Why are young Americans so turned off politics? According to a recent Harvard poll, half of Americans under 30 believe "politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing." A third believe that getting involved in politics is pointless, because it "rarely has any tangible results."
We don't start out so cynically. Go to a high school. Through the Youth Business Alliance -- a program that invites community leaders to share their experiences at schools around Los Angeles -- I regularly meet with students at high schools in East and South LA and, believe me, there's no apathy there. Brimming with energy and smarts, kids at every school I've visited are hell-bent on changing the world. Like me, they see politics as a way to inspire people to make a real difference for their communities.
But for too many, this initial idealism quickly dissolves into disillusionment. Youthful enthusiasm is no match for the reality of a two-party system that can only be described as hopelessly broken.
For most of last year, Washington symbolized dysfunction. Partisan extremism shut down parts of the government, while major issues -- such as getting our economy out of the doldrums and immigration reform -- were left unresolved because of gridlock.
In my home state of California, dysfunction has taken the form of one-party rule. The Republican Party has all but collapsed because extremists have pushed it away from the mainstream. As a result, the Democratic Party and its entrenched interest groups have gained total control. We're now the highest taxed state, but we're not getting much for our dollar. We've slashed spending on crucial priorities such as higher education, and our economy continues to suffer -- with unemployment levels at 20 percent for young Californians. Mediocre schools languish without reform, and our public colleges have become unaffordable for too many -- with tuitions tripling in the last decade. Meanwhile, politicians fund massive increases in government worker salaries and benefits -- up by 142 percent in the last decade. Sacramento's interest groups keep winning, and the rest of us keep losing.
Americans are fed up. According to a recent Gallup poll, a record 42 percent of Americans have broken from the parties and now identify themselves as political independents. Here in California, people feel the same way. According to a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, half of Californians are so frustrated that they believe a "major third party is needed" to clean up the mess created by the parties. "No Party Preference" or "NPP" is also the fastest growing voter registration category, capturing 21 percent of the California electorate, with younger voters registering as "NPP" in huge numbers.
The shift away from the two parties is a logical response not only to our dysfunctional politics, but also to our dynamic -- and disruptive -- era. Individuals, empowered by Information Age technologies, have swept away venerable businesses, industries and even some of the world's worst dictatorships. "Creative destruction" has quickened, and the Millennial generation is changing the world before our eyes.
Why should America's political system be immune to this wave of innovation? Why should the generation that grew up with Twitter and smartphones stick with old parties that seek to prosper by dividing and paralyzing us in the face of serious challenges? Why should the party bosses expect the vast number of younger Americans who identify themselves as independents suddenly to become Republicans or Democrats when they get older? They won't.
The parties are trying to catch up, deploying new technologies to reinforce old voting habits. But in my home state of California, the voters have opened two big breaches in the dam -- the open primary and non-partisan redistricting -- that over time will break down the dominance of the party machines, as well as their special interest backers, and reduce the influence of extremists. Both parties fought these reforms, but now that they have decisively lost, other states are looking to follow California's example.
More and more Americans realize that neither party has a monopoly on good -- or bad -- ideas. In the Information Age, the best ideas rise to the top, and it doesn't matter which party embraces them. Our next generation of leaders will be those with the courage to say "no" to the party machines and their narrow, backward-looking interest groups. These new leaders will mold new and powerful coalitions around reform ideas that majorities are eager to support. And while some leaders may be Democrats, or some may be Republicans, all will be "NPP" when it comes to building a better future for our children.
Our nation faces serious challenges. Underperforming schools, an economy nowhere near reaching its potential, a looming fiscal crisis. Party spinmeisters keep making excuses for why they can't make progress, but Americans want solutions. And we know we can achieve them only if we move party-imposed obstacles out of the way. "No-party politics" is an idea whose time has come, and it is one that will channel the fire in the eyes of those high school students in LA and re-ignite Americans' passion for our democracy.
Seth M.M. Stodder is a "No Party Preference" candidate for the California State Senate. Follow him on Twitter @sethstodder.
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