Why Young People Aren’t Interested in Running for Office
Jennifer L. Lawless joins us for a discussion about why young people in America seem to be almost wholly uninterested in running for electoral office.
In a new survey of over 4,000 young Americans, Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox have found that only 19% of respondents indicated that one of their future goals was to become a political leader. Why are these young people not interested in running for office? Will they change their mind later in life?
Show Notes and Further Reading
Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox’s 2015 book on this phenomenon, Running from Office: Why Young Americans are Turned Off to Politics.
The New Books in Political Science podcast—as its name implies—is a great source of information on current trends in political science.
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to the 100th episode of Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: And joining us today is Jennifer L. Lawless. She’s Professor of Government at American University where she also is the Director of the Women and Politics Institute. She’s the co-author of a book called Running from Office: Why Young Americans Are Turned off to Politics.
So the idea behind this book is that young Americans have declining interest in specifically running for office and that this represents a problem for the future of American democracy.
Jennifer Lawless: Certainly that we think there’s a problem. We have 89 percent of high school and college students across the country say that they’ve already written off the idea of a candidacy later in life. Given that we have 500,000 elective offices in this country, Richard Fox, the co-author of the book and I are somewhat worried because people will fill those positions. If the best and brightest young people are writing off that possibility already, we’re concerned about who might actually pick up their reigns of power.
Aaron Ross Powell: So I’m curious. Before we get into the findings, how you gathered this data. So you surveyed 2163 high school students and 2117 college students. What do those surveys look like? What did this process look like?
Jennifer Lawless: We received National Science Foundation funding to conduct the study and we contracted with GfK Knowledge Networks. They have a national panel of respondents who take various surveys and a national sample of those people gave consent for their children also to complete a variety of surveys.
So what we wind up with is a 4200-person sample of high school and college students who represent what high school and college students across the country look like. So this is a very rare snapshot of young people in the country and in addition to conducting the survey which we did in the fall of 2012, in the summer of 2013, we did 115-hour long phone interviews with a random sample of the survey respondents so that we could delve more deeply into the responses that we garnered from the close-ended questions the previous fall.
Trevor Burrus: You said it was 11 percent who had – it was even the modicum of interest.
Jennifer Lawless: Right.
Trevor Burrus: So maybe only half of those have a strong interest.
Jennifer Lawless: Right. About seven percent said that running for office, some office at some point in the future, was something they were pretty sure they would ultimately do. The other four percent had not written it off entirely and thought that it was probably more likely than not that they would continue to give it serious thought as time went on.
The 89 percent who are much more typical, almost nine out of ten, said that absolutely no way and it didn’t matter if we were talking about the presidency or congress or even a local office. They just had no interest in electoral politics.
Aaron Ross Powell: One thing I was curious as I was reading that is how much people’s opinions of what they want to do change as they age. So when – if you had asked me when I was a high school kid if I wanted to work for a think tank in Washington DC, I probably would have said absolutely not. So do we have data on how many of these people say they don’t want to run and then would change their mind or think they will run but then decide later on that they won’t?
Jennifer Lawless: Well, there are two pieces of useful information here that speak to that I think. The first is that studies in other disciplines find that the kinds of professions that you say you’re interested in or not at all interested in, by the time you’re 15 or 16 years old, map pretty well onto what you ultimately consider a plausible option later in life.
So it’s not a perfect correlation. But if you write something off as absolutely definitively no way when you’re a teenager, it’s very rare that it comes back later in life. The other piece of evidence that we have that suggests that teenagers’ attitudes matter is survey data that Richard and I have conducted on adults who are well-situated to run for office.
So since 2001, we’ve conducted surveys of lawyers, business leaders, educators and political activists, many of whom are in the professions that tend to lead to political careers and about half of them had said that they were interested in running.
When we ask them when that thought first occurred to them, the overwhelming majority said in high school or in college.
Trevor Burrus: Did you see any big differences between college and high school in this? Because I feel like you would have a little bit more political involvement in college than you would in high school.
Jennifer Lawless: We did. The interest in running once you are in college was statistically higher, about four or five percentage points higher. But the interesting college mapped pretty well onto what we know about adults. So it’s not a situation where as you go throughout the course of your life every four or eight years, you’re going to get increasingly politically ambitious. By the time you leave college, your ambition level is pretty much set.
Aaron Ross Powell: So we have today 89 percent of young people basically saying no way to elected office. How does that compare to prior generations?
Jennifer Lawless: So that’s the big question. We don’t know. It’s shocking to us but this is the first time that a national survey of young people has been conducted that’s asked explicitly about whether they want to run for office. We do know however that the things that lead people to say they’re interested in running for office have changed over time.
So among this sample of young people for example, we know that people who talk to their parents a lot about politics, people who engage in political extracurricular activities, people who follow political news are far more likely to say they’re interested in running for office.
We know that when we compare levels of conversations in the family that are political, political activities at school and news interests, this generation scores much lower than previous generations.
So we think that’s relatively convincing and certainly suggestive that levels of political ambition are lowering now than they’ve been in the past but speculation is really all that we can offer on that point.
