“Politics Is For Everyone”: Lauren Duca On Why Young People Should Engage In Democracy

In a wide-ranging interview, Lauren Duca talks about her new book, the importance of young people engaging in politics, and the state of journalism.
Lauren Duca

Lauren Duca

“We should move through the world operating with allegiance to truth, and aim to empower ourselves with information – to empower each other with information – with the goal of equality. ” – Lauren Duca

If you’re like most of us, you probably came to be aware of Lauren Duca through an interview she did with Tucker Carlson back in December of 2016. In the segment, Carlson repeatedly interrupted Duca, eventually ending the piece by telling the young writer that she should “stick to the thigh-high boots.”

Undeterred by his misogyny, Duca flipped the narrative, refusing to be boxed into a reductive construct in order to assert her political agency. Following this trend, her latest endeavor comes in the form of her first book, How to Start a Revolution, a guide to building a sustainable culture of political resistance by galvanizing and empowering the youth of America.

I sat down with Duca to hear her thoughts on her work, creating political space for underrepresented voices, surviving harassment, the ills of public figuredom, and more.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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Remy: How did this book come about?

Lauren: I was an entertainment reporter in a previous life, and I thought that I wanted to write long-form pieces on pop culture that were political with a lowercase “p,” in the sense that they weren’t navigating cultural hierarchies, but I didn’t have any sense of my own political agency. That is the awakening moment that I experienced on November 9th, in 2016. I woke up the day after the election and was completely shocked by Trump’s win, as so many people were.

For me, I just saw the absurdity of accepting the authority of our gatekeepers – especially through the lens of political writing – and the way that we had been told that Trump’s win was this ridiculous, impossible thing. And then it happened. So, I worked on this book proposal. At the time I was freelancing and I just thought, writing is my greatest/only skill, and I would like to be able to use it full-time to figure out what is going on; to help make sense of this moment. I’d like to be able to do that with all my time and energy, and be able to afford rent and healthcare. So, I tried to shoot my shot with this book proposal. At the time, I had a kind of cute following on Twitter and I had a career under my belt, I had won an LA Press Club award. I had kind of a chance at them letting me write one of the many Trump books that were inevitably going to happen.

And the sample chapter was called “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America.” I was working at Teen Vogue at the time. It was on Saturday, December 10th, 2016, the day after Trump contradicted our intelligence agencies as president-elect. And it just seemed like such a concrete application of the effort of attempting to make the public doubt our own sanity. You know, the President telling the American people that we can’t trust the country’s own intelligence agencies, was a great example of gaslighting. And then I wrote that piece and it went wildly viral.

Some other stuff happened as well, I’m sure we’ll get to it. But essentially, because the piece was published in Teen Vogue, the conversation that came of it going so viral was not only about the disinformation coming out of the White House, but also this tongue-in-cheek questioning of, “Do young people care about politics?” “Do young women care about politics?” And I became this kind of informal ambassador for young people. I was being asked that question, on podcasts and panels and just in my daily life, as this sort of, Teen Vogue symbol. And it seemed to me, that I certainly didn’t not care before. And my awakening moment was not, “Uh, suddenly, I give a crap about the world.” [Laughs].

Remy: [Laughs] Right.

Lauren: I had been drawn to the main issues of social justice, and I would have told you that I cared about equality, and I thought that I did. And I truly did, but what I didn’t understand is that I was a part of the status quo that I saw an issue with and that I actively played a role with it. In that state of emergency that came with Trump’s election, it was just suddenly, I was not living in the world I thought I was living in and understood that I had to do something about it.

I began pursuing interviews with other young people who had this awakening moment and delving into basically why it’s a bullshit question that young people supposedly don’t care, looking at the factors that have alienated us – and there are many – and also figuring out what is changing now, and a way to ideally sustain it into a culture of constant citizenship in which we have the sense of political agency all the time and not only in response to a state of emergency.

Remy: Regarding the way in which young people have been barred from true political agency in our society, do you think this is a flaw in our political system – like something that’s not working? Or do you think it’s an active function?

Lauren: I think it’s an active function. I think we can look at it in a lot in a lot of different ways. It’s very interesting to look at the ages that are required to run for Congress or Senate or the minimum age for President, where you have very young Framers of the Constitution ensuring that people their own ages would not be eligible to be representatives. And then, I think, also looking at the way we treat young people under the age of 18 as definitive second-class citizens, in a political sense. Because the idea that they don’t have a right to vote means, they don’t have any sort of voice…

The way I paint the picture of this so clearly in the book is in terms of what it would actually look like, at like a visual aesthetic level, to be reaching out to young people. And it’s just really so obvious. There’s just so much – this kind of stuff that young people like is very easy to pull from like a couple of seconds on Instagram. You could just imagine what the stocking stuffers would be next to the register at Urban Outfitters. And the stock stuff that young people like is not anywhere in sight in the average political campaign.

