Here's How Millennials Can Redefine What Democracy Looks Like in the 21st Century

Here's How Millennials Can Redefine What Democracy Looks Like in the 21st Century
Source: AP
Source: AP

The "Pass the Mic" series showcases voices, perspectives and ideas that spark interesting conversations. 

As an 80-year-old guy who has lived through struggle and transformation, I've been spending a lot of my time talking with America's young people. Our conversations always come back to the same point: that a number of issues critical to their future need to be discussed, debated and acted upon, but it's just not happening. Issues of climate change, global terrorism, racial and economic disparities, failing public education, mass incarceration and unequal access to the new tech economy are all being vibrantly debated on college campuses and on the streets, but not in the halls of Congress, where it matters the most.

This has not always been the case in America's politics. I have the distinction of serving as the poster child for bipartisanship, referenced by former Republican colleagues as someone who changed their positions because of my willingness to deal with them with respect and integrity. 

George H.W. Bush meets with the Congressional Black Caucus in 1989. Ronald V. Dellums, left. Alan Wheat, right.
Source: Barry Thumma/AP

In my 27 years in Congress, I was able to stay true to my radical values and positions while also being able to reach across the aisle. We were able to tackle major problems such as military defense and other national security priorities, apartheid in South Africa and the global HIV and AIDS pandemic, and arrive at common solutions. The road to garnering enough majority House votes to address these problems required great perseverance and the removal of one's ego. But that was the sacred and honorable job that we were elected to do and we understood that the fate of America's democracy rested on our shoulders.

From my perch of history, I firmly believe that restoring a functioning democratic process in Congress can only be achieved with integrity through the leadership of millennials. We need America's young people to come together to create a Preserve America's Democracy Act that would include a new system for financing campaigns, address the issue of gerrymandering and implement a new Voting Rights Act.

On campaign financing

As one of the first Democratic Socialists to serve in Congress and an early sponsor of federal campaign finance reform, I am excited about current discussions regarding the corrosive effect of big money on the body politic — 1% of 1% of Americans fund 28% of campaign contributions. I have believed for a long time that public financing of campaigns is the only way for us to level the playing field, of having funds come from all the people so that governing can actually benefit all people.

Ronald V. Dellums in 1971.
Source: Charles Gorry/AP

Public financing of elections has already existed in places like Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, Vermont and Portland, Oregon, serving as the basis for the federal Fair Elections Now Act that has been pending in Congress. We need America's young people like those who are a part of groups like NBA star Adonal Foyle's Democracy Matters to lead the battle for public financing of political campaigns. That's the only way to ensure that congressional representatives truly represent the interests of the people.

Proposing a new Voting Rights Act

What I've said to young people is if you really want honest policy debate and discussion in this country on the big issues like racial discrimination, income inequality and climate change, why don't you take on the responsibility of writing a new Voting Rights Act? The last one was written over 50 years ago. 

We need millennial superpowers to answer questions fundamental to America's democracy. How would you define political representation in 2016? Would you continue to have the electoral college or would you like to see people elected directly so that every single vote counted the same? How long should polls stay open to facilitate democracy? What would enfranchisement look like for people with criminal records? How would you use technology to handle identification in a way that would not be intimidating and burdensome?

Under our current system, only 40% to 60% of eligible Americans vote. Would you make voting mandatory like in 22 countries including Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Greece and Mexico? What if over 90% of the American people voted in elections? Who would represent us then?

On gerrymandering

Gerrymandering has thoroughly destroyed any incentive for bipartisan debate and action. There is no incentive to engage in cooperation or conversation because representatives in gerrymandered districts have to go back home and deal with the challenge of somebody who says, "You're dealing with the enemy." Through this practice, we've created the kind of psyche and environment that demonizes people of diverse perspectives rather than embracing them as fellow Americans we must work with to advance national interests. 

A case in point is a recent ruling by a federal district court finding that the drawing of two congressional districts in North Carolina had been unconstitutionally gerrymandered to pack African-American voters together so their political power would be diluted. A political representation system based on race is outdated and pernicious.

As someone who has been a lifelong advocate of Martin Luther King Jr.'s teachings, it saddens me greatly to see the anger that predominates in our current political spaces. It's one thing to be angry and another to channel that anger into policies that can move the country forward. There's a story told about Stephen Bantu Biko — a gifted young liberation activist who led the struggle against South African apartheid and whose life was tragically taken by the South African secret police. One day during a rally with thousands of young anti-apartheid activists, Biko stood up and made the audacious and eminently wise statement, "It's fine for us to fight and organize, but at some point we're going to need to learn how to govern."

My charge for millennials

It's your turn to take on the mantle of governing and you can only do that with integrity if we change the structures that are threatening America's democracy. Come together across divisions and create a new voting rights act. Figure out a new campaign finance system. Draw new political representation lines. Then go to your federal and state legislators and demand that they introduce and pass the Preserve America's Democracy Act.  And maybe even step up and run for elected office yourself. Yes, this will take time and a great deal of perseverance. But that's what real change looks like.

People of my generation fought, went to jail and even died for your right to stand up in 2016 and say, I am a citizen and my voice will be heard. This is your time, your moment in history. We need you to rise up and take on the responsibility of changing America with the love, compassion and great intelligence your generation has. 

I am inspired by you and commit myself in your service. Let's change the world together.

Former Congressman Ronald V. Dellums is a long-time political and humanitarian leader. He went from being a protest activist to serving as Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, while remaining true to his activist beliefs and roots. He currently serves as President of the Dellums Institute for Social Justice, an intergenerational start-up venture invested in the leadership of young people to solve the world's biggest problems.