Trevor Burrus: Are we not even seeing – you mentioned in the book, some of the use of social media and Facebook and things like this. But it was unclear to me. I do a lot of political stuff on Facebook. So whether or not the social media was apolitical, something like you maybe were saying was apolitical but maybe they’re interacting politically on the social media.
Jennifer Lawless: So we asked explicitly whether they shared stories about politics via social media through Facebook, through Twitter, through any other technological interface that I’m not even familiar with. We also asked how frequently they accessed political news from social media sources and frankly those numbers were very, very low even among this generation. The people who are politically interested are still getting the bulk of their news and their political conversation and discussion, not through social media outlets.
Aaron Ross Powell: So how big is the scope of the problem from the other direction? I think you said there were – is it half a million elected offices in the United States?
Trevor Burrus: This is everything from dog catcher to president.
Jennifer Lawless: Yes.
Aaron Ross Powell: So how do we get from only 11 percent interested? How does that match up with the number of available slots?
Jennifer Lawless: Well, we’re confident in saying that there will always be enough human beings to fill these slots, right? And there will always be people that are willing to acquire political power. The concern is that if today’s young people in general are not interested in doing so, and there’s no sense that acquiring any kind of electoral position is noble or worthwhile or an effective way to bring about change, then the people for whom that’s appealing long term might not be the people that have the most interesting ideas.
It might not be the people with innovative solutions. It might not be the people that we ultimately think are most qualified to run for office because those who are the most ambitious to solve the community’s problems or society’s problems, global issues, believe that there are many mechanisms by which to do that, that are far more effective than running for office.
Aaron Ross Powell: Do we have data on how many people and of what age are actually running for office? So you did the survey three, four years ago. Do we know if the number of people who are putting their hats into the ring for offices in general is declining as those young people move into the age when they might be running?
Jennifer Lawless: So one of the solutions that we offer in the book actually involves an app where people can find out what offices are open to them and they could consider running for them. Another upside to that app is it would at least let us have a better handle on where these offices are competitive and not.
There is literally no systematic clearing house where I could go to that site or call that office and answer your question. We know that electoral competition at the congressional level is down in terms of competitiveness but not in terms of the number of candidates. State legislative races are similar but it’s those other several hundred thousand local positions where we just don’t know. I can tell you that at the school board level for example, in most school districts in California, you have uncontested school board elections.
Aaron Ross Powell: Do we know if the say average age of someone running for office is increasing? Because it would seem if young people are decreasing or not interested in running, then we would see more and more older people running for particular slots.
Jennifer Lawless: Again, the demographic information that we have is usually about state legislatures and congress. So in those positions, many of which are professionalized legislates. Many of – at the congressional level certainly, that’s a pretty lucrative career. There we’re not seeing substantial changes. But we wouldn’t expect to. It’s really at the local level where we need to start gathering these data. So that we can figure out how these patterns are playing out.
Trevor Burrus: Do you have your own sort of theory of – because what I was thinking when I saw 11 percent is I was – depending on how you define young people, that’s still several million people. I don’t know how many people we need for the 500,000 elective offices. But do you have any sense of what it was like before? I mean I saw in one of those things you [0:10:00] talked about when you ask students to name people that they admire. The president used to be a far more common thing in the present. He’s just the only politician in all of this. So I mean is it your sense that maybe in the 60s people would have – young people were all about politics or a way higher rate?
Jennifer Lawless: I think the latter, not the former. So I don’t know that we’ve ever been a country where we’ve been all about politics. Even when presidential candidates were ranked as the most inspiring figures at the highest levels, we’re still not talking about 80 percent of the population saying, “Yeah, that’s great. That’s my role model.”
That said, we do know that over time, people’s trust in government has gone down dramatically. Congressional approval ratings have gone down dramatically. Presidential approval ratings have gone down dramatically. It’s through these national lens that people assess the political system.
So our concern is that when people look at Washington, they see dysfunction and they don’t know that much about politics. But what they see, they don’t like and they extrapolate and assume that that’s what it’s like at all other levels of government as well.
When people had a more favorable view of politics in general and of Washington DC, they still use that national lens but it meant that they weren’t necessarily writing off political positions in their town or their localities. So again, it’s difficult to track but we do know that the national lens is the way people view the political system and that attitudes toward Washington have gone down over time.
Trevor Burrus: Do you think that this becomes its – I think another way of restating your concern which is I didn’t really pick up on it the way you said it in the book. But when you said it here that there can be a very negative self-reinforcing thing here where you think that only bad people have office and so that maybe the only bad people that run for office – there’s the thing libertarians like to say. There’s the worst rise to the top. It’s one of the things that we talk about that we’re not a very big fan of elected officials, but we think that the worst rise to the top. But maybe we’re creating a system where more and more of the worst will rise to the top because people are so down on politics.
Jennifer Lawless: I think we have to figure out what we mean by the worst. But I do think that a very small sliver rise to the level of interest in running. One of the chapters in the book talks about people’s attitudes toward politicians in general.
