Six years ago, I spoke as Executive Director of New Leaders Council for the first time. I spoke to a room filled with millennial leaders, and told them this plain truth: their forbearers broke the system—they fractured the basic compact underlying the American process. I put the challenge to the room: it was up to them, to their generation, to clean up the mess.
Today, I see the millennial generation making great progress. Unfortunately, that progress is a solitary light in a darkened, embittered culture. It is time for the millennial generation—the NLC generation—to conquer the problems they did not create.
This presidential election’s civic failures are well chronicled, and should not be a surprise. They are the end-point of decades of structural distortions. Both parties must search their souls, and the American people must demand more, and demand better, than what they are receiving from their leadership.
The left must transcend basic identity politics, and needs to reach out from the cities and coasts to build a durable, national community. It needs to champion success, and build ladders that make it easier to achieve real equality of opportunity for all: political, economic, and social. And the right must confront and conquer the long-dormant demons of division, hate, and fear it unleashed in its recent history. Both sides must remember their shared, basic commitment: to build a better America.
Vigorous debate over ideas, values, and vision is healthy. But our race to the bottom campaigns have turned healthy arguments into partisan wars. We are cheapening our great country. And let’s be clear—this sickness is just not at the presidential level. Federal, state, and local governments have been infected and desperately need a cure.
How do we move forward? Because we must move forward, regardless of who wins the presidency.
I am not going to attempt to make recommendations for the Conservatives, however, below are a few thoughts for Progressives.
1) Let’s rebuild our democratic system and set new norms. Progressives should champion reform at every level of the campaign and election system. It is broken, and needs a comprehensive fix.
2) We must all reject and renounce the politics of character assassination. Instead, let’s talk about the fundamentals of this work: care about constituents and their concerns, and focus on people who work hard everyday to make ends meet.
3) We must accept that everyone needs to address government finances with clear eyes. Everyday people are desperate for an honest conversation about fixing local, state, and federal coffers. Too many run in the red or have gone broke. How are we going to pay for the people, programs, and infrastructure underwriting our future?
4) We cannot stop extending our hands to those who need help. We can find a way to pay for this assistance. From addiction to failing schools, too many of our fellow citizens face crushing obstacles not of their own making. We are the wealthiest society ever on this planet, and we must confront these challenges that too many of our neighbors, friends, and families grapple with daily.
5) We must look to our shared future. The Millennial Generation is the largest voting bloc in history. We need to organize so that it is the leadership bloc of our country. Without a plan for our future, millennials will look up and wonder where our country went.
Of course, every campaign has policy prescriptions for these issues, and I am not saying they don’t. What I am saying is that there is a reason Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump found political life and built strong movements. We need a pragmatic, progressive governing narrative to unite our movement.
If you want to craft that governing movement, New Leaders Council has a place and a purpose for you. You can build yourself, your skills, your community, and, most importantly, your narrative for governing. You can meet the people who will help you build a new, progressive civic culture.
So, apply for the NLC Institute to forge your leadership skills. Nominate a strong leader you know to do the same. If you are an alumnus, come back home and work with your chapter to build a stronger NLC in your community. And if you want to bring better policy ideas to the table, apply to write for our Millennial Compact—a policy agenda written by millennials to America addressing these core challenges and opportunities.
It is time for us to think, and to listen, and to learn. It is time for us to build our communities and our governing narrative. Next week, this election will be over, but our future is far from being won.
Join NLC in making our future.
Mark Riddle is the President of New Leaders Council. Under his leadership, NLC has grown across the country to 45 chapters, training over 800 Fellows each year and growing NLC's alumni ranks to nearly 4,000 progressive leaders.