And I don’t mean that they should be investing in tchotchkes. I mean that they’re just not at all making any effort to entice or excite young people. There’s this grander failing – and this relates to a failing of not bringing all constituents into the fold. We’re blaming young people, we’re blaming the average American for not caring enough, for not being invested enough. And then the people in office are not making any effort to bring us in. To make the work that they’re doing accessible, to make their roles accessible, to make it easy for us to hold them accountable, to expand the electorate that they are representing.

You see this kind of thing, for example, Dianne Feinstein being presented with teen climate activists replied, “You didn’t vote for me.” And it’s emblematic of this idea that any elected officials should be working on behalf of only the people that voted for them, and, in many cases, their political party. When, as elected officials, they need to be held accountable to the full scope of constituents that they represent.

I think our electoral system, as it stands, incentivizes incumbents to recreate the circumstances that initially got them elected – reaching out only to the people who already voted to keep them in power, which tends to mean catering to moneyed interests: the few, typically older, wealthy white people who do show up to vote. What it results in is a system where elected officials are not held accountable to their full scope of constituents, and we’re not seeing policies that reflect the majority of the public will and people are not able to express their voices. And I think that the way it looks for young people is a really obvious way into a grander abdication of democratic duty that is a sickness in the entirety of the system.

“Increasingly, the internet is becoming our public square and I think that the more young people understand that we have a right and the duty to the conversation, we’ll feel empowered to tell stories the way that we’re telling stories.”

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Remy: In your book, you emphasize how linguistic barriers make politics inaccessible for young people, and it contributes to political gate-keeping. How do you think we go about breaking this down?

Lauren: I think that it looks like more and more young people doing the thing in the way that we are socialized to communicate. I think that there’s a lot of power, especially in the way messages can be spread and crafted online for young people who are running campaigns for elected office, for organizing protests, and for rallying for donations. Social media is really dismissed and derided, but it can be a very powerful democratizing force. Increasingly, the internet is becoming our public square and I think that the more young people understand that we have a right and the duty to the conversation, we’ll feel empowered to tell stories the way that we’re telling stories…

Depending on where you fall, being a millennial or being a part of Gen-Z, the youngest among us have been on social media from the second that they have a functioning memory. And so they’re experts at talking to people online! They’re experts at sharing themselves. And I think that’s part of what I’m pushing for. Any individual person’s political experience is valid and valuable. And if it’s shared truthfully, with a commitment to truth of expression that is intended to positively contribute to the question of how we ought to live together, I think that everyone has a right to express themselves in the political conversation, in that regard. We’ve created all of these bizarre secret rules of what kind of expertise is required and what kind of “respectability” is required.

So much of it is just in the water and unquestioned, but the reality is that politics is for everyone and there are so many different ways we can talk about it. So many different spaces where we can talk about it. And we shouldn’t be dividing it away from the stuff that excites us or the forums that we typically use to talk and instead should be dragging politics into those spaces, and bringing the things that excite us and bring us joy to bring us power.

Remy: What role do you see intersectionality playing in your specific vision of a sustainable environment of resistance? How much is that centered?

Lauren: We need to be insisting on bringing in voices that are outside of the straight, white, male dominating avatar. We don’t even question how much that dominates our thinking. I think that my favorite way to put it is if a man in a suit walks in a room filled with people of color and women and non-binary folks, the man in the suit just has this automatic air of authority and it’s unquestioned. It’s created by all these social rules. Just the aesthetics of the white supremacist patriarchy introduce authority and allow for the circumstances by which you have completely mediocre men raising their hand and saying that they’re ready for their presidency now. And it’s just totally, totally absurd.

So I think the more that we have other voices present and the more that we can see other examples of young people, young women, people of color, queer folks in positions of power, the more that our brains will build the pathways to create those expectations,the more that others will be able to follow in those footsteps. Because in so much of this, it’s just this complete desert of examples and a lack of personal authority in questioning the parameters that do, sort of, glide this automatic pathway to success for the straight, white man who is interested in politics.