What we find is exactly what we expect. They think that the people that run for the highest offices in the country are egotistical, self-involved narcissists. They think that people like John Edwards and the extent to which he lied and then actually brought the media in and perpetuated that lie are far more the norm than not.
They think that sex scandals are completely prevalent and that they’re not in the news just because they’re unusual. They’re in the news because they happen on a daily basis and that we can’t trust our leaders.
So they look around and they say, “Wait a minute. I’m not like that.” If I want to solve the world’s problems, if I want to figure out how to generate public policy, and I’m not like, why would I want to spend my time with people who are like that? That reinforces this idea that this is just not a venue where they want to see themselves.
Now the very interesting finding is that people who are inspired even by one elected official are far more likely to have a broader, positive view of elected officials in general. So one of the things that we argue in the book is that if we could up exposure to politics, chances are people would encounter at least one person that they thought was OK and that might actually make them realize that all of the terrible people that get a lot of coverage aren’t necessarily the norm.
Trevor Burrus: Donald Trump. Sorry, that was a little bit of – this is the third podcast in a row we mentioned Donald Trump. I actually don’t even want to do it.
Aaron Ross Powell: But that point about exposing people to politics, so that jumps ahead a bit to the solutions, the last chapter of the book. But I want to ask about it real quick because it was something that I wondered about as I was reading the book.
A lot of the argument in here takes the form of – you know, if we look at the 11 percent of people who seem to be interested, they talk more about politics. They have more exposure to it. Their parents talk more about it. They have higher opinions and so therefore the way that we ramp up interest is by exposing people to more politics and all that. But I wondered is that – is there evidence that that’s the direction the line of causation runs and that it might not run in the other direction that like – if you are the kind of person who’s already interested in politics, then you’re going to talk more about it. You’re going to look up to elected officials.
The reason I wondered that is because this – the idea of getting people more interested by exposing them more to politics or if that can have the opposite effect. I mean I was fairly down on politics before coming to Washington and then after six years of living here and being much more exposed to it than I was, I am radically more down on politics than I ever was.
Jennifer Lawless: That’s a very good question and it’s fair because whenever you’re doing survey research like this, you have this reverse causation problem and all you can really do is make an argument about why you think the directional arrow flows the way that it does.
What we would say is that the family results are the most compelling because the average 13-year-old does not come home, sit down at dinner with their parents and say, “I really want to assess what Donald Trump said to Carly Fiorina today,” right? It’s that they pick up snippets of these conversations that are going on in a political household. So it’s unlikely that children are not picking up cues from their parents.
Now at that point, it could be that the ones who are growing up in these political homes are finding it interesting and then when they go to school, they’re seeking out those conversations with their peers or they’re looking for political media. I think that it’s more likely though that at least as far as the family is concerned, and that’s the most important socializing agent. It probably is more politicized households feeding children that information.
Aaron Ross Powell: Let’s use that then to jump into this, the heart book, these three chapters on why and so you give these three broad reasons for why young people might have declining interests. The first of these is just that, that families don’t talk about politics and you begin I believe by discussing the fact that – is it Family Ties you talk about and the way that sitcoms don’t discuss? Can you go into that a bit?
Jennifer Lawless: Sure. My goal in this book was to make sure that Michael J. Fox was heavily featured. Growing up watching Family Ties and being in love with Alex P. Keaton, I felt like it was the only right thing to do.
Trevor Burrus: It only recently actually dawned on me, as an aside, how political that – I watched it as a kid and I wasn’t very aware that the entire point of the show was hippies in the Reagan area. It was so political and you wrote about it. I was like, “Exactly.”
Jennifer Lawless: Right. And in the 1980s and certainly before then, there was a general sense that politics took place at the kitchen table and I don’t mean that in the way that we talk about kitchen table issues now. I mean that families would talk about what was going on politically and families would watch TV sitcoms together and that could generate discussion.
Family Ties was the example that we cited in the book just because you have this major dichotomy between parents who are very liberal hippies and a son who’s very politically active but he loves Ronald Reagan. He has Richard Nixon on his bedside table and he wants to run for office.
They disagreed on everything but they talked about these issues in a pretty civil way and it was OK to disagree. We’ve reached a point now where that’s not what political conversation looks like and the point that we make at the beginning of this chapter is that it follows that most family TV shows and most TV sitcoms now don’t even address those issues because there’s no fun, civil way to talk about them.
We only have political shows that are explicitly about the infighting in Washington right now whether it’s House of Cards or Veep and I think those shows are great. I think a lot of political junkies do too. But it’s hard to imagine a scenario whereby a semi-political family or a family that votes but isn’t incredibly politically active would find that kind of detail at all appealing.
Aaron Ross Powell: I kept thinking as I was reading of parks and recreation, which is probably not the best example of like portraying politics in a good light.
