“In today’s media environment, you would have to be crazy to run for office.”
That’s what one student told Shauna Shames, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden, during her study of more than 700 top grad students in law and public policy. Shames wanted to know whether Millennials are interested in becoming political candidates. She figured that if anyone would be interested in getting elected to government, it would be people at Harvard, one of the top feeder schools for national public service, or Suffolk University Law School, which sends a lot of its grads into state politics.
What she found is that elite young people—even those who are pursuing advanced degrees in law and policy—think running for office sounds terrible.
“You have to raise a lot of money to be viable,” one public-policy student told Shames. “You really have to bust your butt.” A lot of students talked about how corrupt politicians seem to become once they’re in office, Shames said, comparing running for office to “selling your soul.” As a young Harvard law student put it: “I’m a very results-oriented person, and I’d just rather not bother with a headache.”
Women were especially anxious about the potential risks of running. Part of this is might be a recognition of reality. As Shames writes, it’s a common assumption that as women and racial minorities win educational and professional opportunities, they’ll become a greater presence in government. “But this easy expectation … is belied by the numbers,” she writes. “Women are getting more education than men now, and have been for a while, but their numbers in elective office are stagnating.” And women of color are particularly underrepresented. “You do begin to at least understand why more women [than men] would look at [running] with clear eyes and say, ‘No, thank you,’” one female public-policy student said.
I talked with Shames about why young, elite Americans seem to want to change the world through any means but political leadership, and whether President Trump’s recent victory is likely to change their minds. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Green: Why were you interested in whether elite Millennials want to run for office?
Shames: I started with the question of why more women don’t want to run for office. As I studied race in politics more, I added this other question about people of color. I had hypotheses about the expectation of discrimination.
Some of the existing explanations, particularly for women, are: Well, they just lack confidence. Frankly, that pisses me off a little. I don’t think it is irrational to not play a game you think is rigged against you. I think that is the fault of the game, not the player who refuses to play.
That’s where I began. But as I worked on this question, I started realizing I had the question wrong.
Green: So how did your question evolve?
Shames: It’s not just about these marginalized people. Nobody wants to run for office. I was hoping the white men would be a contrast: They would want to run, and I could say why the women and people of color didn’t. That’s not what I found, though. White guy after white guy—really thoughtful, caring individuals—told me they probably didn’t want to do it, either.
And I thought, “Oh, that’s the bigger story.”
Green: So what were the reasons why these young people don’t want to run for office?
Shames: The best way to put it is that there are a whole lot of costs, and there are also rewards. But if you add them together, the sum total often hovers around zero.
That’s largely because the costs are pretty high. It’s not like these elite students can’t see that running for office would be a good thing or important or help them. They certainly see that. It just didn’t outweigh all of the costs.
Green: What were the most frequently cited costs or fears about running?
Shames: The most important was concerns about money. There’s at least two major considerations. The first was the actual process of raising money, which is just awful. Almost everybody I talked to had an aversion to asking people for money. Some people who had worked in politics and knew the drill were less averse to this because they knew it’s not for you—you’re asking for money to do something good for the world. But still, it’s not what these bright young people wanted to do with their time, even if they could swallow their distaste about it.
Then there’s the ick factor. Even if you could raise all of this money, there’s something that feels icky about the macro process of so much money being involved in politics. It has this tinge of corruption that then pervades the work that you would do.
Green: It was interesting to see how often aversion to the media came up. You even wrote that “repeated portrayals of politics as embattled, acrimonious, and scandal-ridden, while perhaps useful to media outlets in drawing readers or viewers, appear to also exacerbate voter disgust.”
That’s a pretty cynical take. How do you think the media factored into your students’ attitudes about running for office?
Shames: The most upsetting things were about their own sense of privacy—that they or their family might become objects of derision, or particularly that they might be attacked. One of the interviewees spoke movingly about the attacks on Chelsea Clinton or the Bush twins when their fathers were in office. That was enough to make him think that he might never want to do politics at all.
There was a sense that voters are kind of like a mob. That’s not a flattering portrayal of the public, but it’s not inaccurate, either. They will often demand scandal coverage, and then be very upset and offended and horrified by it. The public is not rational about its wants or desires from media coverage.
Green: Some small percentage of your students, like 11 percent, told you they would be more likely to run if they had “fewer skeletons in their closet.”
I thought that was hilarious. What could these 23-year-old Harvard students have done that’s so bad that they won’t be able to run for office when they’re 45?
Shames: I expect it’s things like having a shoplifting conviction from when they were 15, or a minor drug offense. But the fact that it would maybe derail their whole thinking about running for office doesn’t speak to reality. There are people who can get away with anything—to wit, our current president. He was more Teflon than Reagan. And in fact, Obama and George W. Bush both had to explain drug offenses.
This worry speaks, to me, about Millennials’ fear of not being perfect.
Green: I’m wondering whether the election will change any of this. In November, I reported on a protest against Trump. A lot of the young people who were marching effectively said, “I’ve never been that interested in politics, it’s been boring and alienating to me, but if I don’t get involved, apocalypse will happen.”
Shames: I had a friend in Los Angeles say something similar—she’s an artist, and politics has just never been her thing. She called me up after the election and she goes, “I think it’s just not safe not to participate.” And I was like, “Welcome! Welcome to the American tradition.”
It’s been safe not to pay attention. How lovely it is that we get to prolong people’s childhood and they don’t have to deal with politics! But it turns out, if you ignore politics, it doesn’t go away.
Green: For most Millennials, Trump will be the first president they’ve known in their adult lives other than Obama. Do you think Trump will affect their outlook on running for office?
Shames: The danger I see is that there could suddenly be more costs. It could be awful to try to run for office in a landscape where a president has legitimated outright racism or outright misogyny.
But here’s my greatest hope: Young people will suddenly start to see more rewards to political participation. It’s not that those rewards weren’t there. But Millennials haven’t had to think about them before—like the reward of living in a democracy.