By Mark S. Mellman - 07/23/13 11:35 PM EDT
Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson once warned mamas against letting their babies grow up to be cowboys.
Instead they urged, “Let ’em be doctors and lawyers and such.”
By 2-1, Gallup found mamas preferring their children not go into politics.
Therein lies a problem. Young people are committed to improving the world but do not see politics as the most effective mechanism through which to realize those aspirations.
A survey of college freshmen conducted annually by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies found today’s students don’t pay much attention to politics. Just 35 percent feel it is important to keep up with politics. In the late ’60s, 57 percent were paying that level of attention.
But improving society remains an important goal. In a recent survey, 72 percent said “helping others who are in difficulty” was at least very important to them.
Forty-two percent identified “influencing social values” as central. Despite that generalized commitment to making the world a better place, only 20 percent prioritized “influencing the political structure.”
Students pay much more than lip service to these commitments. More than half spent an hour or more volunteering each week during high school and a third expect to continue that practice in college. But just 9 percent worked on a campaign.
A survey we conducted with our colleagues at North Star Opinion Research for the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) provides an intergenerational comparison.
Today’s 18- to 29-year-olds are much less likely to place an emphasis on being involved in the political process, with 39 percent saying it is at least very important, compared to 53 percent of those 30 and older.
Many Americans are committed to volunteering at their place of worship (45 percent overall claim to be at least very interested), at a school (45 percent), or to help the needy (41 percent).
Volunteer political activities hold much less allure. Far fewer are interested in writing an email or letter advocating for a political position or opinion (19 percent), helping a political candidate run for office (18 percent), or even in attending a political party meeting or political rally (14 percent).
In short, Americans young and old feel a commitment to improving society and act on those commitments. Yet politics, which arguably has the greatest impact on the greatest number of people, is something most people prefer to keep at a distance.
Our survey for the BPC hints at part of the reason. By 2-1, Americans think “the best way to make major positive changes in our society is through community involvement,” rather than “through local, state, and federal governments” (60 percent to 28 percent).
There are many possible explanations for this apparent failure to recognize the centrality of the political process. Volunteers may prefer the feeling they get from providing direct aid. Dishing out meals at a homeless shelter may yield greater psychic rewards than insuring the continuation of federal food assistance programs, even though the latter help feed millions.
It’s of course quite possible that Americans do not even understand the powerful role played by the political process in making those kinds of societal decisions. They may not recognize just what the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or any other program) accomplishes.
But the current disgust many Americans express about politics doesn’t help.
Views of government and the political parties are at, or near, record lows and dramatically worse than they were a few decades ago. Indeed it’s difficult for Americans to look at Capitol Hill or any state legislature these days and conclude “this way lies salvation.”
There are lots of things politicians aren’t doing these days. One place all of us politicos are succeeding: giving politics a bad name. Unfortunately, we’ll suffer the repercussions for decades to come.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.