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This interview will make Leslie Knope cry

Listen up, snake people: if you don't run for office, you'll never meet Leslie Knope.
Listen up, snake people: if you don't run for office, you'll never meet Leslie Knope.
Colleen Hayes/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

In their new book Running From Office, political scientists Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox sift through new survey and interview data and find that millennials — or, depending on your browser extensions, "snake people" — loathe politics. They don't respect politicians. They don't want to run for office. They don't want to follow political news. They don't even want to talk with their friends about politics. Kids today would literally prefer to be a high school principal than a member of Congress.

I spoke with Lawless about the book by phone. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Ezra Klein: So why are you worried that we’re not going to have more snake people running for president?

Jennifer Lawless: I’m not concerned that we won’t have enough people to occupy the positions. I’m concerned that young people don’t view electoral office as a way to make change and improve society. I’m worried that the best and the brightest won’t throw their hats into the ring.

When you poll this generation, 89 percent say they are not interested in running for office in the future. That number matters. Studies in other fields show the career preferences people express in their teens actually map pretty well into the professions they choose as adults.

The tricky thing is figuring out if this is worse than it was before. As far as we know, this is the first study testing young people’s interest in running for office. We can’t compare this to Generation X or the boomers.

EK: Let me push on this a bit. I think if you polled teenagers and asked if they wanted to be an astronaut or a rock star, they would say yes. But very few people actually try to become astronauts or rock stars. And so I wonder how much these abstract poll questions tell us.

If politics was like law or medicine, where you needed to go to grad school to prepare, I could see these questions as being good guides to future behavior. But my sense is that people often get into politics because they see a way into it, and it makes logical sense. So I wonder if comparing it to more normal jobs with more normal paths is actually comparing apples and oranges.

JL: That’s a fair point. But that’s why we asked about this issue in a lot of different ways. We gave the kids a list of 24 jobs and asked which they would consider for the future — things like business owner, journalist, doctor, mechanic, professional athlete, mayor of a small town, and so on. And we found a lot of people were interested in multiple positions. But the political positions fared pretty poorly. Mayor ranked highest — and it was only 12th on the list.

We also asked them, if the following jobs paid the same amount of money, which would you like to do: business owner, mayor of a small town, teacher, or salesperson? Only 10 percent chose mayor.

When we asked a similar question with higher-echelon positions — business executive, lawyer, member of Congress, or high school principal — members of Congress came in last. So given that the evidence is so consistent across these questions, I am really confident we are seeing a disinterest in running for office.

EK: High school principal beat out member of Congress?

JL: Yes! I would think that would be the worst job in the entire world.

EK: To ask a broader question, you’re worried that disinterest in politics will push the most qualified candidates out of the running. But politics has never been a meritocracy. You used to have to rise up through the local party machinery, and now it selects for people who are great at raising money and inoffensive to party activists. I think if you asked most Americans to look at Congress now, they would not tell you that we've managed to pick the 535 most impressive men and women in the country.

JL: I have two reactions to that. The first is that you just described national politics, which is the lens most young people use to look at politics as a whole. But the reality is there are only 537 federal offices and more than half a million local and statewide elected offices.

EK: Half a million?

JL: Yes. More than 500,000 elected state and local positions. And so these 537 positions in Washington are, in a lot of ways, an unfortunate anomaly — not just because the people in them often don’t behave that well, but because they get all the attention. Policymaking at the state and local level does require really good people, and those races don’t have a lot of the factors that turn people off of politics. But people don’t know about them.

EK: Something your data doesn’t really go into is whether these attitudes toward elected political positions bleed over into attitudes toward working for government agencies. That’s a place where I really do worry about the best candidates simply steering clear of government work — because we really do need good people in state transportation agencies and administering Medicare. And that’s true even if, and maybe especially if, Congress is collapsing into gridlock and dysfunction.

JL: What emerged in the survey and the interviews was that these kids thought Washington was dysfunctional — and I’m not sure they made any kind of distinction between the administration and Congress and people working in the agencies. It was just that the city puts out a bad vibe, and if you want to change the world, this is not how you go about it.

EK: But why do people think that? If you look at these last, say, five years and compare them with most five-year stretches in American history, a lot of people’s lives have been improved by politics.

About 16 million more people have health insurance. Gays and lesbians can marry. A war that young people absolutely hated by the end of the Bush administration has been ended. We did a much better job than in the Great Depression of stopping a financial crisis from becoming an economic collapse.

And even if you disagree with a lot of those policies, they nevertheless show how consequential the decisions made in American politics are. So why do you think kids don’t see politics as more of an avenue for social change?

JL: It’s about heightened exposure to the most egregious examples of political malpractice. We’ve gotten to a point where it takes about five seconds before somebody who wants to find out something about the political system happens across bad news.

If you’re a casual consumer of news and you’re just looking at your Facebook feed, chances are you’re not reading a headline about the successes of Obamacare. And if you’re a political junkie and you’re choosing what you want to see, you might see successes from your side, but you also see a lot of outrage from other people. It’s all just disagreement. When we asked kids in these interviews whether they talked politics with their friends, they said, basically, "Why would we want to do that? Then we’d just argue, and I don’t want to argue with my friends."

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