Just say run: How to overcome cynicism and inspire young people to run for office

Ask young people whether they would ever consider running for office and this is what you’ll hear:

Politicians are just liars.
Most politicians are hypocrites.
People in politics are two-faced.
It’s about lying, cheating, getting nothing done. That’s not how I want to spend my time.
I don’t even want to think about a career in politics.
I’d rather milk cows than run for office.

These are not hypothetical responses. They are the words of a handful of the more than 4,000 high school and college students we surveyed and interviewed for our new book, Running from Office: Why Young Americans Are Turned Off to Politics. Having come of age in a political context characterized by hyper-partisanship, gridlock, stalemate, and scandal, the overwhelming majority of 13 to 25 year olds view the political system as ineffective, broken, and downright nasty. As a consequence, nine out of 10 will not even consider running for office. They’d rather do almost anything else with their lives.

This should sound alarm bells about the health of our democracy. The United States has more than half a million elective positions. And most people who become candidates don’t go through life never thinking about politics and then wake up one morning and decide to throw their hats into the ring. The idea has usually been percolating for a long time, often since adolescence.

In the final chapter of the book, we offer a series of recommendations that could stimulate political ambition and help chart a new course. Here, we summarize three. They are all major endeavors and will require substantial funding and deep commitment from government officials, entrepreneurs, educators, and activists. But each has the potential to change young people’s attitudes toward politics. At the very least, we hope to trigger a national conversation about how to show the next generation that politics is about more than men behaving badly in the nation’s capital.

1. Launch the YouLead Initiative: Since John F. Kennedy signed an executive order in 1961establishing the Peace Corps, the organization has sent hundreds of thousands of Americans abroad “to tackle the most pressing needs of people around the world.” AmeriCorps has deployed 800,000 Americans to meet similar domestic needs. And Teach for America has recruited thousands of citizens to “build the movement to eliminate educational inequity.” Together, these programs send a strong signal that the government values, and American society depends on, public service. If we want to put the next generation on the path to politics, then what better way than by demonstrating that running for office is just as valuable, effective, and noble a form of public service?

Whether developed as a government program, non-profit endeavor, or corporate project, a two-pronged national campaign—we call it the YouLead Initiative—could send a strong signal to young people that running for office is a worthwhile way to serve the community, country, and world. The first piece would entail a technologically savvy media campaign that changes perceptions of politics. When young people think about government, they conjure up images of self-interested, egotistical conservatives fighting self-interested, egotistical liberals in a broken system to the point of paralysis. Placing the spotlight on local and state-level leaders—most of whom are not professional politicians—would convey that many elected officials care about their communities and are making positive change. In addition, a series of fun public service announcements in which parents, teachers, public figures, and celebrities encourage young people to think about a future in politics would reinforce the message. Second, regional and state coordinators for YouLead could identify high school and college students who have already exhibited leadership success—those in student government, captains of sports teams, members of debate and mock trial teams, those participating in drama and music clubs. At a regional conference, they would be encouraged to channel their leadership capabilities into electoral politics. The program could even capitalize on their competitive spirit by hosting a national conference to which regional participants could apply.

2. Make Political Aptitude Part of the College Admission Process: The primary educational goal of most 12-17 year olds is to attend college (85% of the high school students we surveyed planned to go). But the five key ingredients in a college application—high school grades, standardized test scores, extra-curricular activities, personal essays, and letters of recommendation—make it entirely possible for students to apply to, and be accepted at, even the most prestigious schools without any political interest or knowledge. You can’t find Iraq on a map? That’s okay. You don’t know the name of the vice president? No big deal. You’re unfamiliar with which political party controls Congress? Don’t worry about it. Why not link political aptitude to the college application process, either in the form of a new component to the SAT or ACT, an additional exam, or an essay about public affairs? The vehicle is almost incidental. What matters is that it would force young people to take news and political information seriously.

Linking college admission, even in some small way, to political awareness could pay off. We found that young people with more exposure to politics—at home, at school, with their friends, and through the media—are far more likely to be interested in running for office. Sure, they see the same negative aspects of contemporary politics as everyone else. But they also see some examples of politicians behaving well, elected officials solving problems, and earnest, well-meaning candidates aspiring to improve their communities. The habit of staying politically informed might fade once students submit their college applications, but it might not. And there is no downside for colleges and universities to take the position that to be successful citizens, students must be connected to the world around them. In fact, a similar approach has generated a sense of volunteerism among many high school students. Of the roughly 75% of high school seniors who do some sort of community service, many start these efforts with the hope of “impressing” college admission officers.

3. Develop the GoRun App: We live in the era of the app. You can upload photos, request an Uber, find cheap airline tickets, locate the closest Mexican restaurant, or listen to your favorite music with the simple touch of an app. And young people do. Eighty-one percent of people under the age of 25 sleep with their phone next to them on the bed; 74% reach for their smartphones as the first thing they do when they wake up; and 97% of teens regularly use smartphones in the bathroom to check messages. There’s no activity, time of day, or location that is out of bounds for young people’s smartphone and app use. So, let’s take advantage of the digital world young people inhabit by creating an app that helps them identify political offices and informs them about how to run for them.

Surprisingly, it is quite difficult to find out what elected positions exist in any given community, let alone determine the responsibilities associated with each or the nuts and bolts involved in running for them. No central database houses this information. The GoRun app would allow users to enter an address and receive a complete list of all the elected positions representing that residence—from the local school board all the way up to president of the United States. Clicking on each position would result in a description of the office, a set of core responsibilities, and information about the logistics and rules required to run. Figuring out how to become a candidate would literally be at our fingertips. Educators could easily incorporate the app into their curricula. And young people who are even the least bit curious about how to run for office would not have to engage in a fact-finding mission. This easy-to-access information would showcase the thousands of electoral opportunities that have nothing to do with dysfunction in Washington, DC.

Our political system has done a number on young people. It has turned them off to the idea of running for office, discouraged them from aspiring to be elected leaders, and alienated them from even thinking about a career in politics. Steering a new course will be difficult, but being creative about how we do it is the only choice we have.