Trevor Burrus: But it’s local. It’s a local representative. I don’t know if you’ve seen the show or not …
Jennifer Lawless: I have. It’s funny. I was talking about this with some students yesterday and one of the – but I think it also highlights some of the amusing but worst aspects of politics. Amy Poehler’s character at one point actually says, “People ask me who inspires me and I’m a big enough person to say that I often inspired myself,” right? Which is a great line but it also in a lot of ways typifies this idea of what people think about politicians. So it reinforces this egotistical narcissism even if people are using it in a good way to solve problems.
Aaron Ross Powell: I was curious – so you mentioned the decline of dining room table discussions of politics. I wondered if what we – we often hear stories of how basically there’s a decline of dining room tables in general, right? That families don’t eat dinner together and I wondered if the decline in political discussions among families is a possible symptom of just what feels like a decline of weighty discussions in families regardless of topic.
Jennifer Lawless: It could be. But we found some data that were quite recent that surprised us quite a bit. But about 85 percent of families still say that they eat dinner together about five nights a week. So if the overall weightiness of those conversations have gone down, that’s a fair point. But that’s still the venue where they would occur if they were going to occur.
So we talk about how mobile everybody is and how people don’t get together and eat together anymore and it’s just not true especially when you’re talking about parents with their kids in general. So the opportunity exists [0:20:00] for these discussions to happen. They’re just not happening.
One of the reasons why – and this came through very thoroughly in the interviews we conducted was that parents don’t feel like we’re counting according to their children the horrible things going on in Washington. If you’re sitting down at the end of the day and you want to have a conversation with your children and your spouse, you don’t want to chronicle everything that didn’t go well that day in the country.
You don’t want to argue or debate issues and policies and that’s what political conversation has become.
Trevor Burrus: Do you think the me feed, what I would call the me feed, the niche, the nichification of pretty much everything – if you think about the Family Ties era, you are talking about a three-network kind of era. My first political thought I think I ever had was that I was very upset that the State of the Union was taking over all the channels and there was nothing to watch.
Now the State of the Union is – you can go to your own niche and watch the State of the Union if you want to watch it. So the political [Indiscernible] have their own niche and they went to their own niche and they don’t have to infect the other niches with their stuff and so you – and then you have a republican niche and you have a – you have a liberal niche. So now everyone is just in their own niche, which creates more connotation and more vituperative name calling and everything else.
Aaron Ross Powell: That’s what our colleague Julian Sanchez called epistemic closure.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, within this, and maybe that’s the biggest cause of this.
Jennifer Lawless: That’s right, and the fragmentation of the news has made it such that nobody has to happen upon anything that they don’t want to see anymore, right? It used to be that you would flip through the newspaper or maybe have to watch the nightly news segment and encounter something that you don’t agree with or actually have to think critically about a discussion or a debate happening.
That is no longer the case. You don’t have to – with the death of local newspapers pretty much, it has now gotten to the point where most people don’t even have anything to flip through at breakfast in the morning and when they’re watching cable news, if they’re very liberal, they’re not watching Fox News in the morning and if they’re very conservative, they’re not watching MSNBC.
So I do think that that’s part of it. But I think that part of it also is that even when you think about balance and even when you think about people that are seeking out a middle ground, the debates are incredibly hostile and the lack of civility is ubiquitous.
So it has gotten to the point not only where you can only look for and find your own opinion but in having that opinion reinforced, you also rarely see any deference to just a general respect for the other side.
Aaron Ross Powell: So there are two issues there, right? There’s the how it’s being portrayed and then what is being portrayed and those are your two other chapters. So we will move into the second of them which is largely politics gets portrayed poorly and mostly by the media. You refer to this as #governmentsucks. And my immediate question in reading that was – is the media portrayal of – because as I read you, it feels like you’re saying that to a large extent, it’s unfair. The media portrayal is not necessarily accurate. I think at one point, you call it laughable.
Is it that media is unfairly portraying politics or is it simply – or is it that because we have so much more media now, we have so many more outlets and they’re spending so much more time on this stuff, that we’re starting to see politics as the way it always has been. As part of that, I think you point to like the 60s and 70s as a time when things were very different. But that was also a time when the media seemed very willing to say cover up the transgressions of politicians. We’re not going to report on all of JFK’s …
Trevor Burrus: Or LBJ – all who had horrible, horrible things that they did.
Aaron Ross Powell: So how is it that they’re just reporting more accurately now?
Jennifer Lawless: I think there are two different factors here. The first is whether they’re reporting more accurately. The second is whether what they’re reporting is newsworthy and it’s the latter that is the most concerning I think.
As far as whether they’re reporting accurately or not, I would generally work under the assumption this might be naïve that politicians tend to run for office because they care about improving society and that journalists generally cover politics because they care about whether politicians are improving society and that a lot of things happen along the way and that there are bottom line incentives that mean you’re looking for sensationalist headline or that which is unusual or partisan or conflictual.
But generally speaking, everyone is out there to do their jobs. When there was a one-hour or 30-minute time slot, the choices that were made about what was newsworthy, assuming that the level of accuracy were the same across the board, looks different because whether JFK or LBJ had moral indiscretions on the side, if you only have 30 minutes, you can’t report on those things. You have to actually report on what’s going on in Vietnam for example, right? That’s a clear choice to make.
