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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. The millennials and post-millennials… will one or both of these cohorts rescue the American political process from its seemingly incessant dysfunction, rancor, and hatemongering. Steven Olikara is here to answer that question. He’s the founding president of the Millennial Action Project. A national non-partisan organization dedicated to activating millennial policymakers to overcome partisan entrenchment. In this role, Steven organized the nation’s first bipartisan caucus for young members of congress: The Future Caucus. This past week as of this recording, Steven and his colleagues convened in Milwaukee to host the project’s red and blue dialogue series. With newly elected office-holders and community stakeholders. “Milwaukee is not only special as my hometown,” Steven reflected, “but also as the epicenter of political polarization and segregation in this country.” Steven those were poignant words, thank you for sharing them with me.
OLIKARA: Thanks for having me.
HEFFNER: Of course, a pleasure. Can you reflect on your experience in Milwaukee just this past week?
OLIKARA: Sure well I first of all love Milwaukee. It’s a great town, great music, great culture, great sports. But one of the things as you referenced about the greater Milwaukee area, is it really is, according to studies, the most politically segregated metro area in the United States and I grew up in that environment. Before I got into politics I was playing music actually, primarily jazz and so my music kind of spanned across these major political divides and as you mentioned last week we hosted these red and blue dialogues in Milwaukee where we brought together our local future caucus members who are young and new elected officeholders, along with the community. And it’s really powerful because in this moment of divisive politics, to see community members who really want to rise above the tribalism and the lack of respect we have for different viewpoints, is really encouraging actually and at the end of the dialogue a number of people said I thought we had a lot that, a lot more in common than we expected. And so this is just the beginning and I really believe that change does come from the bottom up. And so if we can model the type of leadership, the type of political discourse we need, it can really start to make a big difference.
HEFFNER: Steven, you perceive that to be a plurality or maybe even a majority who were not just fed up with dysfunction, which is a longstanding American pastime, but want to engage and see themselves as solution makers?
OLIKARA: That’s exactly right. You have the data, but also just the larger cultural shift here. On the data side, a plurality of millennials are rejecting both political parties right now. And I think they’re really rejecting a two-party duopoly that is really holding our country back and is creating the type of tribalism in our politics today. And for millennials what you see is we kind of want both, and I often call us the a la carte generation. We believe that we, for example, take on the debt. And we need to do something about climate change. And so we are seeing that which is really encouraging. But beyond that with these young and new elected officials that we work with, they are done with the partisanship, they want to get over that and start working on solutions. I mean if you think about it, you get elected at a young age, you’re probably impatient by nature. And that impatience I think translates to how they can, you know, pragmatically work together to find a solution. And you know I think that ultimately represents our democracy at its finest. When we marshal the best ideas from all sides and ultimately build consensus on the great challenges facing our country. Now we’re not doing that yet in mainstream politics, but we are starting to see a bubble up at the millennial level.
HEFFNER: You were telling me an encouraging development in the state of Ohio with your Future Caucus and one particular representative working to end the process of gerrymandering. Can you tell us about that?
OLIKARA: Sure. So the process of gerrymandering has taken place for maybe 200 years in this country, but as a result of technology and increasing tribalism that you have seen an extreme level of gerrymandering take place recently. And we saw our Future Caucus and our co-chair in Ohio do something that no one thought was possible. Ohio which is a state gerrymandered for the partisan benefit of Republicans there, has caused a level of distrust there in just the way that they draw the districts. And our republican co-chair, state senator Frank LaRose, introduced the bipartisan legislation to effectively end gerrymandering in the state. This was a year ago when a number of people thought this was impossible. A lot of this, you can imagine, establishment Republicans were actually against it. And they’re all saying like, this guy is crazy. I asked him at one of our Millennial Action Project forums, you know, Senator LaRose, how are you doing this? Isn’t it at the expense of your own party’s benefit? And he said, no. I think we should win because we have the best candidates and the best ideas, not because we cheated our voters. Over the course of the year, Frank and others on the ground built support. We then launched our Democracy Reform task force which he is a member of and provided additional support. And ultimately he was able to get the bill passed through the legislature, and then just recently the voters approved it with 75 percent of the vote. This is not only an extraordinary example of leadership but also how, you know, voters are willing to go beyond their own tribal self interest in the betterment of their own government. And these stories unfortunately are too rare and are covered far too rarely. But you know, this is a great example of a step in the right direction.
HEFFNER: You do have a federal congressional element within your future caucus. You were naming those representatives, and I think our viewers would like to know who they are.
HEFFNER: They have not been able to bring to the floor of the US House or to the Senate, any of the kinds of legislation that would garner and engender bipartisan support. Is that right?
