So my kid wants to be…a politician?
March 26, 2021 8:33 PM   Subscribe

Kid is a high school senior, about to start at a highly selective college, considering majors in political science and/or economics. When asked where he sees himself in the future, he says that he's very into national-level (left to far-left) politics, and is considering becoming a politician. This is a world I know zero about, and I can offer him exactly no guidance. What do you tell a kid like that? What should he study? What should he know and/or do now, as he prepares to start college?
posted by BlahLaLa to Education (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Best answer: Typically, many politicians have law degrees, but that's not universal. In my state we have elected officials who have been:

- Executive Directors of affordable housing non-profits
- Former software company executives
- Teachers
- Executive Directors of immigrant rights organizations
- Veterans
- Chicken farmers
- Prosecutors
- Labor Leaders
- Small business owners

I would advise your son to intern for a politician, work on political campaigns, get involved supporting issues he cares about. He'll need to build a base of people who want to see him get elected, so he needs to network and create allies. To be a successful politician he will need to convince people that he can represent their interests, charm, charisma, a willingness to ask for money, digital/social media smarts, public speaking are all important.
posted by brookeb at 8:51 PM on March 26 [15 favorites]


Best answer: Along with what brookeb said, run for whatever office is available, even if it's local dogcatcher. A track record of winning elections is priceless. A career also-ran will no nowhere. Unless your kid is some kind of issue-oriented activist like Ralph Nader.
posted by Fukiyama at 8:54 PM on March 26 [4 favorites]


Best answer: He should get an internship and/or volunteer at a local politician's office. Almost all of the politicians where I live started this way. You learn the ropes and make connections.
posted by Toddles at 8:58 PM on March 26 [4 favorites]


Best answer: Join student council to see if he actually likes it
Read biographies by politicians
Practice public speaking and crowd connection - a job like tour guide for a summer can really hone these skills. Camp counsellor, too.
Take law classes
Keep his social media SUPER clean. Don’t be photographed with illegal substances, racist costumes, etc.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 9:13 PM on March 26 [15 favorites]


Best answer: Please please please steer him toward a _few_ courses in behavioral economics, and also: pedagogy. Pedagogy is the ultimate form of communication, and politicians are essentially communicators.
posted by amtho at 9:20 PM on March 26 [5 favorites]


Did he do Model UN, mock trial, or debate team in high school? Does he own a copy of Roberts Rules of order, Getting to Yes, and lots of other books about negotiation and political history?

And yeah, social media and criminal record SUPER SQUEAKY CLEAN.
posted by vrakatar at 9:21 PM on March 26 [5 favorites]


Besides getting involved with candidate campaigns, he can also be an activist in other ways, such as with the Dems, Democratic Socialists, Working Families Party, or any of many issue groups.

I wish that I had gotten involved at such a young age. Many colleges or states have Young Dem groups.

But be prepared, because many of the entry- and lower-level jobs pay poorly. If he works in data for social change, until he runs, that might be less competitive than other related jobs.

He can consider geography -- targeting a district that he think would be appropriate for him to run in at a suitable time, and laying down roots there.
posted by NotLost at 9:31 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Political Science makes sense as a major. He should get on debate team to learn how to debate and perform verbal and mental acrobatics in front of large groups of people. Young Dem groups are a great idea to get plugged into more opportunities. As others have said, he should run for office—college is a great place to start, and he can work his way up as a freshman (e.g. start on the student senate and go for president in senior year).

Outside of college, he should pursue political internships—maybe local to his college during the school year, federal in the summer (though I believe White House internships are available fall and spring as well). If he’s more interested in local politics, he should look up internships at the mayor’s or governor’s office. Political
internships can be competitive, so he should research and set goals for the programs he wants to get into well beforehand.

Leadership and law summer programs/fellowships may also help. If he’s at all interested in the policy side of politics, PPIA is a great program. The programs listed under the law section here are worth shooting for (because, as someone mentioned upthread, a lot of people who want to be politicians go to law school).

In short, he should consistently practice public speaking, practice facing a lot of rejection and rolling on ahead, practice campaigning for himself and others, and research competitive undergrad programs now so he can have what he needs to get into those programs when it’s time to apply.
posted by saltypup at 10:11 PM on March 26 [2 favorites]


As far as being an effective politician? No clue. But as far as being a beneficial one, seek out those without political power and listen to them. Might be effective too, I dunno.