Now, I think we’ve reached the point where there is this race to the most sensational and I’m not sure that what – a lot of what we see is newsworthy and I also think it’s not necessarily fair in that if you’re going to highlight every terrible thing that every politician does, you could make the case that you should spend at least some time highlight successes and good things that politicians are doing. But that’s boring, right?
If every single morning on the Today Show, when they cut away to the news segments, they said, “And today, the state legislature in Wisconsin managed to succeed in passing X, and the state legislature in Missouri passed Y and in New York, Z was accomplished.” People would turn off the channel right away, right? It’s just not that interesting. It’s not that important.
So I think that what is sensational and what is bad helps the bottom line. So even if the level of accuracy was the same across the board with more television time now and more resources available to devote to specific candidates, we wind up seeing things that probably ultimately are not that relevant for politics but do turn people off to the idea of throwing their own hats in.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. Is it politics or politicians? Maybe they’re inseparable but it could also be the case that the caliber of the person who has been running for office has been going down for a while. George Washington seemed to be a pretty outstanding, noble guy and if you look back at the founding era, you have a lot of discussions about the caliber of men to be office holders and how they should have leisure time to read philosophy and things like this.
That was of course before TV and before your megalomaniacal tendencies to see yourself on TV and have a persona and then we get a TV presidency. I don’t think James Knox Polk could ever be elected in a TV presidency and so maybe the caliber of person who wants to be a politician is just getting worse for a lot of this sort of feedback loop effects.
So people really have a problem with politicians. Maybe not so much politics or maybe they’re separable in some way.
Jennifer Lawless: That could be, but the unfortunate aspect here is that it’s this very, very small sliver of politicians that even ever make it on to the national news that are then kind of ruining the reputation for the other half million of them, right?
So most people, if they run for office, if they’re going to be dog catcher or school board member or even state legislator in 40 of the 50 states, they’re never going to be on television, right?
So they can be the kind of person. I don’t know if George Washington and James Madison were as noble behind the scenes as we claim to, as we often purport. But they could be that kind of person. They wouldn’t have to worry about the media rifling through their trash. They wouldn’t have to worry about being confronted and in all these got-you moments.
But it’s this small group of politicians, many of whom go out and seek this limelight, who then become the face of what politics must be like and that sends the signal through that lens that people asses what the system must be like and the kinds of players that it – that migrate toward it.
Aaron Ross Powell: One of the things I was curious about in this chapter is you’re talking about how little people – how little students discuss politics say in the classroom. So I had a point of clarification. I wasn’t sure what – so you say weekly political discussion in the classroom. Weekly political discussions were not the norm that 32 percent of students report having had one in the last week.
What I was wondering, is that the same 32 percent over time? So is it that 60 percent of people aren’t having any or is it that 100 percent of people are having one every three weeks?
Jennifer Lawless: We ask in general how often would you say you discuss politics in your classes and it could be multiple times a week, once a week, monthly, never.
Aaron Ross Powell: And then what counts as a political discussion? Because again, so much of this is like about politicians. So is it only discussions of the kind of stuff we would read about in Politico or is it – if we have an extended discussion about John Rawls, does that count or a discussion about like the existence of systemic racism. Is that a political discussion?
Jennifer Lawless: So some of that is in the eye of the respondent. When we followed up on that question in the interviews, we were thinking about political discussions as anything that would be about government, politics or any sort of public policy, so not a broad theoretical question about the state of nature necessarily but certainly any kind of current event that has any degree of political implication.
Trevor Burrus: Of the 11 percent who are interested in political office at the end, in part of the book, you discussed how young people with like the quotes from young people talk about not liking talking politics because of the kind of device of elements that we were talking about previously.
Are these 11 percent – do you see them as people who actively enjoy talking about politics, who engage in a very, very [0:30:00] forthright and passionate manner or do they just sort of begrudgingly do it?
Jennifer Lawless: The interesting thing about the 11 percent is that they were what we would call the teenage political junkies, right? So they’re not political junkies like I am or like Washington people are in general. They’re not reading Politico. But they are interested enough in what’s going on that they’re willing to have conversations with their friends and in their classes and with their families that might not always be warm and fuzzy.
So some of it is this sort of negative view of the political system and that it’s unfortunate. A lot of their conversations they would say were sad because they look around and they talk about policies that they think matter or issues that they care about and they kind of bemoan the fact that there’s no progress on those issues.
But a lot of these conversations are also about the kinds of elected leaders that they like and that they’re inspired by. Barack Obama came up over and over again hardly ever because of any specific thing he wanted to do but because of the promise in 2008 and 2012 that he was going to change the way politics looked.
I think a lot of the people were inspired by him because he at least had the audacity to say maybe we should change the way politics looks. They were perhaps a little bit naïve in that they didn’t realize he hasn’t or that one person can’t.
So there still is that optimism but it’s also somewhat realistic and that they’re well aware of the failures that surround them at the national level.