OLIKARA: Well I think we’ve seen actually, quite a bit of momentum at the congressional level. Not as much as maybe you would see at the state level just because things move a bit slower in congress. But our leadership team which includes congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema, Congressman Carlos Cabello, congresswoman Stephanie Murphy and congressman Mike Gallagher, a bipartisan leadership team. We have about thirty members in total. They actually have at the beginning of this year for example, introduced a bipartisan bill to help veterans seek employment and get skills training for these new technological areas. And another good example is recently when the Parkland students came to Washington DC and they were shaking the moral conscience of this country and said, we need to go beyond party to reduce gun violence in this country. Our leadership team with Congresswoman Murphy really leading the charge there, was able to get bipartisan support on a bill to lift a decades long ban on the CDC from studying gun violence as a public health issue. The first Republican to sign on was our co-chair Carlos Cabello. The second was another member, more and more Republicans signed on. Ultimately it passed and got signed into law.
HEFFNER: So at this juncture, the CDC can do research on the effects of gun violence.
HEFFNER: Something that had been barred.
OLIKARA: It had been barred, exactly, exactly. And these are the type of…
OLIKARA: Yeah incremental change. Incremental change.
HEFFNER: In contrast to what was an amazing achievement in Ohio.
HEFFNER: And you’re right, the press far too seldom, rarely cover these developments.
HEFFNER: But in part, Steven isn’t it because that bipartisan future caucus and the like-minded solutions oriented problem solvers caucus in the House of Representatives. They’re not focused on the issues that are most covered. Like the Mueller probe or undocumented or illegal immigration.
HEFFNER: Or the Dreamers. Those political crises, which may well become constitutional crises, given the current climate, demand that the four representatives you describe are not just part of the future, but part of the present.
HEFFNER: How can you get them to be part of the present?
OLIKARA: Well that’s a very good question. When we started Millennial Action Project, we very strategically started choosing issues that would build momentum to more and more difficult efforts. So for example we started working on issues like entrepreneurship and how you can build crowdfunding for these new startups. Another big one for us was the sharing economy. Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, how do you embrace innovation but also protect consumers? So these were the types of issues that were not so much left versus right, but more generational. And as a result, those members were able to build relationships across the aisle. And I often liken bipartisanship to, like, muscle building. It’s a muscle that needs to be exercised, and over time it becomes muscle memory. So now that we have this momentum, we have these early wins, you can start taking on bigger ticket items. And what’s been really great is to see how even the sort of side effects of our work can translate to the big issues. So you mentioned immigration. Right now Congressman Cabello is leading an effort to force a vote on immigration reform that would be bipartisan so we can protect the Dreamers. And a lot of the people leading that effort are, you know, part of our Caucus and they trust him because of the work that they’ve done previous to this time.
HEFFNER: The reality though, tragic reality, of the current congress is that Speaker Ryan refuses to put any legislation that might have bipartisan consensus compromise on the floor.
OLIKARA: Right, right.
HEFFNER: How do you address that problem?
OLIKARA: Yeah. So, and what you’re referring to here is this issue of the Hastert rule which says you need a majority of the majority to bring a bill to the floor. Of course that’s not in the constitution, that’s basically a norm that has been created by speakers over the years. And so that is something we need to change. And so what you’re getting at is a much larger issue of how do we move towards non-partisan governance? And it’s our belief, this is why we’re so bullish on the next generation. It’s our belief that those who are most likely to change the process are those who have not been made comfortable by and profiting off of the system as it has been for the last thirty, forty years. It’s going to be these reform minded young members who are willing to challenge the status quo, and we’ve already seen this, a lot of our members highlight congress from Mike Gallagher for example, who really has been willing to step outside of his party’s norm to be working on reform type issues. And I think that’s been very encouraging. Another good example related to that is the need for a cooling off period for retiring congressional members as they’re going into federal lobbying. Currently there’s just a one-year ban. And they’re proposing to increase it to five years. Because if you think about it, members really shouldn’t be just trading on their influence and profiting off of it. And so these are the types of reforms that again you’re not seeing from the establishment, but are absolutely necessary for us to actually start trusting our government again.
HEFFNER: And the Parkland students in particular, epitomize a group of young people, post millennials. You and I are millennials.
OLIKARA: Yeah, we’re already old now, Alexander (laughs).
HEFFNER: But these are folks who have come of age in a climate of persistent dysfunction. In which they didn’t see any compromise. We have barely memories, but we do have those memories of the 90s and the post 9/11 culture. Which was resilient, America, patriotic. And this leads me to this question, which is there is a feistiness maybe born out of the social media moment, within the post-millennials, that was not present in the millennials and not the Obama coalition either. That was not, I wouldn’t call that a feisty. It was courageous, but it wasn’t feisty.