Nick Licata's book "Being a Citizen Activist" might be of interest on the citizen / politician ecosystem, not that we have to take it as given.
posted by away for regrooving at 11:45 PM on March 26 [3 favorites]


If he's a left-to-far-left, he already knows that as a politician, so much of the work he'll do will involve advocating for constituents who lack access to the systems of bureaucracy. They won't be the people who call his office or attend city council meetings or snark at him on Twitter; they'll be people whose concerns are far enough from his world that he'll have to put in a lot of work just understanding how to advocate for them in ways that transcend the feel-good bandaid solution. Please, please encourage him to build real relationships with these sorts of folks: people whose lives and backgrounds aren't like his, whose concerns aren't his (even if they'll be helped by policy positions he advances nonetheless) — not just as a resume-building semester-long volunteer gig, but in a way that allows him to spend time getting to know the nuances and gray areas of their everyday lives that would be hidden even to a perceptive and sympathetic outsider.

(See, for example, Ted Conover's fantastic 1986 book Rolling Nowhere, in which he takes a year off from his undergrad anthropology program to do fieldwork with hobos and train hoppers, not as a Kerouac-wannabe but as a sincere, ethically engaged participant-observer. The journalism he's gone on to do over the course of his life is stunning and expansive, and an engaging read that your son might really enjoy. Or Matthew Desmond, who wrote Evicted. Same for Jeff Sharlet, whose Netflix series on the secretive evangelical Christian political group The Family came out in 2019 and is based on a book of the same name. His journalistic work draws from a keen ability to talk to people who are Not Like Him. It's that quality your son should cultivate, whether he's talking with wealthy donors, acquaintances from his own social milieu, or people who'd rarely find themselves in the same neighborhood as an actual politician, much less the same table. I'm a little bit sheepish to have listed three well-educated white men, but at the same time they're all from middle class families and have worked hard to give voice to lives and experiences that aren't their own, and if that's your son's background too, these guys might serve as valuable models.)
posted by knucklebones at 11:54 PM on March 26 [18 favorites]


Best answer: How confident is he in his own skin? If he's at all awkward or stilted, have him take a theater or improv class.
posted by coffeecat at 12:17 AM on March 27 [3 favorites]


Best answer: If he wants to be in politics, fanatical devotion, a degree in political science, a little luck, and a Young Dems post will get him there. He may discover after a campaign internship or three that actually running for office is way less fun, and he'd rather be behind the scenes. That's okay!

If he wants to be elected, speaking very practically, he will need a flexible source of income or business success and passive income. Many local offices are full-time jobs at a pathetic part-time salary, and running for office is a fundraising job.

The reason many politicians are lawyers isn't necessarily that they understand how to write laws. Legislative staff do most of the legalese-writing. Lawyers in private practice control their caseloads and can step away from their jobs for part-time legislative sessions or campaign crunch times. Business owners with employees continue to have income when they're not working. Both of these groups have lots of friends with disposable income they can donate.

Ordinary working-class folks face the daunting task of dropping their jobs in order to run for office. It's not fair, and campaign finance reform can help, but it'll take a long time.

If you are left or far left, it's twice as important because you will not be raising money the easy way from corporate interests and billionaires. You have to build your own, outsider infrastructure, and you can't starve to death on the way.

You are also going to lose policy fights -- a LOT.

You need to think of politics as a lifelong struggle, not just one election to win. It's not as simple as the more cynical or moderate path, where you attach yourself to a billionaire-friendly politician, fight for billionaire interests, and then get rewarded with fat donor lists when you run.

Have him select a community to live in and really get involved after he graduates, join local boards, get into civic associations, buy a house. Become a real person with a real job or a real business and a real family, then run for office. Many polisci grads are under the impression they can become policy experts and then drop in somewhere to run for office at 27. Elected officials are neighbors first, elected by neighbors. Qualifications and expertise are only part of the task.

