RUNNING FROM OFFICE: Why Young Americans Are Turned Off to Politics

By Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox

Oxford University Press. 211 pp. $21.95

Consider the political memories seared into the minds of America’s 25-year-olds. As children, they heard hushed references to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and watched their elders take sides in Bush v. Gore. Then Sept. 11 lit up their television screens, somehow morphing into images of Baghdad bathed in that shock-and-awe glow. As teenagers and young adults, they’ve witnessed a dysfunctional Washington grow more so each day, featuring an inept government response to a drowning city, battles over debt limits and shutdowns, controversial new federal programs, the expanding power of campaign donors and lobbyists, multiple and unending wars, and of course, inane debates over the faith and birthplace of a president.

Against this backdrop, why would any of them choose elective politics as their life’s work?

This is what worries political scientists Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox. “The mean-spirited, broken system that has come to characterize American politics turns young people off to the idea of running for office,” they write. “It discourages them from aspiring, one day, to be elected leaders. It prevents them from even thinking about a career in politics.” A functioning democracy needs every new generation to heed the call to serve, they argue, but when younger Americans see that call coming in, they tap “ignore.”

Baby boomers may still dominate presidential politics (think Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush), while Gen Xers are making inroads for their generation (think Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio). And a handful of millennials have already won seats on Capitol Hill (think Tulsi Gabbard, Elise Stefanik and the brief but memorable Aaron Schock). But if Lawless and Fox are right — and the evidence they marshal in “Running From Office” seems persuasive — we shouldn’t expect to see too many more millennials or younger Americans appearing on ballots in the years to come. Oh, they want to change the world, sure. But they don’t think they need to run for office to do it.

In 2012, Lawless, the director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, and Fox, a professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University, surveyed more than 4,000 high school and college students across the country, ranging from age 13 to 25, plumbing their career ambitions, attitudes toward politics, media habits and family backgrounds. They also interviewed more than 100 of them. The authors’ conclusion: “Black or white, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, northeastern or southern, the next generation is turned off to politics.”

Only about 1 out of 9 have ever given serious thought to elective office, Lawless and Fox report. Only 7 percent plan to run for office later in life, roughly the same percentage of Americans who claim they’ve seen an alien spaceship, the authors note dryly. Young people would rather run businesses; become teachers, artists, doctors, nurses or lawyers; or join the military or police force. “In terms of helping to improve the world, I think it is better to work from outside of politics,” Leo, a college senior, told the authors. “When you work from the outside, it is easier to see solutions. When you are on the inside, you get caught up in the politics.”

Lawless and Fox point to three forces rendering this generation so apolitical. First, parents don’t discuss politics with their children or encourage early political ambitions. “The vast majority of today’s high school and college students live with (or grew up in) families that do not prioritize following the news or keeping up with current events,” the authors explain. Only one-quarter said they accompanied their parents to vote, and 1 in 5 said politics was a regular subject of mealtime conversations at home. And when families do talk politics, “the discussion is often short and negative,” Lawless and Fox note. “Typical conversations involve mocking politicians, characterizing the system as corrupt, and perpetuating the idea that government is complicated, messy, and ineffective.” As one student told them, “I get the sense from my parents that Washington and politicians are terrible and a million miles away. That we just should not bother with it.”

Second, young Americans live politically disconnected lives. This doesn’t mean that they are disengaged or unconcerned — 50 percent say they participate in community service or volunteering, while music, sports and worship are important presences in their lives — but that they don’t follow political news or discuss politics with friends. In a 2012 Pew survey, people older than 65 said they spent an average of 84 minutes a day watching, reading or listening to news; baby boomers, age 48 to 65, devoted 77 minutes to news; and Gen Xers spent about 10 minutes less than their boomer parents. By contrast, millennials consumed only 46 minutes worth of news each day.

And talking politics with friends is considered not just tacky  — “politics kills the mood,” one student said — but bizarre. “Asking if they talk with their friends about politics was a little like asking if they ever talk about lawn bowling or traveling to Antarctica,” Lawless and Fox write. “The topic is utterly obscure.” (This is especially notable given that the survey was conducted in October 2012, the eve of a presidential election.)

Third, young people are more likely to regard politicians as dishonest, self-centered and self-interested than as principled, hard-working and helpful to others. “Most politicians are hypocrites,” said Dilery, a college sophomore. “They are two-faced. They will say one thing to get elected and then turn around and do what is in their best interest.” This contrasts with how younger Americans see themselves: “friendly” (81 percent), “smart” (74 percent) and “generally pretty good at most things I do” (62 percent). “Would I ever run for office? Probably not,” Julius, a high school senior, told Lawless and Fox. “If I wanted to I could definitely be the next POTUS or Senator. But people in politics are usually out for themselves. . . . I’m not like that.”

Setting aside this blissful self-regard — millennials hail from Lake Wobegon, even if they don’t get the reference — young Americans simply don’t see their values (such as teamwork and compromise) reflected in current politicians. Lawless and Fox cite a recent Harvard Institute of Politics survey finding that 60 percent of Americans age 18 to 29 believe that politicians are motivated by “selfish reasons.” Why join them?

Barack Obama’s presidential election led some to hope that a new generation would be inspired to follow him into political life. (Remember all those young voters who turned out in 2008?) But the authors cite the pessimistic view of a Harvard polling expert: “If you were to call it an Obama generation, there was a window,” he said. “That opportunity has been lost.”

Instead, Lawless and Fox offer various proposals to make politics more alluring: politically themed video games, an app identifying local political offices and how to run for them, an AmeriCorps-style program for politics, and making knowledge of current events part of college admissions requirements. They also call for programs focused on young women, noting a political-ambition gender gap that materializes during college. But these treatment options seem inadequate for a prognosis the authors deliver in such grim terms.

Indeed, “Running From Office” would be even more demoralizing if Lawless and Fox had better buttressed their underlying premise. Yes, they convince us that younger Americans are tuning out of politics — but why assume this is a terrible thing?

A generation more interested in improving their country and planet through activism, business, nonprofit work, the arts, technology and civic-minded entrepreneurship doesn’t sound so bad. American government was not meant to be an all-consuming career; the authors themselves cite James Madison’s preference that elected representatives hail “from pursuits of a private nature, continued in appointment for a short time.” If fewer millennials run for office once the boomers are gone and Generation X has had its turn, perhaps we should applaud.

“Young people have the skills and potential to make the country and the world a better place,” Lawless and Fox conclude. “Let’s make sure they see that running for office is a worthwhile way to do it.” The first sentence is factual. The second states a personal preference.

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