be better and we want our world that we are going to live in to be something that we can all A, inhabit, but b, enjoy and feel safe and feel, um, taken care of it and comfortable.

Heffner: And afford, uh, you know, a time that Jill might relate, you know, that, that home ownership, uh, wasn’t a pipedream, but a reality for the vast majority of us, uh, where it’s not for Millennials, a lot of Millennials and Gen Z, uh, so enjoy and afford, um, and live freely. Annie, thank you so much, Victor. Thank you so much. Appreciate your insight and your time today and, uh, admire your activism in the arena.

Wu: Yeah, thank you so much.

Shi: Thanks so much. Great chatting.

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