Millennials' Distrust of Government is Leading to a Congress That Doesn't Understand Us


recent survey conducted by Harvard revealed that while 69% of 18-29 year olds believed community service was an honorable thing to do, only 35% felt that way about running for office. This has real ramifications for the make-up of our legislatures. A recent article in Salon explained that Congress is getting older not because incumbent members are sticking around longer, but because the age of incoming members is rising.

It is worth considering the impact of having telecommunications and internet policy drafted by politicians who are still “learning to get online” and leaving foreign policy decisions to people whose views were shaped and developed during the Cold War. Stephen Marche made the case earlier this year that these trends have also led to “30 years of economic and social policy that has been rigged to serve the comfort and largesse of the old at the expense of the young.” So where are the millennials who should be beating down the doors to the Capitol?

Some have suggested that the absence of young people in elected office is all about economics. Older Americans have gone from out-earning their younger counterparts by 10 times in the mid-'80s to nearly 50 times in 2008. This migration of wealth from young to old has occurred alongside a dramatic growth in the cost of running a successful campaign, with political spending in House and Senate races increasing eight-fold between 1970 and 2000.

This alone does not seem to explain the systemic aging of our legislatures, however. The technology booms of the '90s and aughts also produced a record number of young millionaires and billionaires. Yet they have chosen to stay out of elected office in far greater numbers than wealthy members of previous generations. Why?

I have a theory. The millennial generation has come of age in an America influenced by a conservative ideology that changed our views about the role of public and private civil society. Heather McGhee, the Washington Director of Demos, has observed, “[T]he most pernicious effect of the Reagan revolution was to take the horizon of public policy solutions off the table entirely. We know that there are problems, but we no longer imagine that there are public policy solutions to them.” This is a profoundly different vision of American government than that which animated the New Deal and Great Society.

The modern Republican Party’s commitment to shrinking the size and scope of the public sector has led them to shake our confidence in key government institutions. The GOP has been able to convince the public that the government is corrupt and ineffective, in part by making the government corrupt and ineffective. This campaign has disproportionately affected the generation of young people who have been forging their views about politics over the last 15 years. Gallup reports that cynicism and negativity toward the government has been building for over a decade, recently culminating in “record or near-record criticism of Congress, elected officials, government handling of domestic problems, the scope of government power, and government waste of tax dollars.”

This phenomenon parallels another recent trend: the rise of the independent voter. Research has long shown that despite the conventional wisdom, self-identified independents actually behave much more like weak partisans than they do like hyper-informed mavericks. The ranks of these “independents” have grown dramatically over the last 20 years, and much of that growth has been concentrated among young Americans. In 2009, Gallup found “more than one-third of the youngest Americans identify as independents, a percentage that drops steadily as the population ages, reaching a low of around 20% among those 80 years of age and older.”

This is not entirely bad news. Even as they have lost faith in our political parties, young Americans have flocked to other forms of civic engagement. The Corporation for National and Community Service reports that volunteer rates for 16- to 24-year-olds has nearly doubled over the last 20 years. In many ways, volunteerism has become second nature to the Millennial generation, taking the place of more traditional political involvement.

But the challenge remains for those who want to see young Americans in Congress. To reverse these trends, we must actively promote the belief that public policy and institutions of government have a powerful and positive role to play in American life. The graying of the House and Senate shows that allowing conservatives to demean public service, institutionalize gridlock, and breed public cynicism will drive away the young and idealistic. This vacuum hands power over to increasingly older politicians with entrenched views and distinct generational interests that do not represent the largest generation in American history.

This essay originally appeared in Next New Deal, a project of the Roosevelt Institute.