Young Voters Ready To Dismantle Politics-As-Usual

Guest post by Deondra Rose, PhD | Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy

Listen up, America. Your most engaged young voters have had it up to here with your political shenanigans — and they’re acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary to dismantle politics-as-usual.

Despite frequent attempts to cast today’s college students as reticent, uninformed and apathetic members of society, more interested in pop culture than politics, my undergraduate public policy students are actively engaged, forward-thinking citizens acutely aware of their stake in the nation’s governance.

Boldly representing a range of political and ideological perspectives — from staunch Republicans and true-blue Democrats to dyed-in-the-wool Libertarians and independents — they are not shy about adding their voices to American political discourse.

Whether debating their classmates, crafting policy memos or engaging with elected officials, students are remarkably clear and direct in their communications. Their skill is surprising considering their youth and inexperience.

My students demonstrate there’s hope for our political future. For starters, they’re just as comfortable debating difficult political issues as they are turning out wonky policy analyses.

They have come of age surrounded by powerful political messages crafted by the skilled professionals working in both parties, and their own strikingly sophisticated language signals an understanding of the political process at all levels — warts and all.

Last semester, my students and I discussed Charles Lindblom’s 1959 article, “The Science of Muddling Through,” which offers a thoughtful analysis of how policy decisions are made. Lindblom claims lawmakers use two approaches to make policies. The first approach, the “root method,” involves working from the ground up each time a decision is made, considering all factors relevant to the issue at hand. The second approach, the “branch method,” allows decision makers to build upon existing policies, making only modest changes at the margins.

While the root method offers the best approach for achieving substantial policy reform, the branch method — which promotes incremental policy change — represents the most politically viable approach to policymaking.

When I asked the class, “Which approach do you find most compelling?”, I suspected a healthy majority would favor the branch method. Not only is it more efficient, it is more practical for achieving policy change in a political climate of gridlock and polarization.

 However, while the students acknowledged the branch method has its purposes, they thought it almost went without saying that the root method was superior. Like, duh! The root method clearly holds the most promise for achieving the sweeping policy changes necessary to correct pressing problems like environmental degradation, failing K-12 education and a Social Security program they doubt will survive.

Perhaps the students’ enthusiasm for the root method shouldn’t come as a surprise. Energetic and idealistic, young thinkers typically view the alternative as carte blanche to shirk the responsibility of fixing what’s broken.

Still, I’m struck by the intensity of students’ irritation with what might be (at best) characterized as pragmatic policymaking and (at worst) political corner-cutting. Rather than politely considering the virtues of this approach, they quickly kick it to the curb.

And their frustration does not end with the failures of branch-style policymaking. They are also fed up with branch method politics, which privileges grandstanding, stalemate and a regression to the status quo. The steadfastness with which young voters have supported the unconventional candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump shows there’s an appetite for a no-holds-barred, insurrectionist, root-method approach to politics.

The good news, however, is that intense frustration with politics-as-usual has inspired adoption of the old adage, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” And these new voters are not afraid to roll up their sleeves.

This post originally appeared in the East Bay Times and was featured on Medium.