The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Millennials don’t want to run for office

President Obama shakes hands at Sloopy’s diner inside the student union of the Ohio State University in Columbus on Aug. 21, 2012. (Kevin Lamarque /Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

A democratically elected government is only as good as those willing to stand for its offices. Yet polls suggest that many of us believe the country is a nearly hopeless mess — with trust in government at historical lows after steady decline over the past decade, and with Congress’ approval rating hovering around that of Nickleback and cockroaches.  There are many reasons for the sorry state of national politics. My research suggests one important reason: the reluctance of good candidates to run for office, particularly young people.

Young people’s views of government mirror the nation as a whole.  The Harvard IOP poll of 18- to 29-year-olds shows a 10-point decrease in trust of the federal government from 2000 to 2012. A majority of millennials (52 percent) now say they would choose to recall all members of Congress, were it possible. My research suggests that the problem goes even further: not only are capable young people are repelled by what they see of politics, they are extremely skeptical about politics as a way of effecting positive change.

Between 2011 and 2014, I surveyed over 750 young people well-positioned to run for office – those studying law and public policy at the graduate level in the Boston area. The views of one such person, whom I’ll call Charlotte, are illustrative. She said, “I’d hate [running].”  She elaborated: “I just feel I can effect a lot more change and do good work from the outside and find it much more satisfying.”

Other interviewees added heartfelt outbursts about the lack of privacy for public officials and their families, and burden of constant fund raising. Dave explained: “I… [would] risk capture by going into a political process as corrupted, and sclerotic, and generally putrescent as the American one, so full of money.”

Moreover, whether potential candidates are deterred depends a great deal on factors like gender.  Those most eager to run are demographically most like those already elected: disproportionately white, male, and relatively well-off. There is evidence that the gender gap in political ambition emerges as early as age 18, and my findings confirm that young women are far more likely than men to be dismayed by current politics. This gap seems to emerge in college.

What might break this negative feedback loop of low political trust and low political ambition? One solution is to change perceptions of the rewards of serving.

My research suggests that those who see high rewards to politics — like being able to create positive change — are the most likely to want to run, even if they also perceive high costs.  Most of the people I surveyed did not agree with the statement, “The problems I most care about can be solved through politics” — and women, especially women of color, agreed less than men.

But when I asked about the issues they cared most about, most listed public goods like justice, national security, a strong economy, racial and gender equality, and environmental conservation — all of which require massive governmental action. Thus, involvement in politics is clearly necessary to achieve these goals, although many millennials don’t want to put themselves in the line of fire.

Changing this situation will thus involve not only decreasing the costs of running but also increasing the motivation to run by sharing positive stories of the change politics can bring about.  Doing this could also close the demographic gaps in political ambition and thereby bring new voices into politics. As research by Beth Reingold, Craig Volden and Alan Wiseman, and Nick Carnes shows, this can produce very different government decisions.

And recruiting new candidates could also address the lack of competition in many U.S. elections.  For example, in 2012, nearly half of state legislative districts did not have competition from both major parties.

For these and other reasons, democracy loses out if new generations of potential political leaders are discouraged from throwing their hats into the ring.

Shauna Shames is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University-Camden.