"Is it really that bad?"
This is the question I keep getting from friends about politics in D.C.
As someone active in Washington politics for the past twenty years, I understand the question. Polls show that many Americans are asking the same thing.
In fact, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 83 percent of Americans currently disapprove of Congress -- the highest level of disapproval notched in the history of the poll.
The only place where Washington is popular is in the media. The hit Netflix TV series House of Cards, which portrays politicians as evil, power-hungry players, broke viewer records this spring. Soon after came Mark Leibovich's New York Times best seller, This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!, which gives an insider views of the D.C.'s political corruption. Then there's HBO's Veep, a television comedy series set in the office of a fictional Vice President of the United States, and the full-frontal exposure of U.S. political failure and hopelessness on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report and The Daily Show.
None of these outlets offers a way out of this hopelessness, and unfortunately, that's nothing new. In his book Politics and Policy: The Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Years, James Sundquist suggests that the system itself might be at fault, when he asks: "But is the American system of government so constructed that it must depend upon tragedy and political happenstance to render it capable of responding decisively to the nation's problems?"
The same week that approval ratings of Congress hit rock bottom, inventor Elon Musk unveiled plans for what he has dubbed the Hyperloop, a solar-powered vehicle that carries passengers between cities at sonic speeds.
America has visionary thinkers, just not in politics. To transform our political system, we'll need the likes of Musk and other innovators to join forces with political strategists who know how Washington works. We need to bring the networked, collaborative culture of Silicon Valley into the current political system to work with Washington's forward-looking political strategists.
Visionaries will be surprised to find staffers on Capitol Hill ready to help. A few years back, I had a meeting about getting AIDS drugs to Africa. The Hill staffer who hosted the meeting introduced me to his colleague from another office and joked, "Rich works for loser causes" --meaning my work doesn't support PACs, and won't help politicians get re-elected or get them their next job.
After the teasing, these staffers helped me out. They are good people caught up in a broken system who helped deliver AIDS drugs to Africa, which America accomplished in bipartisan manner, prevented the deaths of millions of Africans.
These staffers privately confessed, "I didn't come here to do this." By "this," they meant getting up every day to write press releases that blame the other party for everything that's wrong in America and writing speeches blaming Washington as if they aren't part of it.
To bring together political savvy and futuristic thinking will require boundary crossers -- people who have both insider knowledge of D.C. and an outsider's vision of what we can create.
Luckily, there is a rising, smart, networked class of young political entrepreneurs who are crossing these boundaries. One such entrepreneur is Ted Henderson, a young engineer who left his job on Capitol Hill recently and created Capitol Bells, a free mobile app that taps into the radio frequency of the Hill's voting alert system and sends alerts when the House votes, tracks votes, and shares House floor updates and information on current legislation. His app was an instant success among Hill staff who now use their phones to know when votes are coming in, and he's since added an ability for citizens all over the country to vote on live bills and see how others are voting in their district and nationally.
His technology solution is pioneering peer networks for citizens that have the potential to get them reengaged in their own democracy. And he now has the attention of House leadership and tech giants like Twitter.
To rescue American politics, we need to marry the strategic wisdom of how the system works on the inside with the visionary, tech-savvy leaders who can use networks to engage citizens in necessary reforms, getting us to the day we ask about our politics: "Is it really that good?"
Rich Tafel leads Public Squared, a strategy organization for social entrepreneurs. He's the founder of Log Cabin Republicans and author of Party Crasher: A Gay Republican Changes Politics as Usual (Simon & Schuster, 1999). He writes regularly for Stanford Social Innovation Review.