Why I Ran for Office, and Why Young Americans Run From It

– Jennifer L. Lawless
I’m a 40-year-old self-avowed political junkie. Election Day is my Super Bowl. The Sunday Morning talk shows are my favorite reality TV (although the Real Housewives franchise is a close second). I berate myself when I can’t name all 100 U.S. senators off the top of my head. And my computer’s search history just informed me that PoliticalWire.com is my most visited website.
Given how I grew up, these circumstances are hardly surprising. As a two-year old, I was – according to my parents – obsessed with President Jimmy Carter. I loved his name, I was curious about his responsibilities, and I worried for his legacy (insofar as any toddler could).
When Carter left the White House – devastated as I was – my political interest remained intact. At age five, I sat mesmerized in front of the television with my parents as the Iran hostage crisis came to a close and the freed Americans disembarked from a plane at Andrews Airforce Base.
At age nine, I enthusiastically pulled the lever in the voting booth as my mother cast her ballot in the 1984 presidential election.
At age 12, I faced a tough choice each day of my summer vacation: hang out with my friends, or tune in to the Iran Contra hearings. Admittedly, I probably spent more time with Oliver North, Fawn Hall, and John Poindexter that summer than I did anyone else.
And by the time I was a junior in high school, I knew my way around a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing like nobody’s business. I can still recite many of the questions directed at Anita Hill.
Growing up in a pretty politicized household – my parents always impressed the importance of staying up to date on current events and knowing about politics – my political interest always just seemed second nature. Of course I’d major in political science. Of course I’d get a Ph.D. in it. And of course I’d eventually run for office. I might not have envisioned taking on a popular incumbent in a congressional primary before I received tenure, but there was no question that I’d ultimately throw my hat into the ring.
Maybe this is why I am so disheartened by the results Richard Fox and I present in our new book, Running from Office: Why Young Americans Are Turned Off to Politics. We conducted a national survey of more than 4,200 high school and college students during the last presidential election. We asked them about their attitudes toward politics and current events, their career aspirations, and their political ambition.
What did we find? Eighty-nine percent of them – 89%! – have already decided that they will never run for office.
As we chronicle throughout the book, 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 young people don’t think that elected officials want to help people; 79% don’t consider politicians smart or hardworking; nearly 60% think that politicians are dishonest.
These negative perceptions are reinforced by the attitudes of young people’s parents, teachers, and friends. They are frustrated and turned off by nasty campaigns, partisan posturing, a media establishment focused on conflict and scandal, and political pundits who perpetually stoke the flames of public anger and dismay.
We do find that young people whose parents talk about politics, expose them to current events, encourage them to take political science and government classes, and place a premium on knowing what’s going on in the world are far more likely to be open to the idea of a political career later in life. These people, however, are few and far between.
Our political system is built on the premise that running for office is something that a broad group of citizens should want to do. In fact, we have more than half a million offices in this country. If the best and brightest of future generations can think of nothing more unappealing than heeding a call to public service by running for office, that compromises the quality of U.S. democracy.
So where does that leave us? We itemize some solutions in the book. But for now, let me just implore politicians to think seriously about how they do business. When our elected officials cheer failed policies, shut down the government, accuse their opponents of trying to destroy the country, and refuse to do their jobs, they engage in more than hyperbole. They damage the public’s short-term sense of political trust and confidence. And they undermine – in the long-term – future generations’ faith in the system and aspirations to be a part of it. They make it less likely, in other words, that parents will drill politicians’ names into their toddlers’ heads. And that makes it less likely that those toddlers will become politically interested teenagers, politically active young adults, and middle-aged political candidates.
Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.

Categorized as Blog