My predecessor as Web Editor at the Washington Monthly, Ryan Cooper, has a book review in the latest issue of the magazine. He takes a look at the work of political scientists Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox: Running from Office: Why Young Americans Are Turned Off to Politics.
Generally speaking, he wasn’t too impressed with the book. Mainly, this is because he believes the authors have misdiagnosed the problem. To begin with, young people are always less politically engaged than their elders, so where’s the evidence that the Millennials are less engaged than previous generations? More to the point, though, widespread disenchantment with contemporary politics isn’t restricted to any particular age group, and the cause is not so much hyper partisanship or stupid media coverage or ridiculous campaign finance laws. The problem is the Republican Party.
The problem with parliamentary-style politics in America is that, most of the time, our national political structure requires a great deal of compromise to function at all. Periods of single-party rule, as in 2009-10 when Democrats controlled the House, Senate, and presidency, are very rare.
When it comes to ideological struggle, Republicans are far, far ahead in organization and political coherence, and they have used it to hold up the Democrats at every turn. Literally on the night Obama was inaugurated, Republicans pledged to conduct a campaign of maximal obstruction, and proceeded to obliterate the previous record for Senate filibusters. That hysterical partisanship has not been simple childishness from Republicans, but a conscious political strategy to create dysfunction for which they would not be blamed.
Given all of this, the bitter dysfunction and negative media coverage documented by Lawless and Fox are by and large the product of ideological struggle rather than some extra-political and cultural happening. It’s what occurs when a unified, disciplined, ruthless party operates in a presidential democracy that was carefully constructed to require lots of compromise.
That strategy is indeed worrisome—it led Republicans to repeatedly threaten national default to obtain policy concessions—but short of amending the Constitution, there won’t be any changing it.
Nonetheless, Cooper found at least one gem in the book.
The authors do, however, offer one rather interesting proposal: creating an app that would contain a comprehensive database of all political offices throughout the nation. One major barrier to young people’s entry into the American political system is its sheer scale and complexity, and such an app could be extremely handy for political organizing and make it easier for this cohort to engage in politics.
At some point, Millennials will run for office and even hold most of the offices in this country. I won’t be surprised if they build new tools, including cool apps, to assist them in their tasks. What would benefit them more than anything else, though, is not having to deal with a nihilistic and aggressively obstructionist party that doesn’t want the government to do anything. So, Millennials’ first task, if they want good, interesting, government, is to overwhelm the conservatives at the polls.
Cooper gets that, even if the authors of this book do not.