Aaron Ross Powell: In the book, you quote a lot from the survey respondents. You let them speak in their own words and one of the common things is something along the lines of, of course my friends and I don’t talk about this stuff because I don’t want to say anything that’s going to get each other upset. We would just fight. Why do we want to do that? We’re friends.
I mean I just – this occurred to me now that this seems awfully similar to the broader cultural trend of say like – so the Twitter shaming, the notion that it is a profound moral wrong to say anything that would even on the margins upset someone. So in light of that, is this specific to politics? Like they don’t want to just – politics is turning them off. So they don’t want to discuss it or just that we are a culture shifting in a direction where it’s less and less OK to say things of any sort that will make someone else uncomfortable.
Jennifer Lawless: That’s funny that you characterize it that way because I feel like we’ve shifted in the direction where people say things all the time and the bar has just changed for what’s acceptable for you to say. It makes you uncomfortable.
So I don’t know about that. But what I will say is that I don’t think it was as deliberate as that in that a lot of the students had no idea where their friends would fall on these issues and so they were avoiding politics in anticipation of what could be a debate or a disagreement and that’s kind of worrisome.
If it turns out that you know very clearly how you fall on a wide range of issue and you know how the people around you fall, and then you decide that there are certain conversations to have with one group of people and not to have with others, or people that you can be friends with on Facebook and others that you probably should not. That suggests that you’re actually processing these and coming to a logical decision.
What we found more was that they were just avoiding it altogether and avoiding exposure to it, because they didn’t want to chance the fact that they might surround themselves with people who disagree.
Trevor Burrus: Is it possible that politics itself and – that I would even – this is the libertarian position [Indiscernible] that politics itself or the over-politicization of the world just compared to how many departments there are, how many different levels of government there are, how many elected offices there are. Is it possible that politics itself creates enemies out of friends? So maybe it’s actually producing the kind of animosity. As soon as you’re trying to look for a political solution to say schools as opposed – like a libertarian idea of parental choice, which allows parents of different persuasions to be friends.
Well as soon as it’s a political solution, both parents are now trying to control the make-up of school for the other parent’s kids. So now they can’t be friends. Is it possible that politics itself and its growth – and it’s increasing in normativity because it’s covering more and more important things like healthcare, that it’s creating this distaste to politics and this animosity on both elected representatives and how we view our politics.
Jennifer Lawless: It seems to me that it’s not politics itself but it’s increased party polarization at all levels of government that is fostering and then reinforcing that outcome. By that I mean that in the 1980s, even in the early 1990s to some extent, there was something noble about getting a deal done and compromising and there was this idea that you weren’t going to win all the time and you were going to obviously try to get the best outcome for your side as you could. But getting an outcome was better than getting no outcome.
That has fallen away in a lot of cases. The 2013 government shutdown is one example of that. Now the government reopened because at some point, having a government was more important than not and both sides of the aisle agreed on that.
But almost everything has become a contest and almost everything has become a partisan contest where not moving at all is a viable option and so – and it makes sense too when you look at the way our districts are created at the federal level. There’s absolutely no reason why anybody would have to behave differently because except – in 2014, there were 17 toss-up districts out of 435. In those 418 districts, it was a foregone conclusion what party was going to hold that seat.
So there’s no incentive to compromise and there’s nothing noble about striking that deal. So I think that that reinforces the idea that if you’re a democrat, you think one thing. If you’re a republican, you think another. It’s not that the moderates are gone. It’s that there’s no reason for there to ever be a middle ground reach between two strong partisans.
Trevor Burrus: So that would seem to say that – you can either change – you can change the districts. I guess you could do that. You could change people’s underlying attitudes or work on that or you could say that this might mean that fewer decisions – or federalism. Fewer decisions should be reposed in Washington DC because Massachusetts and Texas are just not going to agree and the representatives from Massachusetts and Texas are not going to agree. When they get together to vote on a massive overhaul of the healthcare system, they’re not going to agree on that and that we don’t have Blue Dog democrats anymore. So maybe this is a reason to not do that.
Jennifer Lawless: So I’m a very liberal democrat. So obviously my view of that is a little bit different.
Trevor Burrus: But there is a movement for federalism among some liberals. I mean some liberals who are – you know, marijuana obviously, Fair-Weather federalism but if you’re not going to have Massachusetts and Texas disagree and maybe you can get gun laws in Massachusetts that you can’t get in Texas. We don’t need a federal gun law. We need one for Massachusetts and one for Texas.
Jennifer Lawless: Right. So I would say two things. The first is that what’s important is that we somehow educate the citizenry to realize that the kinds of party polarization and polarized districts that we see at the federal level do not trickle down states or at least a little bit less polarized internally than the federal government is and at the local level, many of these offices, like hundreds of thousands of them, are completely non-partisan. They often don’t deal with issues that lend themselves to a clear partisan divide when you’re –
Trevor Burrus: Like dog catcher.
Jennifer Lawless: Yes. I mean I’m sure that we can figure out what democrats and republicans think about animal control but generally people don’t like rabid dogs biting their kids, right? So you can come up with these kinds of solutions.
