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Turning off the next generation of politicians

Richard L. Fox is a professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University. Jennifer L. Lawless is a professor of government at American University. They are the authors of “It Still Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office.”

During the 2012 presidential election, we conducted a national survey of more than 4,200 high school and college students. We asked about their attitudes toward politics and current events, their career aspirations and their political ambition. The results are stark. Only 11 percent of our survey respondents reported that, someday, when they were older, they might consider running for political office.

In fact, they’d rather do almost anything else.

In one set of questions, we presented these high school and college students with four career options — business owner, teacher, salesperson or mayor of a city or town — and asked which they would most like to be, assuming that each position paid the same amount of money. Nine out of 10 respondents chose a career other than mayor as their first choice. Nearly 40 percent reported that mayor would be their least-desired job.

We also asked which of the following higher-echelon jobs they found most appealing: business executive, lawyer, school principal or member of Congress. Serving as a member of Congress came in dead last, with just 13 percent of young people choosing it. It placed first on the least-desirable list.

The fact that young Americans do not want to run for office cannot be divorced from their perceptions of the political system, which could not be much worse. Eighty-five percent of our survey respondents did not think that elected officials want to help people; 79 percent did not consider politicians smart or hard-working; nearly 60 percent believed that politicians are dishonest; and fewer than 30 percent said they thought that candidates and elected leaders stand up for their convictions.

These negative perceptions are reinforced by the attitudes of the adults with whom high school and college students regularly interact. Three out of four respondents, for example, said they had never received any type of encouragement from their parents to consider politics as a path to pursue. And parents were, by far, the most supportive of such an endeavor. Only 17 percent of people in our sample reported receiving encouragement to pursue politics from a friend, 12 percent had from a teacher or professor, 5 percent from a member of the clergy and 4 percent from a coach. Put simply, these citizens have no interest in encouraging the next generation to aspire to enter the electoral arena.

This political profile of the next generation should sound alarm bells about the long-term, deeply embedded damage contemporary politics has wrought on U.S. democracy and its youngest citizens.

There are more than 500,000 elected positions in the United States. Our political system is built on the premise that running for office is something that a broad group of citizens should want to do. Sure, candidates can always be found to fill these positions. But if the best and brightest of future generations neither hear nor heed the call to public service, then the quality of U.S. democracy may be compromised.

It is easy to blame young people for their seeming lack of civic engagement. American youth are often faulted as consumed by materialism, devoted to spending their time writing self-involved tweets and Facebook posts and lacking intellectual curiosity and a thirst for information. But this time, the fault lies with a political system and political figures whose behavior has turned off an entire generation.

Politicians need to think seriously about how they do business. When our elected officials cheer failed policies, shut down the government, stymie political appointments as a blanket policy, accuse their opponents of trying to destroy the country and refuse to do their jobs, they engage in more than hyperbole and hyper-partisanship. They damage the public’s short-term sense of political trust and confidence; and, in the long term, they undermine future generations’ faith in the system and aspirations to be a part of it.

 
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