When a young boy raises his hand to be part of that conversation the reaction is, “This way, sir.” And for anyone else, it tends to be a barrage of harassment and ridicule. And then that response is trained as a response to you and the problems with any given specific person’s personalized or ideological arguments, but it tends to just be a highly specific version of a universal attack that seeks to box out the voices of really anyone who doesn’t look like Wolf Blitzer.

Remy: On that note, and bear with me here, because this wasn’t actually something that I was going to ask you about. But prior to our call I was watching Representative Katie Hill’s last floor speech to Congress and it made me think, because I knew that I was speaking to you and in the context of what you talk about in your book, that there is this issue of ‘we want to get these broader voices in politics, and we want young women and young queer people and young non-binary folks to run for these positions.’ But what do we say to them when they bring up fears of “What about the harassment that I might face because of this?”

Lauren: I think that surviving the harassment is the reason why you do it. It’s insisting on that strength and on that righteousness, and knowing that doing that at this stage and where we’re at in society is very much a choice to throw your body on the gears of this system. I know I watched Katie Hill’s speech earlier and instantly started crying. You know?

Remy: Yeah…

Lauren: I can’t even – I’m going to cry on this call.

Remy: I understand.

Lauren: The extent of the harassment I’ve seen myself is so extreme and so grotesque, and I actually have thought about that very seriously because when I am talking to young women, who sometimes are under the age of 18, I need to be frank with them about what kinds of things they’re probably going to see and experience, just by virtue of being a young woman raising her voice.

For me, I have chosen to see continuing to raise my voice and continuing to fill this space where there are so few other examples of me, as a righteous act. And that is what powers me to keep going because it’s not for me. It’s to be the example that is able to survive and to set that example and prove that it’s possible for, I hope, so many young women to come in my footsteps that I’m not special anymore. My goal is, totally, to go out of business here. And I think anybody who’s considering that path just should know that being on the crest of the wave is really ugly.

What has happened with these misogynistic attacks on Katie Hill are such an egregious, distressing thing to watch, but it doesn’t even have to be that level of political hijinks. Just the simple force of harassment that comes with raising your voice at all, even if you’re not running for office…It’s a force of ugliness that I think we all have to seriously contend with as a society, and the conversation online and the platforms that perpetuate them that allow space for this to happen need to be held accountable too. And that’s another reason to run for office [Laughs].

Remy: I understand a lot of that. And as somebody who has been the subject of both a lot of positive and a lot of negative coverage, in that regard, how do you handle that harassment? Do you have coping mechanisms that you go to?

Lauren: Yes. So, I truly have been changed by harassment in a way that could not have been more excruciating. But now that I’m on the other side of it, I’m very grateful. When the harassment first really started it was in the wake of my interview with Tucker Carlson. It was so brutal and so extreme. I got pretty sick in the immediate aftermath of it and had to process, sort of, what is the toll that I’m going to be taking on by choosing to continue raising my voice?

It has been a really long process to get here. But the way that I try to think about it now is that any feedback that I receive is just information. And I have to know what I think of myself and who I am and what I stand for. And I have to justify how I move through the world and what the impact is that I’m having and the good that I know that I’m doing. And I have to be able to do that alone in a dark room with my eyes closed at an essential level, and should not be able to be shaken off balance by this harassment.

I didn’t understand that essential click of self-validation and it took me a very long time in this experience of public figuredom to really have that “click” moment, because I hated myself too. So, I was receiving all of the hatred as proof of my anxiety’s elaborate conspiracy theories that I was rotten and awful and did not deserve to be alive. Essentially it had to push me to a breaking point, where I had to summon the willpower to figure out how to love myself.

It’s hard to talk about because I know how I would have heard it before like my past self simply did not comprehend what all that language means, when people say, “You need to be kind to yourself and you need to love yourself.” I didn’t – it just did not click for me at an internal level and I really had to be pushed there in an extremely violent way. But now that is a skill that I have and I know it can’t be taken away from me. So, I have that as a gift of sustained grotesque harassment.

“I watch this internalized misogyny melt away and I wonder how much sooner it would have clicked for me if I would have seen someone that looked like me feeling this duty and right to the political conversation.”

Remy: Thank you for being so open about that. To go a little bit broader, one of the things that you touched on in your book, and I think has been spoken about quite a bit in the grander political scheme since the 2016 election, is this discourse surrounding the traditional views of inherent bias present in our media. As a journalist, I wonder how do you interrogate this issue, through your own personal work and through what you see from the work of your peers?

