Legislate for America: America's youth can redefine politics as service

    Dear Collegians:

    In order to celebrate the power of youthful idealism and invigorate the idea of politics as public service, I propose that we form Legislate for America (LFA), an organization that would manage and promote the political careers of recent college graduates. LFA will be both a think tank and a political action committee. It will develop a policy platform predicated on long-term planning and innovative research while fundraising and campaigning for recent college graduates running for public office on the platform’s principles. Imagine Teach for America where the application process is a political campaign.

    It is becoming increasingly evident that America is on the decline: the gluttony of American neo-liberalism, the arrogance of American foreign policy and the myopia of out of control debt and spending have all begun to backfire – hard. However, in the bubble of a college campus, the seedbed of America’s future, I do not see the downward spiral of the United States. Of course, there is frustration with the political status quo and a clear acknowledgment of the country’s downward-sloping trajectory. But the vibrancy of college optimism continues to inspire. What do we hope to do?

    Serve. Not enter a private practice or a Manhattan apartment, necessarily, but teach underprivileged students, work in African villages or provide legal defenses for the disadvantaged. At Northwestern alone, we are surrounded with opportunities to volunteer and assist – to engage with the world. There are still those who hope to graduate and not long thereafter become obscenely rich. But, from my pigeonhole, the hopeful idealism of the inexperienced college student has yet to dissolve.

    An editorial in The Daily Northwestern nearly a month ago sought to satirize the idea of engagement on college campuses. It argued that the so-called engagement community distracted from the more important and relevant scholarly pursuits that should occupy college students. Innovative thinking and academic discourse need not be separated entirely from engagement and service. I propose that we blend the two.

    Much has been made of Teach for America. It provides an avenue for wandering twenty-somethings to gain work and life experience before they enter the real workforce. It places recent college graduates in the classrooms of underprivileged communities. College students get time to do some real service and figure things out while underprivileged schools benefit from relatively free, smart and motivated labor. Why don’t we do the same for political offices?

    Of course, the jobs are much different. Teaching calls for selfless, patient individuals to sacrifice for the potential to help others. When I originally shared this idea with a friend, he replied that there is a huge surplus of those who wish to go into politics; we have a shortage of talented teachers. The difference is in the appeal of the jobs. Few would deny that it would be great to have better candidates for political office, but would recent college graduates fill that void? Not only is the world of politics a reservoir of professional power, but it also requires skill and experience. Public administration takes more than a degree in political science. The rub, however, is not as much in the attractiveness of the job as its nature.

    Politics demands the willingness to connive and contrive, pontificate and obfuscate. It is opportunism, not service. But it need not stay that way. Service as a public official (often labeled a politician) should be more like teaching. Within the current political system, I am hopeful that we can begin a movement to inject the spirit of public service and youthful ingenuity into American politics.

    Last month, I called for a generation coup. We need to amplify the voice of our generation to ensure that the United States does not disintegrate because of shortsighted policymaking. Let public service be our instrument to effect this change.

    LFA will recruit the top college students for three categories of positions: policy wonks, community activists and public officials (our selected euphemism for “politician”). Wonks will write policy papers reacting to pressing current issues and political problems; they will craft a clear LFA platform with which the activists can leverage support for the movement. Activists will market the movement by fundraising and campaigning on behalf of its candidates. And while having a coherent and attractive political program and promoting LFA is important, the candidates themselves are the sine qua non to giving our ideas a voice in the current political process.

    Obviously, there are age and legitimacy restrictions that will limit the opportunity for recent college graduates to run for public office. Campaigns that base their message on youth are inevitably going to face the experience question. If the race hinges on experience, our candidates will inevitably lose. This is why we need to put forth candidates with a modicum of experience in public affairs and we need to run campaigns that are communal rather than personal. We do not seek to promote an individual, but a network of individuals advocating for a farsighted, preservative policymaking. Here are the principles and guidelines that will shape our movement:

    How will we determine who runs for office?

    To circumvent questions of youth and inexperience, we will ensure that anyone joining LFA will gain community experience as a campaigner and work closely with the wonks for at least one year before they enter a race. We hope that the network of political activists will become prominent enough so that working as an LFA policy adviser or campaigner will provide the requisite résumé experience to run for a local office. In essence, voters look for experience engaging with the issues and the community. LFA jobs are designed to do just that.

    For what offices will LFA members campaign?

    Candidates under 25 will begin with local offices and progress to more prominent positions. Once the member has served two years in policy or campaigning, LFA will be ready to provide support for the candidate to run for a local office (i.e. alderman, city council, school board or mayor). As long as the candidate remains committed to the LFA platform and wants support in pursuing higher office, LFA will be committed to navigating the candidate toward a national stage.

    How will LFA fund its efforts?

    LFA will raise money through an alumni network of donors. We do not expect to remove politics from the fundraising process; we will accept donations from all corporations and lobbies that are willing to donate, but with no pretense of quid pro quo.

    Will LFA candidates affiliate with a political party?

    We do not expect LFA to be a political party unto itself. Instead, it would be more accurate to compare LFA members to a Congressional caucus of shared principles and mutual support. Without abandoning the key points of its platform (which will be limited to a manageable set of five to seven issues), LFA will seek to maintain cordial relationships with both major political parties so that LFA members can at once tap into the support of their party and the LFA network. In maintaining a bipartisan slate of candidates and a bipartisan web of support, we hope to challenge the exalted position of the two-party system in American politics. If we can run candidates of both parties under one issue-based, pragmatic banner and win, then what significance do party labels have?

    How do we expect to win?

    None of this matters if we don’t win races. Politics is dirty and, though we do consider public office as public service, we will campaign like hell. There are three keys to winning races:

    First, we need to make the races about ideas, not age. Our candidates cannot be framed as twenty-somethings running to manage a village budget; they need to be innovators that are part of a larger movement that seeks to restore ingenuity and service to American politics.

    Second, we need to have widespread, energized support for the movement that refuses to be blinded by partisanship. The difficulty will be mobilizing Democrats to campaign for a GOP state senate candidate. It will be easier to get LFA campaigners to commit to an idea than a person, but ultimately, they may have to throw their support behind a candidate with whom they don’t ultimately agree on many issues. To energize and sustain this campaign network will be a challenge. Campaigners need to trust in the politics of community and the power of the movement. Individual candidates are only small change.

    Third, we need to inspire. A vote for LFA needs to mean more than a vote for any individual. The presence of an LFA candidate in a district needs to be exciting. The mobilization of the LFA network to campaign will represent a political corps that garners energy and passion behind a set of lasting issues on which the vibrancy of our democracy depends.

    Serving in public office is — and must be — bigger than politics. Too often those who seek office get stuck on the narrow road to the Senate, losing sight of their unique opportunity to improve the public welfare. We need to build a new vision of the American politician and, in doing so, promote a more service-oriented politics that subjugates money to sacrifice and ambition to the welfare of the whole. If we get past the stifling closed-mindedness of American individualism, we can energize LFA to become the basis of a stronger connection between government and those it serves.

    Very truly yours,

    Ben Armstrong


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