By James Ferencsik.
If you ever wanted to know what the decline of a superpower looks like, look no further than the United States. As China grows at a portentous pace, America’s unemployment and national debt remain dangerously high after it initiated the Great Recession of 2008. Consequently, nearly two-thirds of Americans believe their country is on the wrong track. The widely-perceived ebb in America’s geopolitical and economic power is not a consequence of changes in its intellectual, cultural, or physical composition. The cause is largely institutional. Yes, the guilty institutions range from Wall Street to state governments; however, you cannot get to the root of the problem unless you start with America’s national political institutions. America’s federal government, once the envy of the world, has fallen victim to intractable partisan gridlock. Basic functions of Congress, such as passing a budget, have become Herculean feats. Furthermore, special interests, under the current regime of campaign finance laws, can buy politicians and adversely manipulate legislation. This entrenchment of political and special interests has made national political institutions wholly unresponsive to the needs of the country.
The duration and severity of America’s decline are very much open questions; however, their answers are directly related to whether or not America can initiate political institutional reform on a substantial scale. American political institutions must be able to formulate smart and efficacious policies to remedy problems with the deficit, unemployment, immigration, education, campaign finance, and numerous others. The larger problem is that America’s most powerful institutions, which can make these necessary changes, do not have any interest in reforming themselves. A Congressman, for example, wants to ensure that he still can retire to become a lobbyist and potentially make millions of dollars. Powerful special interests similarly benefit from the current system and attempt to block anything that would harm their pocketbooks. Thus, America’s best hope for sweeping institutional change is to mobilize the segment of the America population whose interests are least represented by America’s current institutions – youth.
Congressional and Presidential policies currently do little to further the interests of youth. To start, the U.S. federal government spends 19 times more on its social safety net for senior citizens than on educating America’s next generation. It is also a general rule-of-thumb in Washington that the first fiscal cuts always come from programs benefitting youth. Furthermore, much of Congress looses little sleep over the rapidly growing student loan debt bubble which is now approaching 8% of GDP. The result is a system that gives youth little opportunity for economic advancement.
Far too often, youth enter the workforce burdened by student loan debt and without a job to help pay it off. The number of young Americans who want and cannot find employment is roughly double the national average. Also, 40% of students who graduated college over the last two years have jobs that do not require a college degree – nearly 300,000 of which are minimum wage jobs. The political logic that allows Congress to ignore this situation is simple. Youth do not have a real lobby in Washington and cannot organize, so harming them is inconsequential.
Disproving that logic is essential to getting America on the right track. If youth become a respected force in politics, then politicians will face electoral consequences for supporting the status quo. Youth will demand more intergenerational equity, a more functional ladder of economic mobility, and general pro-youth policy. They will not always get this change, but they sometimes will and, in doing so, create a set of political institutions that is more responsive to the needs of youth. This will not only be in the interests of youth but also of broader America.
Politicians are currently plagued by an epidemic of myopia. They think from election cycle to election cycle, preventing a long-term perspective towards public policy. 60 year-old Senators are not concerned with what American institutions will look like in thirty years; however, youth are. If youth become political influential, then those Senators will need to win votes from more young Americas. To do that, he or she must think about the next thirty years as well. A Congress that respects the views of youth will lead to more forward-thinking public policy that views education, research, and entrepreneurship as the cornerstones of American economic success.
Getting youth engaged in politics on a large-scale, however, is much easier said than done. Greater youth involvement’s primary benefit is also its primary obstacle: youth are not engaged in the world of politics. The answer to “why” is undoubtedly complex; however, I believe it begins with the fact that only 29% of young Americans believe they have a say in their government. I attribute that number directly to young Americans’ lack of substantive representation in Washington.
Yes, 18 year-olds can vote, but that does not automatically mean they have substantive representation. After a slew of Supreme Court cases such as Citizens United which birthed Super PACs, politicians no longer feel accountable to the average voter but rather the donor. New members of Congress from competitive districts are told they must be on the phone fundraising for an average of four hours per day. When members return to their districts, they spend more time speaking at fundraisers than town halls. This system has placed Congressmen in a bubble that insulates them from the broader interests of the American population.
Young Americans, especially today, cannot become major donors. Therefore, if they are going to be truly represented in Washington, they must change the system. This involves substantive campaign finance reform, high-profile advisory boards such as a Presidential Youth Council, and a vocal youth lobby. These changes require action from youth, which in turn requires youth to realize how much is at stake. I cannot say with certainty that youth apathy towards politics will end, but I can say that America desperately needs it to happen. Greater youth engagement in politics will establish more forward-thinking, responsive institutions and enable American preeminence for years to come.