HEFFNER: Parkland has a feistiness, rightly so. But isn’t there a signal, a tacit signal from the retirements of all of these congressional officials. You allude to it, I think of Congressman Dent in particular from Pennsylvania, that in order to restore our democracy right now, we need to have a check on the Executive. And that means that patriotic Republicans like the Florida congressman you mention, have to stand up and say, well, we need one of these chambers to be a check on this President because of the persistence of corruption in his administration.
HEFFNER: Which is just the reality.
OLIKARA: Yep. Absolutely. I mean, congress has to reassert its role as the check on the Executive during Democratic administrations, and Republican administrations. And a good example of this is the fact that we just let now presidents start declaring war and start interfering abroad without the congressional approval that is required in the constitution. And so I completely agree on that point that we need a new group of members in congress who believe that congress needs to be passing a budget, needs to be authorizing wars that needs to be providing an appropriate accountability to the Executive branch. That gets to the fundamental value of separation of powers. And so, I mean we have seen a number of our members say for example that we need to make sure that Robert Mueller is protected. But unfortunately we are still living in a highly tribal environment. We are not seeing the levels of patriotism required, I think, of our major elected officials, who are really driving the day-to-day, in order to be putting a proper check on the Executive. And I think that’s a huge problem. Not to say that, by the way, I think there’s been a huge obsession also, on this probe as well. And I agree with a lot of my conservative friends who I talk to in Wisconsin that, look, we’re missing out on some of the major challenges of the day if 100 percent of our attention is on the investigation as well. And I just think one of the great challenges we face right now is the historic level of distrust. I mean, in the 1960s, trust in government and our institutions was closer to 80 percent. Today it’s down to about 15 percent. That is not sustainable in a democracy and if we’re not having a national conversation about the ways we can reform our political process and our congress, then I’ll tell you what, the type of energy we saw electing Trump in 2016 is just the beginning if we don’t actually enact some real reforms in the near term.
HEFFNER: That energy can be channeled in support of a congressional candidate running in your home state.
HEFFNER: Randy Bryce,
HEFFNER: Who is seeking to replace the speaker.
HEFFNER: If you ask Congressman Cabello if he’d rather keep his seat or elect a Democratic majority. You know because I think he is a patriot.
HEFFNER: I think he would say the latter. He would rather the chamber become not beholden to the Administration,
OLIKARA: That’s right.
HEFFNER: Than actually preserve his own seat.
OLIKARA: Yeah. Right. I mean a major shift you’re actually seeing amongst the younger folks getting elected today and the first of our generation, the millennials are now getting elected to these offices, is a view that politics in elected office is not a long term career. They see it in the view that the founders really saw it, which is a citizen legislature. You go and serve in public office, write laws, and then you move back into private life to live under those laws. And I really feel like we’re bringing that back now. And so if you think about some of those young elected officials you referenced, they’re not afraid to be courageous. They’re not afraid to get voted out either. They believe that public service truly is a public service. They need to get the things done, do the right thing. And ideally, you know the way leadership works, is you have to bring people with you. You have to make a public case for why you’re doing x, y, and z. And then ideally they come with you, but one of my favorite books is “Profiles In Courage” by President Kennedy. And he highlights, you know, US Senators who in many cases, lost their political careers for doing the right thing. And I often say, the most scarce resource in politics today is courage, and we need more of it.
HEFFNER: I was thinking of the same book and the fact that, as I’ve said on this show, there have been profiles in cowardice that have dominated our politics of late. The millennials and post-millennials coming to the floor now, hopefully will bring back the courage, even if they’re risking their own electoral chances moving on. But how is your project considering the necessity of this kind of patriotic duty to not just install constructive decision and policy-making, but that accountability.
OLIKARA: The most important thing we’re doing right now is trying to build a governing culture, and a governing structure that’s capable of building consensus, and without that, the further our political institutions degrade. And you were referencing how the post-millennials have grown up in this era of dysfunction. And that’s all Gen-Z-ers know, and that’s largely all you and I and our generation knows as well. And so, what the cultural and the structural changes will do is create an environment where we are not so tribal as you’re referencing here, where we are actually building accountability into government. Because in the wake of that, or in the absence of that, then it is the politics of resentment and as Kathy Cramer-Walsh references, and George Washington references in his farewell address as well, is you know when you have these kind of warring factions just going up against each other, then you start to see revenge-like behavior at the expense of norms, values, and the real ideals of this country. So that’s the contribution I believe we are making and will continue to make, is again a cultural change in the way that we govern, that’s much more non-partisan and collaborative. And then the structural reforms that are required to ensure that we have a system that people trust, and also a governing process where it is more possible to build consensus on the big issues. Just to give you a sense on the structural side that the reforms that are very important are, for example, rank-choice voting, having an open primary system. That’ll allow more moderate candidates to emerge. But also people who aren’t just having to appeal to the extremes who come out in low turnout primaries. And then similarly as we were referencing earlier, the Hastert rule needs to go. There needs to be more non-partisan way that we’re bringing bills up for consideration. And then another big one is the way that we’re financing campaigns. We’ve seen so many young candidates who start running for office, and the number one factor whether they are successful or not, is how many rich people do they know? And that is totally insane. But we are starting to see some positive reforms. One good example is in Connecticut, where they have a system of what they call the Clean Elections Law, where you have to raise some small dollar donations to demonstrate you’re a legitimate candidate. Then you get some funding from the government, and you can run a competitive campaign. What’s really interesting is it was young legislators who really have championed that law and protected it in the face of a number of threats.
