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Parents don’t want their kids to become politicians, upcoming American Family Survey finds

Annual national survey to be released from Washington, D.C., offer insights into pandemic, racial unrest, family life

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President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden.

President Donald Trump, left, and Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden are pictured in these 2020 file photos.

Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Children who dream of one day becoming president — or serving in Congress or down at City Hall — might find their parents balk at the very idea.

The vast majority of Americans — a whopping 90% — don’t want their children to pursue politics as a career when they grow up, according to a preview of the upcoming American Family Survey.

Now in its sixth year, the annual survey is a collaboration between the Deseret News and Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, conducted by YouGov. The full results of the 2020 American Family Survey will be released Sept. 22 at 11 a.m. EDT in an event streamed from the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

The nationally representative sampling of 3,000 adults looks at American family life against the backdrop of current events, tracking attitudes and trends on issues as diverse as racial unrest, personal relationships and family life, the economy and politics, among others.

This year’s survey also contains some of the only data on how the pandemic has actually impacted families, according to Boyd Matheson, Deseret News opinion editor. He said would-be presidential candidates should pay attention to what the American family thinks in this “divisive and consequential” election.

That most parents would rather their children not pursue political office marks a considerable change from 25 years ago. In 1995, surveys found nearly a third of Americans would be pleased if their son sought public office, while just over a quarter would be happy if their daughter became a politician.

“I think the reason to care about this question is not actually to get the answer to what parents want their kids to be when they grow up. It’s more an indicator of how people feel about politics right now. Is it an honorable area? Is it a poor life choice?” said Jeremy Pope, co-director of the center and co-author of the upcoming survey report.

What’s interesting, he added, is what it says about how people feel about politics and politicians right now.

“What I take away from this question is that people are not very impressed with politics —and why should they be? This thing that I study has been kind of a disaster over the last few years. People certainly talk about it in partisan terms, but lots of politicians and government leaders — across the partisan spectrum — have failed on so many fronts, why wouldn’t you want your kid to avoid that?” he said.

Political aspirations and race

The survey found adults have also lost some of their own taste for a political run. While roughly 1 in 12 said their desire to run has increased as a result of current events, 1 in 4 said the desire has decreased.

And Blacks and Hispanics are both more likely than whites to say that one of their children could become president. Among Blacks, 40% say a daughter and 35% say a son could be president. Somewhat more Hispanics believe their son could become president compared to a daughter, 33% to 27%. Fewer whites think a son or daughter could become president, but the girls have the edge, 26% compared to 23% for the boys.

Tim Chambless, a University of Utah political science professor, remembers being told as a young boy in Houston that he could be president. He doesn’t hear parents tell their kids that often these days.

He thinks there’s been an erosion of trust in government over time. For years, he’s asked college students in his classes what they think politics is. The answer he gives them is “problem-solving.”

Government can solve many problems and people have been able to take hard problems to elected officials, he said, where the political process can find answers. But he thinks many Americans have become disillusioned with politics.

Still, groups that used to be cut out of politics have broken through at different levels, he said. Blacks have seen a Black president and vice presidential candidate. Hispanics have made inroads in various levels of political office, though not the presidency. And females now hold many elected offices and one ran for president in 2016, he said. Those all boost confidence that winning high office is possible, for yourself or for your children.

Pope said that younger respondents from all the racial groups are more cynical about politics than are older Americans.

In light of racial unrest, the survey asked if the importance of race to a person’s identity changed and to what degree families protested or discussed Black Lives Matter. It also asked Americans about racial inequality and how important it is to the issues families face.

Perception matters and the survey findings include a look at how white and Black Americans and Republicans and Democrats perceive racial obstacles.

Family life

The survey will answer other questions, including what families think of local, state and federal responses to COVID-19, and whether marriages have become more or less healthy because of the pandemic.

The survey also asks about family relationships, how couples spend time together and concerns, including to what degree parents worry about their children becoming successful adults.

“I think the American Family Survey is really coming into its own in the current year, because we are starting to see patterns come to fruition,” said Pope, who noted that the survey is now old enough to show patterns in family life and how attitudes change over time.

The survey’s advisory committee includes Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute, Marcy Carlson of the University of Virginia, Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution and Brad Wilcox of the American Enterprise Institute and the University of Virginia.

More information is available at Deseret.com/AFS, where previous surveys are also available.