Lauren: I think that the closest that I can get to truth is sharing as much of myself as possible. I understand that there are needs for other forms of journalism and that there are standards for different newsrooms. But as a freelance independent journalist, I think that the best I can do is be totally transparent about when I’m overlaying my opinion, when I’m making a logical ethical argument, when I’m providing analysis, or using humor to help people make connections. There is so much performance of objectivity that’s meant to combat inherent bias and I’ve come to understand it as really totally absurd.

I share things in my book about a reporter who says she cannot identify as a feminist because she is a journalist, and I’m a hundred percent serious when I say I would actually argue that we should all be feminist journalists. I mean, not even just all journalists, I mean all of us. We should move through the world operating with allegiance to truth, and aim to empower ourselves with information – to empower each other with information – with the goal of equality. It seems to me as if the ideas about what constitutes objectivity, the standards that warp off into the twisted iterations of “both sideism,” and he-said-she-said reporting, are a desperate attempt to react to standards of objectivity that are only in keeping with the white supremacist patriarchy.

Because the idea of what is objective, of what is too much to share, and what is too personal, tends to be about boxing out the experiences of the people who don’t fit that typical mode of the old white man who’s taken seriously in politics. Especially with the ridicule that is associated with the feminist personal essay, and young women telling their stories, and that not being treated as serious political writing. For me, it’s become very important for two reasons. One is to model this…basically I would say, aspiring to be a journalist influencer. And what I mean by that is using my platform, my ability to impact the culture with an objectivity of method, with an allegiance of truth, and with the goals of empowering people with information.

I think that in this new landscape of our media, the way that people increasingly are going to get their information is from relationships with individual writers, individual figures, and speakers. I would hope that more and more of those people who are leaders in pop culture and in politics, will be motivated by this sense of transparency and this objectivity of method, and ultimately, dedicated to building equality.

Then the less abstract idea of it is, I just want to be an example of a young woman having serious political opinions. And so it’s very important to me to openly be myself and not keep any of the silly, frivolous stuff or the social life out of view and actually to amplify it just as much as my precise takedowns of the men doing crimes in the White House. And I think that my making it very clear that I’ve been socialized the way a lot of young women have been socialized. I go to colleges and I see the way that young women react to me. And it’s not even that I’m so amazing, it’s that they just haven’t actually seen someone that looks and talks like them feel any sense of authority of expressing opinions.

I watch this internalized misogyny melt away and I wonder how much sooner it would have clicked for me if I would have seen someone that looked like me feeling this duty and right to the political conversation. I know that I’ve set that example for at least a small handful of people and I hope to continue doing that.

Remy: Do you see social media as generally a positive because it allows for more accessibility in that regard?

Lauren: I think it is both the best and worst thing.

Remy: [Laughs].

Lauren: I think that there’s a lot of potential for democratic forces and her voices to rise without the permission of the gatekeepers and I’m an example of that. I think that the way that the majority of the algorithms work right now is not actually ethically created for human use. They’re engineered instead to be ad platforms that don’t really contend with the humanitarian realities of the way we act online. There is great power and great danger in social media, for sure.

Remy: I think that’s a very good way to put that last statement. You mentioned transparency and we’ve talked about being a public-facing figure and the goods and the bads that come with that. So, I do want to ask about – I think it was about maybe a month ago – there was an article written about you in BuzzFeed that did include some more unflattering allegations specifically about a course that you taught at NYU. I’d wonder how you would characterize what happened there?

Lauren: Yeah, I guess I want to be clear that transparency doesn’t mean I’m showing you my asshole all the time. We’re moving through the world and we present the best possible version of ourselves. It’s not dishonest to do the best that you can, and if you have a pimple on your face, maybe use your concealer. So I taught a class at NYU. I actually had an awesome time teaching the class. It was really exciting to be pushed to verbalize the basics of my ethics and of how I understand journalism as an art form as well. I think that I came away from it a stronger thinker and writer. I really was very proud of my students’ final projects.

One or two of my students, a couple of my students, apparently didn’t connect with my teaching style. And you know, that’s about as dramatic as somebody’s Starbucks order getting mixed up. Like there are bad course evaluations for some of the greatest thinkers of all time. There are amazing professors who have files of students being like “this sucks, that sucked.” Course evaluations are not newsworthy at all. The idea that a couple students were not happy with my teaching style, I think what it actually had to do with is the unfortunate reality that higher education forces people to think in terms of grades and outcomes and rubrics. And I admit that I was sort of teaching in this “express your joy” experimental mode that maybe they were not prepared for or had not been exposed to before.

