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Richard L. Fox and Jennifer L. Lawless: Politics is turning off young people

  • Washington Post
  • Published Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013, at 12 a.m.

During the 2012 presidential election, we conducted a national survey of more than 4,200 high school and college students. We asked about their attitudes toward politics and current events, their career aspirations and their political ambition. The results are stark.

Only 11 percent of our survey respondents reported that someday, when they were older, they might consider running for political office.

In fact, they’d rather do almost anything else.

In one set of questions, we presented these high school and college students with four career options – business owner, teacher, salesperson or mayor of a city or town – and asked which they would most like to be, assuming that each position paid the same amount of money. Nine out of 10 respondents chose a career other than mayor as their first choice. Nearly 40 percent reported that mayor would be their least-desired job.

We also asked which of the following higher-echelon jobs they found most appealing: business executive, lawyer, school principal or member of Congress. Serving as a member of Congress came in dead last, with just 13 percent of young people choosing it. It placed first on the least-desirable list.

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 our survey respondents did not think that elected officials want to help people, 79 percent did not consider politicians smart or hardworking, nearly 60 percent believed that politicians are dishonest, and fewer than 30 percent said they thought that candidates and elected leaders stand up for their convictions.

This political profile of the next generation should sound alarm bells about the long-term, deeply embedded damage that contemporary politics has wrought on U.S. democracy and its youngest citizens.

There are more than 500,000 elected positions in the United States. Our political system is built on the premise that running for office is something that a broad group of citizens should want to do. Sure, candidates can always be found to fill these positions. But if the best and brightest of future generations neither hear nor heed the call to public service, then the quality of U.S. democracy may be compromised.

It is easy to blame young people for their seeming lack of civic engagement. American youths are often faulted as consumed by materialism, devoted to spending their time writing self-involved tweets and Facebook posts. But this time, the fault lies with a political system and political figures whose behavior has turned off an entire generation.

Richard L. Fox is a professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University in California. Jennifer L. Lawless is a professor of government at American University in Washington, D.C.

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