Two competing visions: it’s more than just the debate frame that the media chooses to use when describing how President Obama and former Governor Romney see the role of government. Rarely has there been such a stark contrast between two candidates in how they view government’s broader purpose – and how that represents fundamental American values. Wednesday’s debate was no exception. The ‘role of government’ was a topic unto itself.
In this clash of philosophies, the over-simplified yet vitriolic debate would seemingly have us pick from two options: big government or small government. No matter your political preferences, what our leaders and current national dialogue offer us when envisioning what our democracy can achieve leaves little room for imagination. And, little by little, as the core functions of our system are undermined through money in politics, voter suppression efforts, and crippling cuts to local and state budgets, it becomes more difficult to look to government as a force for positive change.
Yet not everyone is ready to accept this paralysis. As the national director for the largest student policy organization in the country, my team and I work with young people across the country who are deeply committed to solving some of our most pressing challenges in a time of uncertainty, gridlock, and a breakdown in a sense of common purpose among all Americans.
And even though the question of our government’s future is being described as the "fight of a generation," our voice is the one that is woefully absent from the conversation.
Research by organizations such as the Pew Research Center and CIRCLE has highlighted that this generation is strongly progressive and believes in an activist government’s potential to drive bold social change. Yet they’re also not blind to the challenges the system faces. Less than 30% of young people believe their voice is represented in government today. But rather than surrender to that reality, millennials are instead interested in how we can create a better system – one that is more inclusive, effective, and visionary.
Over the next few months, young people are convening across the country to examine the building blocks of our democratic experiment, identify the core values that drive our system, and then suggest how we can build an ideal government that empowers all to serve as active citizens. The initiative, "Government by and for Millennial America," will include over a thousand young people articulating a blueprint and action plan for 21st century governance.
Government by and for Millennial America is a bold experiment to engage a generation in first envisioning and then working toward a participatory, democratic system that serves as a problem solving force. What is possible when we empower the public sector, as the representative of our collective voice, to achieve more? What can government do in the 21st century to rival President Teddy Roosevelt’s doubling of national park land, Eisenhower’s unprecedented highway system, and Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security Act, a revolutionary program that continues to keep millions of Americans out of poverty?
The potential is both endless and exciting. It’s also a monumental challenge. We have to identify the main barriers to achieving our ideal democracy, tackling everything from the filibuster’s stranglehold on deliberative democracy to the inherent inequities in the voting system. We already see that young people don’t accept these challenges as intractable – only affirming why it’s critical for their ideas and solutions to be a part of our national debate.
As President Franklin D. Roosevelt so eloquently put it, “let us never forgot that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us.” Government, as the manifestation of our democracy, is the only entity that has the power to represent all of our voices, no matter our background, orientation, socioeconomic status, or political leaning. So here is the question: what can happen if we build a system that empowers all of us to step up, take ownership over the direction of this country, and serve as active citizens and arbiters of our future? It’s the question we are asking in Government by and for Millennial America, and it’s the question we will put to our leaders in the debates, at the voting booth, and into the next four years.
Join us as we build a blueprint for 21st century governance.
This article originally appeared on the Next New Deal blog.