Will American politics face a brain drain? If current trends continue, it could soon.
Political science professors Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox asked more than 4,000 high school and college students if they would be interested in running for political office in America someday: 89% of them said “no.”
That finding is the crux of a new book based on their original research, Running From Office. In it, the authors argue that the dysfunction of Washington has turned the next generation off politics in historic fashion. Unless behaviors change, American University’s Lawless says, the country’s brightest stars are going to pursue just about anything but one of the 500,000 elected offices America needs filled each year.
Here is a lightly edited transcript of TIME’s interview with Lawless, in which she explains who’s to blame, what’s to be done and why she earnestly believes parents should be convincing their kids to become politicians.
It’s an old, old thing to lament the youth’s lack of interest in politics and a rancorous political climate. What is happening here that is new?
There are two dynamics. The first is that lamenting young people’s engagement has previously always stopped at their interest or their participation. [Researchers have] never actually considered whether they’re interested in running for office. The other is the young people that we’ve surveyed, who are high school and college students now, have grown up only amid the dysfunction that currently characterizes the political system. They have known nothing else. And this is really the first generation where that’s the case.
But is this a historic brand of dysfunction?
We know that polarization is stronger now than it’s been and it’s continued to increase. We know that effectiveness—if we measure that in legislative productivity—has been lower in the last several Congresses. And look at some of the high-profile examples of dysfunction that we’re not accustomed to seeing. The government shutdown is the most obvious one. Debates over raising the debt ceiling. The U.S. having its credit rating decreased. The constant worry over the course of the last year that there might be another government shutdown. That’s new to this generation. We saw dysfunction but not at the same level in the 1980s and 1990s.
Why do you think researchers haven’t looked at political ambition before?
I think there is this disconnect. Until we started doing the research, I didn’t know that the careers that young people identify as something they might be interested in during their teens often map onto what they’re going to do later in life … There was probably this sense that, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter. Young people are disengaged. They’re tuned out. When politics matters to them, they’ll care more.’ But what our data suggests that if they’re already writing this off now, there’s nothing to suggest that it’s going to come back onto their radar screen.
Do we have numbers from previous generations to compare the 89% statistic to?
We don’t know because polls of young people in previous generations generally don’t exist. We do, though, have data over time on young people’s interest in politics, whether they talk about politics with their families, whether they are talking about politics with their friends and whether they follow political news. We found that all of those things are predictors of whether you’re running for office. And the over-time data show declines on all of those indicators. Depending how you examine them, we see declines of 20% or 30%.
How long is this list of who or what is to blame for young people’s antipathy or apathy toward being in politics?
We’re not necessarily blaming young people. It’s that they live in an environment where they’re not particularly interested in politics because they find it argumentative and dysfunctional. But their parents agree. And their teachers agree. And the news media agree. So they get these constant reinforcing messages that this is not something that is fun or interesting or important or noble … The [other] set of players are the politicians themselves. They behave increasingly in unappealing ways and in ways that suggest that they’re not effective at their jobs.
Why should parents and teachers be pitching kids on politics when that’s not necessarily a message they believe in?
We think that letting young people know that this is a way that they can effect change—and that politics does not have to be the way they perceive it—is a message we want to send. At the end of the day, legislation is passed and policies are made by the government. And if you don’t have a seat at that table, even if you are highly effective in a behind-the-scenes kind of capacity, you’re not living up to the full potential of options you have. If people choose not to do that, that’s fine. But 13 to 17-year olds should not be writing that off as a future career option … If we had heard that 89% of young people said that under no circumstances would they ever become a lawyer or a doctor or a journalist or a teacher, there would probably be a national outcry.
What happens if kids don’t change their minds?
We have more than 500,000 elected offices in this country. … We’re not concerned that no one will run for them. We’re concerned that the candidates will be the type of people who aren’t interested in bringing about a better system.
What kind of people will still be attracted to political races, if not the best candidates?
The kind of people who are currently in office. People that actually do not think that government is a way to bring about positive change, people who are more interested in their own power than public policy, people that are antagonistic and confrontational and value partisanship over output.
When you’re talking to that jaded 16-year-old, how do you pitch them on this?
The first thing is to ask them what matters to them, and in almost every case what is most important to a high school student or a college student can be linked to a specific political issue. For high school students, it might be that they’re worried about whether they’re going to be able to afford college. For college students, it might be whether they’re worried about moving into their parents’ house when they graduate. For young women, it could be that they don’t have access to contraception.
So what should be done to remedy that situation?
We have a series of recommendations. One is linking political aptitude to the college admissions process, so people have to know something about current events and politics if they want to go to college. Another suggestion we have is some kind of national service program that would value political service. We’ve seen large programs like the Peace Corps, like Americorps, like Teach for America, where we have created incentives for young people to go out and improve communities. There’s no similar program for political service, which could create an incentive for young people to get involved in their communities as elected leaders.
How optimistic are you feeling right now about all the gridlock and bickering and disenchantment improving?
It’s funny because I’m an eternal pessimist but on this front, I believe in government. A lot. Maybe this is a little idealistic, but I think as people begin to realize that there are long term consequences to the dysfunction that we’re experiencing—that we might be turning off an entire generation or even discouraging adults right now who are well-qualified to run and lead—they’ll see there are opportunities for change.