But most importantly, have him think hard about who he's fighting for. Voters are better than you think at sniffing out politicians that want to be politicians. At the end of the day, it's the people you are working for -- and if you aren't working for the billionaires, you won't get their money. Find your own money, then you have freedom to fight for the voiceless.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 12:21 AM on March 27 [10 favorites]


When I was in college, people that were law and politics oriented would get up in the morning and read a print newspaper. It was the New York Times then, or they sometimes read the Wall Street Journal even if they were to the left. Today I would probably get the LA Times. But in print. It's different reading the first section through than it is reading the articles that pop up in your Twitter feed. I would get him one paper to come to the house now and continue it at college next year. It seems like sort of a weird and fuddy-duddy thing, carrying a print newspaper around, but letting people think what they want is a a skill too.
posted by BibiRose at 4:43 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]


Two academic majors offered by the University of California that I haven't seen offered above are Urban Planning and Community Studies. Both of these majors were very popular choices for my friends who went on to high level careers in politics.
posted by effluvia at 4:56 AM on March 27 [5 favorites]


“All politics is local.” The first step is to figure where to live. In terms of running for office, it’s easier to live in a small town than in New York City. Then, get involved in local politics there. Finding a local elected official is good, but getting involved with the local party is better. Having institutional support is better than having a single patron, no matter powerful. It also opens up other possibilities if he realizes he doesn’t like the kissing babies part of running for office - being a staffer, party chair, etc.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:50 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]


In addition to all the involvement suggested above maybe he should start talking to people in labor unions to see how they work.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 6:27 AM on March 27 [3 favorites]


Understanding the people you want to represent and fight for is critical and courses in the social sciences and in literature will help build a deeper understanding of the complexities of other people's lives, no matter how "woke" or anti-racist anti-sexist anti-capitalist he might think he is. Political science classes are often kinda like business classes in that you learn how to promote a product, any product.

And lots of history classes.
posted by mareli at 7:52 AM on March 27 [7 favorites]


Develop iceberg thick skin to insane below the belt criticism. You have to know yourself well.
Read Bill Clinton’s biography - connecting with people, developing quick rapport, making them feel good
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:25 PM on March 27


I would encourage him to be very deliberate about how he appears in social media.

Your son can get started now, by getting involved with his local government. For instance, he could advocate for a particular cause. I have a friend who made the comment once that they really learned how their city worked by talking to the person in charge of various domains (e.g. transportation). Just by talking to to the right people my friend was able to make meaningful policy changes in their community.

At some point, he could reach out to alums from his college who may be in politics or politics adjacent fields for an informational interview.

It would probably be advantageous to have at least partial fluency in Spanish.

Finally, he should probably expect to spend some time in D.C. For instance, schools like American University and George Washington University have semester in Washington programs. An advantage of being in DC during the school year over the summer is that there is much less competition for internships.
posted by oceano at 9:31 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]


I really really wish more politicians had had jobs that weren't in politics; a year working as a care assistant or a waiter would do a lot to connect him with the people who he wants to advocate for.
posted by Shark Hat at 7:23 AM on March 28 [4 favorites]


If your kid is left to far left and about to attend a highly selective college, your kid likely would benefit from spending time with folks who don’t have access to highly selective colleges. These schools may help students develop great theory, but any leftie really needs to be working in conjunction with and for poor folks, disenfranchised folks, Black and brown folks, LQBQIA+ folks, women, and so on. They would benefit from a real understanding of the lived realities for others. I don’t know if your kid is a cis man, but if so, your kid would benefit from a real understanding of toxic masculinity and how to overcome it. If your kid is white, he absolutely needs to understand his racial privilege. Your kid might need to learn how to listen.

I’d also urge your kid to think about the leftie politicians they admire and where they are. It’s going to be a lot easier to get elected in liberal communities than in any state-wide or national elections, so they should also think about doing work and growing roots in those places. They should also, frankly, think about how their highly selective college on their resume may look to disenfranchised folks who might be suspicious of their privilege.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:37 PM on March 28


I'd like to kindly argue a couple of points, and add a couple of more.

"Political science classes are often kinda like business classes in that you learn how to promote a product"

Political science is a social science based largely on statistics and/or microeconomic modeling. It's not professional training. There are some insights that might help someone in electoral politics (e.g., the median voter theorem), and a handful of programs (e.g. the University of Akron) with a major specifically designed for people planning to work on campaigns, but for the most part, there's no benefit for an elected official or candidate to having a political science degree, at least compared to a degree in similar fields like sociology, economics, history, or, for that matter, business. To the extent that it is helpful, it's primarily so in terms of understanding polling data, which, for a local candidate, is probably the least important part of the job.

"he should probably expect to spend some time in D.C."

