This is the highest number ever recorded in the history of the poll, and reflects a deepening pessimism about the state of our country and our country's role in the world. Relevantly, the blame seems to be placed squarely on the shoulders of the country's long-standing political institutions: 71 percent of respondents believe that the country's economic problems are due to Washington politicians' inability to "get things done"; Congress' approval ratings hover at an abysmal 14 percent; and a mammoth 79 percent of people report dissatisfaction with the entire political system.
The temptation may be to place the blame for the bleak forecast on the economy, but we've had 46 straight months of continuous job growth; unemployment hovers at a six-year low (6.1 percent); and our Q2 2014 GDP has swung more than six percentage points to achieve an annualized growth rate of 4 percent. Even within the poll, despite 36 percent of respondents reporting they were impacted "a lot" by the recession, only 25 percent report feeling a similar level of impact today -- suggesting that they're able to perceive an improvement in their circumstances. Moreover, with lifespans continuing to increase, mind-bending technological innovations just around the corner, and popular culture producing what might be an all-time high of "good quality" content, there are a whole lot of reasons to believe our children might have it way, way better than we can even imagine.
So what gives?
And, most importantly, what can we do about it?
The reason the 'decline of American institutions' -- particularly, American political institutions -- hypothesis resonates with me is that so many of the stories that come out of our political news cycle just don't make much intuitive sense. This isn't necessarily a criticism, and I want badly to avoid (for the sake of argument) any semblance of taking sides. My point isn't to argue why the counter-intuition might be correct regarding each of the following points, and certainly something can be a good idea yet still be counterintuitive. But my years as a game designer taught me that the more you go to battle with people's intuition, the less confidence people are going to have in your decisions, even if you're doing your job right (which, frankly, you're probably aren't). And a lot of things that have came to a head over the last couple of years defy any notion of common sense:
- Our federal government should not shut down -- but it did.
- Our Congress' job is to pass laws -- but it doesn't.
- Government, like a business, should both design and agree upon a balanced budget -- but it won't.
- Politicians should agree with scientists about issues that affect the planet -- but they don't.
- Members of both parties should make compromises to build consensus and reach agreement -- but they can't.
- Speech should be speech and money should be money, because I can't buy my lunch with a Pliny excerpt -- but the Supreme Court says that isn't true.
- Education and health care should both be taken for granted in the world's most prosperous nation -- but they're two of the most contentious domains of politics.
This list is by no means exhaustive -- and again, the point isn't to debate the "why" behind the complexities within these points. The point is that when you're presented with a litany of counterintuitive situations every single day on the evening news, you're going to develop a corresponding intuitive distrust of the institutions that confront you with them. President Obama touched on this challenge a couple months ago at a fundraiser in Seattle, Washington, when he said:
Part of peoples' concern is just the sense that around the world the old order isn't holding and we're not quite yet to where we need to be in terms of a new order that's based on a different set of principles, that's based on a sense of common humanity, that's based on economies that work for all people.
He was referring to foreign policy, but the observation holds true domestically as well. People are hungering for a new order, even if they're not quite sure what that new order looks like. It's the same reason why, in the NBC/WSJ poll, approval of "Wall St." hovers at a staggeringly low 21 percent. But what does that even mean? The banking sector? The financial sector more broadly? The financial sector's influence on politics and "Main Street" markets? Income inequality as a principle? I deal with hedge fund managers and bankers and VC firms every day as an essential component of my job, am reading the WSJ as I sit and write this article, and literally live on Wall St., and I have no idea how I'd give an approval rating to "Wall St," or what doing so would even mean. So who knows what each of the poll's respondents were actually trying to communicate? But that feeling, the sense that something is really off -- that's 100 percent real. And as a country, we have got to respond.
I work in social enterprise, meaning I've inherited all the infuriatingly-trendy terms that permeate the startup sector: "pivot," "disrupt," and (of course) "iterate." Iteration is what you do when you know something needs to get better, but you're not exactly sure what the best way to do that really is. You need to try a bunch of things, then measure, then see if you've managed to solve the problem. And if Congress' approval rating is sitting in the tank at that embarrassing 14 percent number, well. That means we need to do some iteration.
That means we need to shake things up.
That means we need to stir the pot.
That means we need some change -- some real, meaningful change, systemic rather than merely incremental.
We don't, of course, know exactly what needs changing. But here we can again use our intuition to see what might represent a pretty good bet.
- Congress is older now than it's ever been. What if we brought in some younger blood, some new perspectives?
- Congress is packed with special interests, and its races are run by campaigns fueled by PAC dollars. What if we elected a candidate who received not a single dollar from these kinds of institutions?
- Within Congress, our most liberal Republicans essentially never vote to the left of our most conservative Democrats, and vice-versa -- which leads to the kind of gridlock we see in Washington. The parties are not equally to blame in this regard, but what if we elected someone who (like George Washington) didn't subscribe to party membership at all?
- The Federal budget represents maybe the most contentious issue in all of politics, and can shut the government down entirely. What if we elected someone who didn't just pay lip-service to the budget, but based an entire platform on it?
This year, the tenth district of Pennsylvania is going to have the opportunity to elect such a person. His name is Nick Troiano, and 10 days ago he successfully made it onto the ballot as the only independent running for Congress in the state.
Nick Troiano is the youngest candidate for Congress in a century.
Nick Troiano has raised more money than any independent in the country -- and he did it by knocking on doors, embarking upon a "Back to the Future Tour" in a 1981 DeLorean without so much as a single penny from special interests to help him out.
Nick has coherent, centrist policies based around financial responsibility, economic mobility, environmental sensibility, and reform of the political system itself.
Nick Troiano is proof of a concept.
As you can tell, I'm excited by Nick Troiano (whom I first heard about through my friend David Burstein, author of Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation is Shaping Our World). However, I'm not excited by what Nick can do for the Tenth District of Pennsylvania, because I don't know the first thing about the Tenth District of Pennsylvania. I'm not excited about defeating Nick's main opponent, Tom Marino, because I don't know the first thing about Tom Marino. Frankly, I'm not even excited by what Nick is going to do in Congress, because I know that as a freshman member of the House, there's only so much impact you're going to have.
Indeed, I'm very comfortable claiming that Nick Troiano is not going to change Congress -- but electing him just might.
For generations we've talked about the possibility of "the generation's best and brightest" -- the power they can hold if they commit to something. But the generation's best and brightest aren't flocking to politics, because they don't believe they can. That universe seems a world removed, accessible only to the old and well-connected and powerfully-backed. Instead they flock to New York, or Boston, or Austin, or San Francisco, and launch startups. There, things move fast -- there's no gridlock, no hand-wringing, no densely-wrought bureaucracy, no failure to take action. There, you can earn a million dollars just by knowing how best to say "Yo!" There, at least the illusion of meritocracy promises payoffs for hard work, and reinforces the feeling that anything is possible if you're smart enough and determined enough and committed enough to your mission.
Contrast that to the federal government, where it's a triumph just to keep the lights on.
Imagine what could happen if the best and brightest have seen that they can run for office. Imagine what could happen if they saw that they could win. Imagine what Washington would look like if the same young Americans that succeeded this past decade in connecting the community of the world together at the speed of light instead directed their passions towards building the institutions of our future, the instruments for moving society forward.
That is what it means for Nick to get elected. That is what it means for Nick to win.
What if Americans believed the world would be better for their children because they saw their children building that very world?
Support Nick's campaign at www.nicktroiano.com