Young people are disaffected with the political process and lack any interest in running for office, a new book by Jennifer Lawless of American University and Richard Fox of Loyola Marymount University demonstrates. Yet the book itself perhaps unintentionally underscores one of the key reasons why: We know too much about our politicians.
There are 519,682 elected officials in the U.S., the authors note, the vast majority of whom hold local jobs; they are mayors, city councilors, school board members, coroners or recorders of deeds. It is essential to the effective functioning of government — without which the nation cannot succeed — that competent people are willing to run for these offices.
Yet, in a novel survey that Lawless and Fox conducted of more than 2,000 high school students and more than 2,000 college students, young people expressed a broad aversion to serving in public office. Almost 90 percent said they wouldn’t even consider it. The students said they tend to avoid discussing political issues altogether.
It would be useful to know what similar students would have said in the 1960s or ’70s. We lack those data, so the authors can only assert, not show, that this vast disaffection is a new phenomenon. Yet I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on that, in part because we know that overall trust in government has deteriorated dramatically over the past several decades.
The authors conclude that our “political system will thrive only if a large number of people aspire one day to run for office. For that reason, our results ultimately paint a grim picture about the prospects for an engaged citizenry and a healthy democracy. Our brightest and most able young citizens are generally not open to seeking or holding positions of political power.”
One driver of young people’s broad lack of interest in politics is polarization. As the nation has divided into mutually antagonistic camps and political discussions have become dominated by more heat than light, young people have been turned off. (And by the way, I agree entirely with Annie Lowrey of New York magazine that, despite the news media portrayal to the contrary, a recent Facebook study does nothing to dispel the notion that social media have exacerbated polarization, by creating “filter bubbles” among like-minded people.)
The second problem goes undiscussed by Lawless and Fox, and yet it is illuminated in their book by the juxtaposition of their positive commentary about how John F. Kennedy inspired a generation of public servants and the chapter that they begin by recounting the scandalous trials and tribulations of politicians such as John Edwards, Mark Sanford and David Vitter. Given what we know now about his personal life, do we really believe that Kennedy would have survived today’s media scrutiny, let alone been elected president? I doubt it.
Young people aspire to be business executives much more than politicians, Lawless and Fox show, partly because politicians are seen as ineffective. But I suspect it’s also in part because, as the saying goes, no person is a hero to his valet. We’ve all become the informational equivalent of valets to our political leaders, and they no longer seem like heroes.