THE BLOG

House of Cards, West Wing and the Millennial Generation

02/20/2015 02:06 pm ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015
ASSOCIATED PRESS

As a card-carrying millennial, I wait with anticipation for February 27, when I can binge-watch the entire third season of House of Cards on my parents' Netflix account. My generation, cynical of politics, is fixated with the manipulative, calculating Frank Underwood, a modern day Willie Stark. Gone are the days of "walk and talks" and the soaring rhetoric of The West Wing, the idealistic icon of a generation past.

A CNN/ORC poll released in August 2014 put public trust in government at 13 percent, an all-time low. Compare this to 42 percent at the height of the Clinton administration and 73 percent towards the end of the Eisenhower administration. Congressional approval rating, now at 22 percent, has not risen above 30 percent in the last three years. It is no wonder House of Cards is my generation's West Wing.

But millennials' views of public service are more complex. A recent poll from Harvard's Institute of Politics confirms millennials' distaste for politics: a mere 33 percent said, if asked, "They would volunteer for a campaign." Though, if asked to "volunteer for community service to support a worthy cause," 67 percent responded "yes." Furthermore, when asked which they thought was "the better way to solve important issues facing the country," only 18 percent said political engagement.

While millennials' civic enthusiasm is heartening, the broader implications are troubling. In 2015, the federal government will spend about $3.7 trillion. Over his lifetime, Bill Gates has given away over $28 billion. That's how much the federal government spends in three days. Millennial dismissal of politics as a means to make change ignores the simple truth that government, unlike the private and non-profit sectors, is the legislative and financial center of power in the United States.

To be clear: We need good people serving with AmeriCorps, volunteering in homeless shelters, and joining the Peace Corps. We also need good people running for mayor, working at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and serving in our embassies abroad. Ideally, we would have people who do both. In fact, the people who have experience serving soup to homeless men and women may well be the best people to write social policy. But they must be willing to exchange their spoon for a pen.

To blame millennials' pivot away from politics on Washington, as many do, is understandable. The 113th Congress was the most inefficient Congress since the 112th Congress, which was the most inefficient in history. However, one should note American political apathy is not a new phenomenon. Traveling the U.S. in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed Americans "find it a tiresome inconvenience to exercise political rights which distract them from industry..." Not much has changed.

Since the 1960s, America's civic health has, by most measures, declined dramatically. Of 172 world democracies, America ranks 139th in percentage of citizens who vote. Only 24 percent of Americans identified Janet Yellen as the chair of the Federal Reserve, while 17 percent thought it was Alan Greenspan, who stepped down in 2006. Perhaps, dysfunction in Washington can partially be attributed to American's disinterest in politics.

As we anticipate February 27, we should remember the words echoed by President Obama, poet June Jordan, and civil rights activists before them: we are the ones we have been waiting for. There is no backup millennial generation waiting on the wings, ready to jump in when we stumble. Every vote we do not cast is cast by someone else. Every debate we do not have is decided by someone else. Every office we do not run for will be held by someone else. The future of politics -- House of Cards, The West Wing or some unwritten, binge-worthy show -- is ours for the taking. So let's take it.