So if we I think can expose people to that reality, first of all, they might think about politics a little bit differently and realize that what they see in Washington doesn’t necessarily trickle down and generalize.
I think that they could also then – and maybe this is a little bit too optimistic. But consider holding their elected officials a little bit more accountable for getting the job done and that could involve sometimes making a compromise. You think back to the 1990s and Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. They didn’t like each other. They didn’t agree on everything but they understood at the end of the day that the federal government had a responsibility to pass a budget. They both gave a little and sometimes one, one more than the other one did.
But there was also the sense that they would be held accountable by their constituents and they would be held accountable by their colleagues if they didn’t manage to figure out how to move on. I think that has been lost. We’ve seen John Boehner have an incredibly difficult time and when he has tried to strike deals and when he has tried to reach compromises, he has had people in his own party say, “We’re not playing that way,” and they have no incentive to.
So part of this comes back to the voters and what they’re expecting in their elected officials and if we can get them to start thinking not necessarily about expecting the same thing all the time, we might change the incentive structure of some of these politicians.
Aaron Ross Powell: So throughout the whole book, there was this theme that I noticed that potentially runs counter to the thesis, the book at least. So when I first heard about this book – because I heard an interview with you on the New Books in Political Science podcast, which is a terrific podcast that you all should listen to and what struck me – and I think this is what I said in the email to you – was you – and I’m forgetting the name of the host.
We’re discussing this book and it was this is a problem. This is a serious problem for American democracy. We need to fix this. We need to get people more interested in politics. So it was a very pessimistic interview and the book is very pessimistic except for you give solutions whereas I – again as someone who comes from a different political ideology found it [0:40:00] extraordinarily optimistic.
Trevor Burrus: … whatever happened if you had an election and no one came? No one had to rule over us. It would be amazing.
Aaron Ross Powell: I mean there were minor versions of that like, wow, really, there are 500,000 elected offices. That’s too many. But there was a theme that a lot of the – when the kids would speak for themselves, would say something that struck me. So there’s – you summarize it and this is a line. A version of this line repeats a fair amount in the book. But at one point in the book, you write, “Young people want to improve the world and their communities. But they tend not to think of politics as an effective means to do so.”
Trevor Burrus: That’s almost like libertarianism in like a little …
Aaron Ross Powell: So that’s what – what I was wondering is that – is the alternative there not that they’re just like – they would be into politics if it weren’t so ugly. But maybe that they’re increasingly seeing that politics is an ineffective tool to improve the world, that if you want to make your community better, there are other more effective ways to do it outside of using the state and that in fact the state is often – like say the Uber, the fights over Uber that exposed the state as basically a tool for protecting cartels and they see – look, there’s this much more effective alternative but politicians and their friends are just getting in the way of it.
So is it possible the alternative narrative to this is simply that young people are more libertarian?
Jennifer Lawless: No.
Trevor Burrus: I actually hope not.
Jennifer Lawless: I’ve already laid my cards on the table. So that argument that you just made I think would require two things. The first is that their view of government is accurate and I don’t know that the way that they view politics in general is an accurate representation of what it’s like across the board. I don’t even know that it’s accurate about Washington DC, but it certainly doesn’t apply to a lot of these local offices and they’re generalizing in a way where they – in a way where they have no information to justify that.
But the second thing is that they don’t think that electoral politics is an effective way to bring about change in part because the idea of electoral politics being an effective way to bring about change has not really been introduced to them. So if they considered a public policy problem, let’s say they don’t like gun or they do like guns and they either support or don’t support gun control or they support or don’t support some kind of economic policy.
It doesn’t occur to them to think about how running for office might be a way to weigh in on that policy. What we find is this kneejerk reaction that politicians are not effective. Washington is not effective. So let’s consider all of these other ways that we could possibly bring about change. There’s no question that these other ways are effective ways to bring about change. But I don’t feel like they’ve been weighed against running for office.
For some people, the actual decision will be, yeah, running for office does not seem like it is the best alternative if I want to reach goal A. But for some, it will and I just don’t think they’ve gotten the kind of exposure that they need to make that decision.
Most of my work focuses on the gender gap and political ambition and why women don’t want to run for office. What I’ve set all along is we’ve conceived that this is a two-stage process. You either – you consider running for office and then if you’ve considered it, you either do it or you don’t.
Most people care about that second stage. Well, who runs and who doesn’t? If you decide not to run, I don’t care. I want it to have occurred to you in the first place, right? Something seems fundamentally wrong with the system if there are systematic discrepancies in terms of whose radar screen running for office it shows up on.
So I kind of feel like that kind of logic applies here as well. Let everybody at least consider it and then let them decide whether that’s effective or not. But all of the messages that they’re getting from their family, from their friends, from their teachers, from the media, are systematic examples of all of the failures.
Trevor Burrus: I think it’s interesting the way you contrast like the DC – everything about DC that they – is not true about all of DC and is certainly not true about local races. But the local races themselves are – it’s an interesting area where not a lot of people think about running. It requires a certain political organization. You mentioned school boards in California, pretty much a union-driven type of thing.
