Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Activist Politician

“We came to Washington not to see how long we could stay, but to see if we could succeed where previous generations had failed.”

Illustration by Shane Harrison.

I belong to Generation X, which I think can be more accurately described as the Community Service Generation. We don’t sit on the sidelines. We have volunteered in record numbers and pioneered nonprofit organizations, using entrepreneurial savvy to solve our communities’ seemingly intractable problems. We took our talents directly into the schools and prisons.

But for years we did not vote.

We took from our grandparents in the Greatest Generation a call to serve, but we also came of age as then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan preached that government itself was part of the problem. We asked what we could do for our country, but we were not willing to put up with the slow pace and productivity level of the public sector. We wanted results now.

Nevertheless, as we got deeper into service and social entrepreneurship, we kept coming in contact with government. Sometimes it was the problem, sometimes the solution and sometimes the chance to translate a success into policy. After a decade, the community service generation was increasingly taking its experiences and results-oriented approach into public service.

We took service to scale.

That’s where I found myself in 2007, when I returned from my second stint in Afghanistan, where I had been conducting security and political research for six weeks for the International Center for Transitional Justice. I returned confident that the United States and international community could stand on the side of justice by ending the appeasement of warlords and corrupt officials and thus reverse the rapid deterioration of the mission. I had raised similar issues when I returned from my first Afghanistan posting in 2005 with no response; but I hoped that the worsening conditions there would have made officials ready to listen. They were not. Most officials seemed much more interested in figuring out how to use my research to make the other party look bad, or to prove that they themselves had been right all along. Few seemed interested in solving the problem.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. I had dedicated the previous few years to working on similar justice-based security solutions in parts of West Africa, Darfur and the Balkans. While creative solutions could emerge from the nonprofit sector, implementing the answers required convincing the decision makers, and that was where the brick wall always towered.

And that is when the idea of running for office started to make sense. The solutions I wanted to move forward required the support of politicians, and I was tired of trying to convince those already in office. Like many in this service generation, I had made career decisions based on the principle that I should go wherever I could make the most difference. I began to see that politics can—and should—be community service by another name. It should make lives better and promote the common good.

I made an “impossible” run for the U.S. Congress in the 5th District of Virginia, a massive swath of Central and Southern Virginia, going up against Virgil H. Goode, Jr., a six-term incumbent who had a very strong foothold in the district and had trounced all earlier opponents by about 20 points. I founded my campaign on conviction politics, the idea that people respect those who stand up for their beliefs, even if they disagree with some of the positions. Our race was close—very close. After a recount, I had won by a margin of 727 votes in the closest House race in the country.

For decades, politicians—particularly Democrats—had triangulated to an artificial center for fear of seeming too aligned with one side or the other. This pattern created a lethargic, almost pathetic, ethos in our political culture that left everyone afraid of tackling the most pressing issues of our time. Everyone survived politically by passing themselves off as a marginally better alternative to the other party, often taking important ideas and simply cutting them in half. And 20 years later, the problems of energy dependence and a broken health care system still plague us, not to mention global poverty and nuclear proliferation.

The 2008 election was significant for many reasons, but perhaps the most important shift was the emergence of a new generation of politics. Our new president, Barack Obama, is also a member of Generation X; he also came from a service background and challenged the older generation’s political framework.

He signaled this shift in his inaugural address when he said, “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works […]”

Obama, like many of us elected to Congress last year, came to Washington with a mandate to put problem-solving ahead of partisanship and results ahead of ideology. We came to Washington not to see how long we could stay in the capital, but to see if we could be the ones who succeeded where previous generations had failed, for example, on putting our nation on a path to energy independence.

The new-versus-old politics struggle was on full display during the month of August 2009, when debate on the health care reform bill reached a fevered pitch. I held 21 town-hall meetings that month, more than any other member of Congress. Conservatives railed against big government; liberals made impassioned pleas to cover the uninsured. But then there were the people in the middle: working families who just wanted to know if this was going to bring their prescription drug costs and premiums down.

When we returned from that August break, I was afraid that many of my fellow freshmen Democrats were going to be afraid of touching health care reform. But to my pleasant surprise, we came back ready to fight for more meaningful reform and demanding lower costs.

The ideas we presented came directly from our constituents and, in the end, we produced a better bill. For most Americans, the questions are more pragmatic: can we get something done, and will it provide some economic relief to middle class families and small business owners?

During my campaign for Congress, I often called for a return to the political character exemplified by my grandfather in the Greatest Generation—the generation of Americans brought together in common sacrifice by the Depression and World War II, and whose endurance, perseverance and extraordinary leadership carried our country through a dark time. We need to call on this kind of extraordinary leadership that resides within each of us once again.

Our generation of politicians is going to be defined by what we accomplish. Americans don’t back down from problems; it is deeply ingrained in our DNA. But our leaders haven’t been living up to that standard. People will judge us not by whether we were too liberal or too centrist, but whether we caught or missed the moment to solve generational challenges. I’m proud to be a part of this moment and proud to stand up, instead of backing down.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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