What do young Americans think about politics? LOL, not much

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Next week is graduation at my university, and high schools will be holding commencement ceremonies over the next month. While speakers will implore seniors to “make a difference in the world” and “give back,” almost none of these student will take this to mean running for office. New research on U.S. high school and college students demonstrates the dire state of a life in politics. In short, the future looks bleak for future generations of officeholders, and maybe even for the democracy.

Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox, in Running from Office: Why Young Americans Are Turned Off to Politics, conducted surveys of over 4,000 younger Americans. What they find is that their respondents rarely think, talk or consider politics. While many seem to care about the world, this infrequently translates to running for office or aspirations to work in politics. Consider:

  • Just 11 percent of respondents said that they had thought about running office “many times” while 61 percent said they “never” considered it.
  • Asked if various jobs paid the same, just 13 percent of respondents said they would want to be a member of Congress, versus 37 percent who chose business executive and 27 percent school principal; only 19 percent indicated that a future goal was to become a political leader.
  • Just 9 percent of respondents said that their parents would want them to pursue a job as a member of Congress, compared to around 50 percent for owning a business.

While these figures are shocking, perhaps they’re not surprising. The research, though, is even more eye-opening when these attitudes are connected to other behaviors. Politics has a tiny part to play in the daily lives of younger Americans.

  • Just over a quarter (27 percent) of high-school students in the study indicated that they had taken a government or political science class.
  • A large majority (65 percent) of high-school students indicated that their classmates had little or no interest in politics; and less than a fifth (17 percent) of younger Americans discussed politics with their friends.
  • With all respect to TheHill.com, only 27 percent of young Americans visit political websites for information.

Interestingly, these findings hold for the most part across racial and gender lines. While truly damning, there are some hopeful dimensions of the research. Lawless and Fox find that younger Americans who:

  • Talked about politics frequently with friends were much more likely (33 percent) to have political ambitions compared those who didn’t talk about politics with friends (6 percent).
  • Had parents who encouraged a life in politics were more likely to consider running (28 percent) compared to those with parents who did not encourage (between 6 and 7 percent).
  • Visited political websites were much more likely to have political ambitions (28 percent) compared to those who did not visit political websites (4 percent).

High schools and colleges can require more students to take courses in government and can stimulate debates about politics with special events and speakers, and parents can lead discussions of current events. All of this would likely encourage more students to consider running for office, but many will be frustrated by the aspects of politics that drive all Americans away. Less corruption, less money in politics and less dysfunction may be merely the wishful thinking of commencement speakers, but each should be a part of a serious conversation about how to bring younger Americans back into the political fold.

Brown is assistant professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, and the author of the forthcoming Tea Party Divided: The Hidden Diversity in a Maturing Movement (Praeger, 2015).

Tags Millennials Politics Young Adults Youth

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