The Age of the Disengaged

Are Millennials really more alienated from politics than youth in generations past?

If there’s one thing that left, right, and center can agree on these days, it’s that the federal government is not functioning well. Congress, the first branch of government mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, has roughly the approval rating of anthrax. Public opinion of the Supreme Court, according to the Pew Research Center, is at 50 percent—the lowest in thirty years of polling. Our twice-elected president isn’t even hitting the 50 percent approval mark.

The implications of all this for the next generation of would-be politicos is the subject of Running from Office: Why Young Americans Are Turned Off to Politics, a new book by the political scientists Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox. The basic question is simple: How are we to run a democracy if no one will run for office?

Jun15-Lawless-Books
Running from Office:
Why Young Americans
Are Turned Off to Politics

by Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox
Oxford University Press, 232 pp.

Lawless and Fox, who have previously written about the gender gap in politics, conducted hundreds of interviews on this question, and largely confirm the conventional wisdom: young people are generally turned off to politics, which they perceive as a corrupt cesspool of incompetence and pointless flailing. Since the mid-1990s, a paltry 20 percent of under-thirty voters have voted in midterm elections. Had they gone to the polls in 2014, things might have turned out very differently. The authors do not, however, come close to establishing their major premise—that young people are more alienated than youth in generations past. Cranky graybeards have been griping about young people since time immemorial, so a book premised on today’s youth being unusually disconnected faces a high burden of proof.

Voting behavior is arguably the most reliable indicator of democratic engagement. While turnout among eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds in midterm elections has fallen somewhat—from more than 30 percent in 1966 to around 20 percent today—presidential elections show a much less clear trend. Youth turnout was more than 50 percent in 1964, and has not been equaled since. But about 40 percent of the under-thirty crowd reliably shows up for presidential elections. In 2008, youth turnout was the highest since 1972. Moreover, the voting behavior of youth tends to track that of the population at large. Youth turnout is off somewhat from previous highs, but so is turnout generally.

Are fewer young people running for office than before? Here I suspect Lawless and Fox are on firmer ground, but they do not present much evidence on this question, either. In truth, the evidence may not even exist. As a twentysomething, I can at least provide anecdotal evidence on the subject. Even though I am, by the standard of my generation, a serious political obsessive, running for elected office strikes me as landing somewhere between “incomprehensible” and “I’d rather be thrown in jail.” And if I feel that way, imagine what regular people my age must think!

Regardless of their weak general thesis, Fox and Lawless have certainly tapped into the youth zeitgeist. Again and again, interviewees cite a lack of interest in political matters. In a survey of high school and college students, only 27 percent report checking political websites frequently, compared to 76 percent who check social networking sites. (Interestingly, they cite network broadcasts as the most popular news source, though less than half of respondents report watching them even every few days.) Less than 10 percent read political blogs, and even the Daily Show only hits 13 percent regular viewership among this cohort. Becoming a politician consistently ranks as one of the most undesirable jobs, and fully 61 percent report that they have never once considered running for office.

The authors’ worries are particularly on point when it comes to local government posts. There are roughly 520,000 elected offices in the United States, and far too many of them are uncontested. Even in state legislative elections, which are relatively high profile compared to, say, local school boards, just 57 percent have candidates from more than one party. As Saddam Hussein could have told you, it’s not much of a democracy when there’s only one option on the ballot.

All this would be a lot better suited to a book about general decay in democratic participation than about youth specifically. So what is happening? Again Lawless and Fox aren’t very convincing. They blame the culture and the media. Politics has become polarized, hyper-partisan, and bitter, while “almost all national news about politics is negative and combative in tone.” The political process is awash in a sea of money, and the whole system stinks of corruption. As a result, families avoid political discussion, and young people shut out what unpleasant political news manages to trickle in through social media.

There’s a rather anachronistic Progressive Era ideology underpinning this section of the book. The authors’ model of good politics seems to envision earnest, idealistic people joining up as a way to accomplish value-neutral good things for the American people as a whole. Young people’s actual political beliefs are beside the point; what matters is getting them into politics. That sort of pragmatism has a long American pedigree, advanced by figures from Walter Lippmann to JFK to President Obama. In the mid-twentieth century, when parties did not represent coherent ideological blocs, it wasn’t a bad shorthand for the actual mechanics of politics.

But times have changed, and the parties have become ideologically sorted, very nearly parliamentary style. Every Republican in Congress is now more conservative than every Democrat, which wasn’t true in the past. The mechanics of ideological politics are far different: one side attempts to force its agenda through over the objections of the opposition, rather than come to a compromise. Obamacare was such a policy, and it is still meeting with enraged resistance from Republicans, who would like to see the whole thing done away with.

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.

Since their diagnosis of the problem is not very well aimed, Lawless and Fox’s solutions are mostly weak tea as well. Political video games, a Peace Corps for politics, new civics requirements for college, finding more female candidates: these ideas provide little hope for changing the current dynamic.

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.

Which leads me to a final point. I suspect what creates the sense of futility and disillusionment about politics among today’s youth is the interaction between the American tradition of disinterested, “responsible” politics and the reality of hyper-partisanship. This suggests that more ideology and partisanship, not less, might actually deliver young people into political candidacy.

If American youth realized that politics is the way to achieve things they consider important or valuable, be they higher wages and a secure retirement on the left, or abolishing food stamps and Medicaid on the right, then they might be motivated to look past the boring political news to the highly relevant policy content.

Given my own political beliefs, I’d say young Americans ought to form a grassroots left wing to challenge the right. Conservatives have already demonstrated the validity of this argument. Republicans currently hold most of the state legislative seats for which it is so difficult to find candidates. With their fervently ideological organizing, they have knocked off 910 Democratic state legislators since 2009.

To my jaundiced political ear, many of the complaints about politics detailed in Fox and Lawless’s book are right on. “I hate that elections are usually about choosing the shiniest of two turds,” said one interviewee. “A lot of politicians are just in it for the perks and the money,” said another. (Witness Eric Cantor’s instantaneous post-Congress career in Wall Street.) What young people haven’t quite realized is that not only will this situation not go away on its own, there is also no way to escape the massive influence of politics over their lives. The government has enormous impact on the economy, retirement, poverty, racism, and all of the other issues young people say they are concerned about. But closing down and ignoring politics out of disgust only makes it easier for those in power to make all those problems worse.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.