LEWISTON — Even the most politically astute young people are wary of getting involved in politics, says a political scientist who visited Bates College on Tuesday.
Cynical and perhaps a little too clear-eyed, they see a broken system they’re not convinced they can fix, said Shauna Shames, an assistant professor at the University of Rutgers-Camden in New Jersey.
“They’re so disillusioned,” she said, wary of a system they see as manipulated by the wealthy, corporations and special interests.
“They’re not wrong, but it doesn’t work if you don’t go in and change it,” Shames said during an interview at the Harward Center for Community Partnerships at Bates.
Shames is the author of “Out of the Running: Why Millennials Reject Political Careers and Why it Matters,” a book published last year based on research she did for her 2104 Ph.D. from Harvard University.
She said she surveyed more than 500 young people in the Boston area who already showed a keen interest in public policy and law to find out what they thought about politics. She interviewed more than 50 of them in depth.
What she found, she said, disturbed her.
“I found it kind of depressing,” Shames said.
She said that only 43 percent of the men she canvassed thought politics could solve problems facing society. Bad as that was, Shames said, only a third of women agreed and only one in four women of color endorsed the idea.
Few had any thought of ever running for political office — especially anything beyond the local level — because they saw the personal toll of doing so as exceeding any value the position might have, Shames said.
They don’t see politics as the way to bring about a better society or a better life for themselves.
“They’re idealistic young people and they fear being co-opted” by a system that often doesn’t value authenticity.
Shames said there is a real “ick factor” at play that makes it so political careers strike many as a way to find themselves indebted to corporations and lobbyists rather than a path to a brighter future.
Shames said she understood where they were coming from.
Going to high school in the 1990s, she said, she was one of many talented young people who heard at some point they might be president someday. But when she saw what happened to Hillary Clinton as first lady and then as both a U.S. senator and a presidential contender, she shuddered.
“It just seemed awful,” Shames said, of all the animosity directed at Clinton constantly.
The issue, she said, is that “we have made running for office so enormously costly,” both in financial and personal terms.
“It’s very rational that they don’t want to run,” she said, and understandable why they don’t think politicians can solve important societal issues.
Instead of eyeing careers in politics, she said, those she spoke with were more inclined to seek entrepreneurial opportunities, jobs with nonprofits or even working for the government as employees rather than lawmakers.
For the country as a whole, the problem with so many talented people rejecting the option of seeking office is clear: It opens the door for those who don’t have the same level of talent, honesty and smarts.
“You wind up electing people you don’t want,” Shames said.
Women were particularly reluctant to pursue something in politics, she said, because they saw the costs of doing so even higher than the men do. They worry more about persistent sexism and the necessity of beating the bushes for campaign cash, something few enjoy but women are even less inclined to do, Shames said.
But she sees a ray of hope, too.
She said the 2016 presidential election seems to have spurred more young people to get involved and there are signs that more are getting into the political fray as both candidates and activists.
She said that once young people get involved in campaigns, they often find the energy involved inspiring. From that, she said, they begin to see hope for something better down the line.
They learn, if they’re lucky, Shames said, that “politics doesn’t just happen. You make it happen.”
Maybe the country is at a crisis point, a window of opportunity, at which the voices of young people will break through and a new generation might embrace politics in a way that hasn’t been seen since the youth movements in the 1960s and 1970s, she said.
Events such as the election of Donald Trump as president and the mass killings at a Parkland, Florida, high school seem to sparked a new interest nationally.
The Parkland shootings in particular, appear to have served as “a wake-up call” for a new generation that isn’t content to sit back, that isn’t trapped by an inertia that holds it back, Shames said.
“A crisis moment can shake young people,” she said. Coming from “a place of real anger and fear,” Shames said, they have the potential to force change.
At root, though, young people have to believe the country’s democratic system is worth saving.
If they don’t, America’s experiment in self-government may fail, she said.
But if they do, Shames said, they need “to go in and save it.”
“It could go either way,” she said. “Our democracy faces a great danger right now.”
Shauna Shames (Courtesy photo)