HEFFNER: Those young legislators are pivotal to achieving those outcomes that you just described.
HEFFNER: And there is a mountain to climb. And there is a tsunami right now of that resentment that is so deeply embedded in our politics, in no small measure because of Donald Trump, and his particularly vicious and hyper-partisan politics. Remember, he said he was this negotiator who was gonna work with both parties because he alone could fix our problems. Well, turns out, his soul, if he has one, was bought and sold. Sold to the radical extreme. Did millennials not make a mistake, that I think their post millennial brethren are learning from. They didn’t run for office. They started Facebook and Twitter and they galvanized people, initially for good. Then for bad. But not enough young people ran and sought office over the last decade. And millennials engaged in volunteerism but not in elected office. Was that not a lesson that these post-millennials need to learn? The Cameron Kaskys and David Hoggs, they have to run for office.
OLIKARA: Well they certainly do, and I think now, not just the Gen-Z-ers, but also Millennials who are actually old enough to be running for most of these offices now, you’re seeing a huge, huge wave of young people deciding to run in the current, you know 2018 midterm elections. But to get to your broader point here, one of the dichotomies we noticed when we were first deciding to found this organization, was the fact that Millennials have the highest levels of service participation rates in the country. That’s volunteerism and social entrepreneurship. And yet the least trust and confidence in government. And so you have this civic idealism to govern participation gap that did create a huge problem, and I do think you saw a number of our best and brightest going not into public service but many other careers including technology and moving out to Silicon Valley. And so that is absolutely an issue. But the good news is that people are waking up right now and a lot of them are trying to figure out, not only how they run for office, but also how they can be part of a number of these larger reforms to the system. And I’ll make one prediction here. I think this November, we’ll see the highest midterm voter turnout ever for millennials.
HEFFNER: How are millennials and post-millennials going to rescue the heartland and in particular, your native Wisconsin?
OLIKARA: Well you’re right. I mean I think the rust belt has been a decisive factor in American politics recently. And part of the reason for that is because you’ve had the hollowing out of the industrial sector of the economy and you’ve had a lot of people lose their jobs. And they’ve been out of work for a long period of time. And for those who have work, their median incomes after adjusting for inflation has been largely, you know, stagnant. And so you have people who are just frustrated with the economic situation. But then they see their politicians are just shouting at each other all the time. They realize, I have no connection to, or no agency to really, you know, change things. And so I’m really optimistic though, I’m hopeful, that things will change. And I think if you think about Wisconsin, you do have a number of millennials who are in, not only Milwaukee and Madison, but also in a couple weeks we’re doing an event with millennials up in Appleton. In the Fox Valley which is close to Green Bay Wisconsin. And you have you know young professionals who are getting engaged. The real question is where that energy will be channeled? Where that frustration will be channeled? Will there be political leaders who will inspire us, not to just serve our worst tribal instincts, but ultimately serve the better angels of our nature in these very divisive times.
HEFFNER: And I’ll never forget Kathy Cramer saying here that it was rural Wisconsinites who were blaming Madison because of a perception that all state government was doing was serving people who did not look like them.
OLIKARA: That’s right.
HEFFNER: All state government was doing was implementing an affirmative action program, which was not helping them.
HEFFNER: Which was denying them opportunity. Last predictions because we’re running out of time: Does Randy Bryce win, and does Governor Walker win a third term?
OLIKARA: I’ll make a couple predications here. And we’ll see how well they do. I think first of all the Randy Bryce seat is a seat that’s just, basically the Chicago suburbs really. But also just south of Milwaukee, and really the heart of the rust belt. You had a General Motors plant close down in Janesville. And so I think the voters there are really frustrated. I think ultimately it really will be a toss-up now that Paul Ryan has said he’s retiring.
HEFFNER: And Scott Walker?
OLIKARA: And for Governor Walker, I actually think that his organizational base in Wisconsin is extremely strong, and unfortunately the Democratic field of candidates is extremely week. You have about ten or so candidates who are running.
HEFFNER: The rest is history.
OLIKARA: Yeah, so we’ll see what happens.
HEFFNER: We’re out of time, Steven, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for your work.
OLIKARA: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenmindTV for updates on future programming.