For Millennials, Reforming Government Means Reimagining Democracy

Mar 14, 2013Elizabeth StokesAlan Smith

Millennials don't want a government that just talks at them. They want to build it together.

There is a paradox in the Millennial generation’s relationship with government. On the one hand, research shows that we firmly believe government can and should play a role in solving society’s most urgent and complex problems. We’re less interested in big government vs. small government than we are in better government -- making our democratic systems more inclusive and more responsive. On the other hand, despite seeing government as a theoretically important tool, this generation is opting out. We don’t see ourselves reflected in the decision-making process in our governments, in the values undergirding policies, or in the issues being debated by our representatives.

Still, opting out doesn’t mean this generation has checked out. We are engaged politically, just not in the ways and systems that previous generations have engaged. We don’t want to be courted for our votes and then kicked to the curb until the next big election. We want to build systems that meet us where we are, that is, in community-based service projects, where we see things directly change as a result of our voices, ideas, and action. In short, we need complementary systems that create the sort of direct connection not found in our representative democracy. But how?

The process of creating the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network’s Government By and For Millennial America document suggests a series of answers. Over a period of six months, this student-designed, student-driven, and student-written project engaged more than 1,000 Millennial voices and resulted in a 56-page document. That document in turn framed a network-wide vision for how the Millennial generation wants its government to function. It also produced hundreds more pages of expanded research and writing and a series of conversations on campuses around the country that pushed students to think beyond the constraints of the current political milieu and articulate a blueprint for their ideal government.

This output alone is testimony to the dedication of our students, but how and why did we get their buy in to generate these results? Simply put: the integration and use of participatory democracy. The starting point of this whole project was the creation of democratic spaces that enabled students to collectively deliberate and decide what they thought were the main challenges and opportunities facing the realization of their ideal government. These initial conversations were intentionally stripped of any political jargon and instead focused on values: if you had a blank slate, what values would be embodied in your ideal system? By using values as our foundational building blocks, we made these democratic spaces accessible to anyone, regardless of their experience in policy, and enabled the gradual development of a shared language and understanding of what government can and should be.

Of course, as any political theorist will tell you, participatory democracy is not only about erecting accessible spaces for discussion. It is also about building up the capacities and orientations of citizenship so that those spaces can be effectively used. The vital question then becomes: how do we build such a citizenry? How do we push young people to look beyond their individual wants and needs and think and act in terms of the public? We attempted to answer these questions through political education and the collective exercise of power.

From the beginning, Government By and For Millennial America was an open-ended project. This was both its most exciting and maddening feature: a project with no predetermined outcomes, no predetermined framework, and no predetermined process for making decisions or conducting research beyond what had emerged from student discussions. While this setup had the very real potential for spectacular and rapid implosion, it also allowed students to see that their work was more than simply filling in the spaces on a test. We continuously practiced the collective exercise of power, and in so doing, vested the project with the kind of control that Millennials seek.

This was more than just a logistical challenge of figuring out our own timeline, peer-reviewed editing processes, voting procedures, and so on. Intellectually speaking, it also meant venturing far beyond our individual areas of expertise to learn with and from other students and experts on issues outside our comfort zones, being flexible in how we integrated the regular influx of ideas shaping our ever-evolving body of work, and tying together strands of thought that previously seemed so disparate into the unified framework we were building together.

Imagine, then, the implications of such a project for how we engage in the larger political sphere. There is no reason why this same dual process of building capacity and investing people with real responsibility can’t be expanded to the questions that bedevil local governments or be used to turn around a company that has run afoul of public opinion. Participatory budgeting, for example, gives local politicians a way to get their constituents invested in the budget process in a way that yields real growth, continued participation, and better decision-making.

Of course, this is not to say our process was always rosy – in fact, there were many times when it lagged or stalled. But when schedules freed up, the project was revitalized again: trans-state conference calls to discuss the newest idea, a flood of new interesting and innovative policy write-ups, or a wave of new students eager to be brought into the fold would get us back on track. The power of democracy does not lie in waiting for these sporadic highs, but in the intermediate “lows.” There is something incredibly precious in the messiness of the sometimes slow and arduous back-and-forth that characterizes all experiments in participatory democracy.

We are a team of people with diverse identities and diverse opinions. We were grappling with incredibly tough issues through a medium that demanded collective engagement, deliberation, and decision-making. We learned together, had revelations together, and were able to build a collective lens for how to understand the individual problems plaguing government and the ways in which they were connected. That potential for real change, to be really seen and heard, and to grow so much as an individual in a community -- that is powerful. That is why Government By and For Millennial America should be viewed as more than just a bunch of good ideas in print. It’s also an example of how to engage with a generation that is in danger of being written off as self-interested, but that we believe is looking for a different way forward.

Elizabeth Stokes is a Working Group Fellow for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's national initiative, Government By and For Millennial America, and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. Alan Smith is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's National Policy and Program Director.

 

Study group image via Shutterstock.com.

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