What happens to a democracy if no one wants to run for office?
The League of Women Voters Minneapolis doesn’t want to find out.
The League (LWV) held its first “Civic Buzz” discussion Tuesday night to explore the reasons behind a shrinking number of young office holders in legislatures around the country.
Thirty-year-old Matthew Bergeron, who has worked on numerous state legislative campaigns and sought a DFL endorsement for a Minnesota House seat in 2014, spoke to a gathering of about 40 LWV and community members about young Americans’ hesitancy toward running at the Black Forest Inn in Minneapolis.
“It really is the finances,” Bergeron said. “It’s especially a big barrier to younger folks because of student loan obligations.”
Many recent college graduates and Americans in their 20s can’t afford to take time off of work to campaign, or they are just getting settled into a new life with a new home or spouse, Bergeron said.
“Legislators get voted out when they vote pay raises for themselves, so the compensation is tough,” he said. “It’s hard to take that voluntary pay cut.”
Minnesota legislator salary currently sits at just over $31,000. Older Americans are able to tolerate that pay scale and take the risk of campaigning because they already have some financial stability, Bergeron said.
“You see a lot of retired folks with some sort of pension,” he said. “When you’re young, you don’t have a lot of rich friends. You’re cajoling, 50 bucks here, 50 bucks there.”
But there are other reasons why younger people may lack enthusiasm for political life.
“The narrative we see is about stalemate and entrenchment,” Bergeron said, so people get discouraged very easily.
He also said the pressure of a campaign can be too much to handle.
“Putting yourself out there to be judged, to be judged in front of big crowds, can be daunting at times,” Bergeron said. He recalled from his own experience that he didn’t want to flounder spectacularly or constantly beg for money, but he ended up learning a lot from his campaign.
“There are way worse things in your career than a gracious loss,” Bergeron said. “I think I gained standing in the community. I didn’t close any doors because I failed.”
Only three out of 134 representatives in the Minnesota House are age 30 or younger, and only 17 are age 40 or younger.
None of Minnesota’s 67 state senators are younger than 30, and only four are younger than 40.
Part of LWV’s mission statement is to encourage informed and active participation in government, so the group has a particular interest in promoting engagement, especially among younger generations.
LWVMpls Communications Director Mary Juhl said that goal is vitally important in this election year, when discussions about major issues and public policy need to be “as accessible as possible.”
“There aren’t very many groups that specifically look at voter engagement,” Juhl said.
The “Civic Buzz” discussion series is aimed at getting more people to come out and join the conversation as a starting point for political attentiveness.
“We certainly want to talk about issues, but we also want to focus on our primary mission,” Juhl said. “There’s no one-stop shop for everything you need to know.”
While brainstorming possible ways to increase younger Americans’ political ambition, LWV members suggested some educational mandates. One recommendation was making civics, economics, and public policy courses prerequisites for high school graduation.
When Bergeron said his first successful campaign earned him a seat on his first-grade student council, the group proposed that more schools embrace such opportunities to teach students about the election process.
Other ideas were drawn from a book by Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox, titled “Running From Office: Why Young Americans are Turned off to Politics.”
One of the authors’ objectives, “Political Ambitions—Put That in Your Bong and Smoke It,” said one solution may be to “link political aptitude to the college application process, which would send a clear message that young people are expected to know something about politics.”
However, Bergeron said a person’s upbringing may also be largely responsible for determining his or her level of interest in government, and that it may be difficult to stimulate curiosity in someone who was never introduced to politics in the home.
“Most of the politically engaged people I know came from families that were politically engaged,” he said. “We are very much a reflection of our parents in that sense.”
Yet Bergeron said this doesn’t mean future generations will increasingly shun politics. In fact, he said the largest reason people get in the game is because their perspective changes after they have kids.
This means that some young Americans who are apathetic today will eventually have a new source of motivation that leads them to run for office.
“It’s not because the world’s not good enough for them,” Bergeron said. “It’s because it’s not good enough for their kids.”
LWV’s next “Civic Buzz” discussion will be centered on those kids. The topic is education, school culture, and what it takes to make schools more successful.
The guest speaker will be Nathan Eklund, founder and president of Eklund Consulting, a firm that works primarily with schools and leadership development.
LWVMpls invites anyone interested in civic engagement to the event on Tuesday, March 8. It will be held at the Black Forest Inn with networking at 5:30 pm and discussion at 6:15 pm.