Two years ago, in the midst of the hyper-partisan war over the federal debt ceiling, a group of frustrated student body presidents gathered at the National Press Club in Washington, DC and gave voice to a generation that is so often left out of decision-making. The group demanded a bold, balanced, and bipartisan solution to the political standoff that threatened another economic crisis. In a matter of days, the “Do We Have a Deal Yet?” effort (DWHADY) gained the attention of both the national media and elected leaders, including President Obama himself. It demonstrated what is possible when young people speak out and stand up.
Yet two years later, the underlying issues from the debt ceiling fight remain largely unresolved as yet another deadline looms this fall. As important tasks of problem solving increasingly turn into major crises of governance, our generation must re-imagine our own future, and fight for it with everything we’ve got. But two significant obstacles are holding us back.
First, we lack a coherent and compelling Millennial vision for the country we will inherit. Too many young people and Millennial organizations accept the current political paradigm as unchangeable, even though it is clearly failing us. We can no longer afford to make the false choices offered by today’s political parties that ask us, for example, to pick between protecting our environment and securing the long-term solvency of entitlement programs. Truth is, we need to confront both, without being held captive by partisan rhetoric. It’s up to our generation to transcend the ideological divisions of the past and define a 21st Century political program. Such a vision built on the core value of generational equity could unite the otherwise fragmented landscape of organizations and activists.
Second, our generation is hamstrung because we are not fully engaging in electoral politics. Voter registration and issue campaigns, while important, can only take us so far. Not enough of us are running for office; too few even consider it an honorable thing to do. But there is inherent value in being a candidate, as it gives one the opportunity to educate the public about important issues, challenge other candidates to offer real solutions and build support for specific priorities and policies. Of course, in the best scenario, young leaders could even earn themselves a seat at the decision-making table. Solutions-oriented, future-focused and independent-minded young candidates and office-holders could, at the very least, help redefine the national debate and could, at the very best, help reinvent our governing institutions.
Despite the dysfunction of today’s politics, we are strong believers in the power of the millennial generation because we have seen it up close. Since helping to organize DWHADY, we each have started organizations that seek to increase the influence that our generation has in national decision-making. In just over a year, for example, the National Campus Leadership Council empowered over 400 student body presidents to build national pressure for a solution on affordable student loan interest rates. The Can Kicks Back has championed a piece of legislation on “generational accounting” that was introduced on a bipartisan basis in the United States Senate last week.
These experiences have taught us three key lessons about the political potential of our generation:
First, young people can exercise disproportionate influence in politics because no one expects us to show up and speak out. When we do, leaders pay attention.
Second, while young people are in many ways inherently disadvantaged when it comes to politics, such as a lack of financial resources, our generation has enormously powerful tools at our disposal to organize and take action.
Third, many young people’s political disengagement reflects rational behavior based on the immense dysfunction of politics, not outright apathy. But when given a chance to make a meaningful impact, millennials will get involved.
This makes us wonder, what should a DWHADY 2.0 look like? What if that group of student body presidents was instead a group of young Congressional candidates? What if their letter to the President and Congress was instead addressed to the American people outlining Millennial-driven solutions? What if our generation of 80 million Facebookers and Tweeters decided enough was enough with politics as usual and rallied behind them? We can only backseat drive so long; maybe it’s time we take the wheel.
This post was co-written by Andy MacCracken, the Executive Director of the National Campus Leadership Council, a non-partisan network of student body presidents confronting major issues affecting young people nationally.