It’s also entirely possible and I think, in fact, true that maybe I’m just not a great college professor. Like, it was my first time teaching. Maybe I didn’t do a great job. That is not a crime and I think, you know, it was extremely devastating to see the author of that piece take two or three people’s displeasure with me and turn it into proof that I am ridiculous, and silly, and absurd. It felt as if it was an attempt to erase the heft of my work. And I’ve seen this conversation about me continue beyond BuzzFeed, where I’ve seen myself likened to other influencers who have absolutely no journalistic work behind them and the idea being that my social media presence is this big flashy thing that outweighs my reportage.

And to that, I would say my reportage looks like three years of interviewing hundreds of young people all around the country. It looks like having this moment of being catapulted to public figuredom, surviving harassment, and committing myself to the work of empowering other young people to have their right in the political conversation. My goal with my work and with my platform is, first and foremost, building equitable public power out of a youth-led movement of political agency, and I would be totally transparent about my bias towards myself when I think that that’s awesome, good work. It’s absurd to see this Macy’s Day Parade float version of me, be tarred and feathered and crucified for things that yes, are flaws – I’m definitely not perfect nor am I claiming to be – when I am fighting against a system of government that is hijacked by a political party that is essentially a white nationalist terrorist organization, with a predator in the White House abusing power and surrounded by a cabal of henchmen committing crimes.

It would seem to me as if, me maybe not pleasing everyone who took my summer course at NYU doesn’t have a ton to do with the serious and important work done over the course of several years. And I think it’s unfortunate that the sort of “mean girl toxicity” that that writer displays was laundered through the supposedly, journalistic vessel of BuzzFeed. I would lastly add that that piece, definitively, was not journalism as far as I see it. Because journalism is not just telling stories that are true. It’s being committed to objectivity of method insofar as it empowers people with information and nobody was empowered by knowing that that writer feels some type of way about me.

Editor’s note – Duca clarified this point further noting:

Radical transparency means that I share everything that readers need to know to understand my worldview when I am writing political opinion pieces. It is a matter of total ideological honesty that, I hope, also functions as an all-too-rare example of young woman demonstrating personal political agency. Should I be issuing a public statement every time I feel bloated? I’m not perfect, nor am I pretending to be, and I would argue that a laundry list of my personal flaws is not required in order to maintain journalistic integrity. If I have a giant zit on my nose, I’m going to wear concealer. What is crucial is that readers have all the information they need to know exactly where I’m coming from.

As this relates to Buzzfeed’s mean-girl toxicity masquerading as journalism: My goal with “How to Start a Revolution” is to empower young people, and especially young women and non-binary folks, to insist on their right and duty to the political conversation. That remains unchanged by the fact that a couple of NYU kids didn’t connect with my first-ever attempt at teaching this summer. There were also students who loved the course. Either way, it’s entirely possible for me to be a great writer and have much to learn about the many challenges of being a college professor. I would urge anyone who formed a negative opinion of me after reading that piece to also read my book. I’m smart and funny. I have a feeling you’ll be pleasantly surprised.]

Remy: To bring us back around to your work that you mentioned there – in a perfect world, what role would you hope that this particular book, but your work that you speak to in a larger sense, plays in our political discourse. Like, what would be the ultimate goal for you?

Lauren: My ultimate goal is creating a sustainable culture of constant citizenship. So I’m hoping to fuse daily civic action and the work of participating in the political conversation insofar as talking about it and raising our voices, through routine action being a constant part of our daily lives.

So as far as I see it, voting, we all need to be voting. Yes. Everyone should register, everyone should vote, everyone should get their friends registered and voting. And then how can we build on top of that, particular rituals of doing the damn thing all the time? I think we think about activism as this extreme fringe activity, but really we all should always be active if we’d like to be free. We should always all be actively interrogating the question of how we ought to live together. And what that looks like can be different for everyone…some people will change their lives and choose to run for office or start a non-profit or do some other incredible game-changing shit.

But the average person has to find a way to integrate these activities. Maybe it means contacting elected officials or donating if you have the ability, joining a protest or organizing one if you can. The options for making your political opinions manifest are really limitless. I hope that my impact is convincing as many young people as possible that we all have a right and a duty to the political conversation, and helping lay the foundation for this sustainable culture of resistance where we are all actively doing the work of building equality, of getting free, of exercising this duty to the collective as a necessary part of being a good person.

Remy: Well, that’s great. Thank you so much for taking the time.

How to Start a Revolution: Young People and the Future of American Politics is available for purchase here, and in audio format on Audible.

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Interview // Books / Interview / Lauren Duca / Millennials