This isn't *bad* advice. Especially from a resume standpoint, it'll make him more attractive as a potential employee. But in terms of actually representing constituents, it's at best hit-or-miss. You might get lucky and intern with a member of Congress dedicated to constituent service. More likely, you'll intern with a partisan hack, and even more likely than that, you'll intern at a think tank or something like that. That is super helpful if you have a specific interest in climate change or US-Thai trade relations, but much less so for serving on the local school board or city council. And regardless of where you intern, you'll almost certainly be exposed to hyperpartisan, politics-as-rival-sports-teams thinking that has poisoned the country's political discourse. (Side note: I'm not trying to make a both-sides-ism point here; it's absolutely one party's fault, but they've been so successful that the other party has no other option.) That's why I suggested getting involved locally before: local politics is much more about getting small things done than ideological grandstanding. You'll learn more about how to actually govern by getting a single stop light installed in a neighborhood than you will by attending 100 think tank symposia. And from an electability standpoint, how many times have you seen an expert in a field lose an election to an underqualified idiot because voters think the latter would be more fun to "have a beer with"?

One other thing that I'd like to point out is that being an elected official is an extremely precarious job. Your job is only secure until the next election, and a lot of times that's less than two years if you get primaried. Even if you're successful early, that could change at any time. When I was in college 20 years ago, I read a book hyping Blanche Lambert Lincoln as the future of the Democratic Party. Unless you live in Arkansas, you probably have no idea who that is, because she lost an election in 2010 and hasn't held office since. She won election to the House at age 32, to the Senate at age 38, and by age 50 was on to plan B. And again, that's someone who was so wildly successful that someone wrote a book about her. The majority of careers, even successful ones, flame out even earlier. It's not unlike pro sports in that respect, and just like athletes who "major in football", the wiser adults around them will suggest having a fallback plan. Otherwise, the fallback plan is almost certainly lobbying.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:13 PM on March 28


I think the distinction between being a political careerist and being an elected official. A political career may include working in campaigns and as support staff of elected officials. This path would not really be enhanced by running for office yourself. My friends who have taken this path currently work for elected and appointed officials at the federal and state level. A career as an elected official may include some of the same early steps, but the goal is always to find the next elected position. As a left to far left person, location is essential. While he would be able to run for local office in any major city, but state and federal positions would probably be limited to Blue Sates. If the place he grew up fits that, great. If not, he should be looking for that location as soon as he is out of college. He will need to spend a number of years building a network before he runs for anything in his adopted city.

Now, as to college, if the goal is the first path, a political science, economics, and/or critical history combo along with plenty of data science and communication courses should provide the basics. If the goal is to an elected official, major is pretty irrelevant. Skills in public speaking, critical thinking, history, and psychology are useful, but, as some other folks have said, college might be a great time to work on a back up plan, if the goal is elected office.
posted by hworth at 9:35 PM on March 28


Business courses, esp. accounting.

After college (assuming college), start a business. One where he has to convince a bank that he's worth backing and in which he will have to sign the front of checks. The business will likely fail, but he will have learned real stuff (impact of regulations, taxes, customer relations, long days, sleepless nights, societal corruption), and ideally have given people jobs (in itself a fine accomplishment).

Once it fails, or once it succeeds enough that he can pass it off to others, he will be better placed to enter public service.

George McGovern, lifetime progressive civil servant retired from the senate and started a B&B in Connecticut. It went bust. He later wrote that if he had known the impact of his legislation, he would not have voted for much that he voted for.

Moral of the story is, better to see first hand what government can do for and, more importantly, to the public before taking the wheel.
posted by BWA at 6:04 AM on March 29


Good advice above — join the debate team; volunteer; get involved in local politics and/or activism; subscribe to The Economist and read it from cover to cover every week to deepen understanding of topics like global politics, economics, and policy-relevant science...

As far as the 'be careful with social media' warnings go, they should also remember that thanks to facial recognition every photo and video of them will be personally identifiable by anybody by the time they are done with college, if not already. If there are people with phones around you, act like everything you do is on your permanent record.
posted by sindark at 10:59 PM on March 29 [1 favorite]


Depending on where you live, it might be worth checking out Contest Every Race, which is trying to get Democrats running in all those many places where Dems typically don't run.

You might also consider getting in touch with your local Democratic Party office to see if they have any trainings, or opportunities for young people to apprentice.

My very best wishes to your kid - I am SO INSPIRED by the many young people who are determined to make a difference! Please tell him I said "thank you"!
posted by kristi at 5:56 PM on April 3


Response by poster: I could have marked them all best answer. Thank you!
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:25 AM on May 12


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