So like what kind of person before ran for water board or – I mean is it – should we really care about who’s on the water board first of all? Are there too many elected offices maybe down there, that it doesn’t really matter who they are? They’re like ministerial offices. So they don’t create that kind of division that you can create when you have discretion to decide national policy.
Jennifer Lawless: The reason I think local politics are so important is because we have career ladder politics in this country. So for better or worse, the overwhelming majority of people who ultimately run for a competitive state office or a federal office held previous office and it’s there that they get their foot in the door and they gather their experience.
Trevor Burrus: Like Harry Reid. Basically you work your way through the political machine and make friends and influence people on the way.
Jennifer Lawless: Or alternatively, you become friends with members of the Chamber of Commerce and then they support your campaign to do whatever else. No, that wasn’t even a partisan. I mean – but whether it’s …
Trevor Burrus: … was gaming commissioner, right?
Jennifer Lawless: So whether it’s through unions or whether it’s through the chamber or whether it’s just through local or political connections that you have, that’s sort of the way that most people then decide whether they want to climb the ladder or not. So if we are not making sure that we’re making those local offices accessible to a wide range of people, then we’re already narrowing the pool of potential candidates who could run for offices that do play a much more – I don’t want to say important because local offices have jurisdiction over a lot of very important issues, but play a more high profile role.
Aaron Ross Powell: We mentioned a lot of solutions so far in the last 50 minutes. But your last chapter proposes several of them and very specific ones. So maybe we can close by just running through what some of those look like.
Jennifer Lawless: Well, the one that you guys will definitely not like is basically making it mandatory in the college admissions process that people have some kind of political aptitude.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, pretty much the mandate is …
Jennifer Lawless: Did that work [Indiscernible]? So one of the issues that we take up and the suggestion that we make – first, let me just preface this by saying that all of our suggestions are contingent on changes that do not depend on politicians changing their behavior or the media changing their behavior because we did not want to write the sort of …
Trevor Burrus: Shape up or ship out.
Jennifer Lawless: Yeah, I mean they have no incentive to, right? They’re not going to and we could say, “Oh, but look, it affects the children,” and they will say, “Oh, that’s a shame,” and they will continue doing the same thing tomorrow.
So, one of the suggestions was geared to at least generate incentives for young people to know something about politics. Currently, you can apply to any college and university, even the most competitive ones and know virtually zero about current events or the way government or the world works. It depends a lot on what your high school education is. But you certainly don’t need to know that kind of information.
We do know though that people who have greater levels of political knowledge and political aptitude are more likely to find something in politics that they like, more likely to find a political figure they find inspirational and more likely to at least consider running for office.
So similar to the way that college admissions has pretty much mandated that community service or volunteerism rewarded in the college application process, we thought that rewarding political aptitude would be an indirect way to generate ambition as well.
Trevor Burrus: It’s interesting. I mean for me the policy thing would be to – it is – I was thinking though when Aaron was asking about the causal chain question where people talk more about politics. Which way does it run? Do you like [Indiscernible]? Talk more about it. One way you can answer that, you can like force everyone to talk about politics for an hour. It’s like part of like a fourth grade activity …
Jennifer Lawless: Welcome to my class.
Trevor Burrus: Oh, kids, we’re going to talk about politics where we can make a state law [Indiscernible]. Hey, the UN can make a law, whatever. Everyone in the world has to talk about politics for an hour and you probably would increase political engagement but you would be doing something unjust, so at least to my opinion, forcing a bunch of kids to do something.
Jennifer Lawless: Although we do force kids to do things all the time.
Trevor Burrus: Oh, yes, yes. Parents do that, absolutely.
Jennifer Lawless: Another solution, and this also just speaks to access to information, is what we call the “Go Run App” and this would just be a way for people to see how many opportunities they have to engage in the political system if they want to. So right now if somebody says, “Oh, how do you run for school board in Santa Monica, California?” it’s not completely obvious how you would do that. We envision being able to type and address into an app and every elected official that represents that residence would pop up and in addition to that, there would also be a description of the offices and what those key responsibilities are.
You can imagine teachers. You can imagine professors using this as a learning tool, but you could also imagine people out there who are just kind of interested in politics in general getting a better sense of the opportunities that they have and the fact that no clearing house like that exists is in part driven by the vast number of these positions. But it’s also driven by the fact that no one even realize that this vast clearing house doesn’t exist. So making that information more accessible we think could go a long way as well.
Aaron Ross Powell: So are you ultimately optimistic, hopeful about solving this problem or at least moving things in the right direction?
Jennifer Lawless: I am because the most I think [0:50:00] important finding in the book is that this next generation is in no way disengaged from their communities, from the country or from the world. They care about solving problems. They care about making the world a better place. They care about public policy issues that affect not only them but future generations. So if we can highlight some effective ways for government to address those issues and those problems and expand the arsenal that young people have at their disposal by which to attack these different public policy issues, it’s hard to imagine that things won’t get better.
Aaron Ross Powell: Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more about libertarianism and the ideas that influence it, visit us on the web at www.Libertarianism.org.