THE SXSW ISSUE
The week of March 8, 2015

One millennial’s quest to save Washington, one race at a time

By Aaron Sankin

The average millennial will change jobs between 15 and 20 times in his or her career. David Burstein wants one of those jobs to be in Congress.

Burstein is nothing if not preternaturally motivated. As a 16-year-old high school student, he looked at the results of the 2004 election and grew frustrated. Less than half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 had turned up to the polls, and even that level of turnout was supposed to be a victory. (It was up a major jump from the demographic’s paltry 36 percent turnout in 2000.) Burstein was still too young to vote himself, but it made his blood boil.

Politically minded kids complain about voter disengagement all the time. They look around and see that if their peers would stop taking selfies for just a moment, they’d have the numbers to usher in major change in Washington. Where Burstein differs from most is that instead of simply complaining about it, he made a documentary.

Burstein’s movie, which came out four years later, was called 18 in ’08 and looked at how young people in America related to their political system. He followed around 18 millennials and catalogued their experiences with the 2008 election. Burstein also wanted to get the perspective of elected leaders, so he cold called the offices of every single member of Congress—all 535 of them—and asked for interviews. He ended up getting people like Jeb Bush and John Kerry.

In conjunction with the movie, he founded a nonprofit called Generation 18 that crisscrossed the country registering 25,000 new voters. He was 20 at the time. He followed that up with a book, Fast Future, which he called the first book about millennials written by a millennial.

“[During my voter registration tour] I got to meet with young people from all over the country and have great conversations about politics, how they felt about social change,” he recalled. “I realized there was a huge impact that people wanted to make. While people were excited to vote, there was a frustration with feeling that things were not working.”

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David Burstein Photo by Julie O’Connor

The problem, he realized, was that young people were looking at the candidates the two major parties were putting before them and walking away profoundly unsatisfied. If the political system nominated candidates that cared about the issues facing millennials, he reasoned, then maybe more millennials would start caring about the political system. Congress’s approval rating is sitting at a dismal 20 percent. It stands to reason that injecting new blood into an institution that people can now only call “the world’s deliberative body” ironically couldn’t make things that much worse.

The now 26-year-old Burstein’s newest venture, Run for America, is the culmination of that vision. Launched earlier this month, it’s an ambitious plan to use social media, big data, and Silicon Valley’s alternately vaunted and derided entrepreneurial spirit to bring a new generation of candidates into national office.

“I thought about what the problem in our political system is: It’s the question of talent.”

“I thought about what the problem in our political system is: It’s the question of talent,” Burstein said. “In every industry, there are these super aggressive programs for identifying, training, and retaining really great talent. In fact, we spent $75 billion a year in the U.S. on talent recruitment and identification. The only place we don’t have that kind of system at work is in politics.”

Largely working within the two-party system, Burstein aims to locate a new crop of candidates—one free from many of the burdens of the past—and arm them with the tools they need to get into office. “It seemed obvious that if we wanted to solve our political challenges, we needed to have different people because people solve problems,” he continued. “Systems can help, but people solve problems.”

Burstein will be pitching Run for America at panel during the South by Southwest Interactive conference. In a lot of ways, Run for America is the Platonic ideal of the festival’s increasingly massive tech extravaganza. It’s young, disruptive, and almost aggressively idealistic. But like so much else that happens at SXSW, it’s inescapably plagued by a single question: Will it actually work?

Disinterest in civic duties

Millennials, generally defined as the cohort of people born between between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, are something of a paradox. They’re the most civic-minded generation in ages, but they largely shun actual public service.

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A 2009 report by the National Conference on Citizenship found that millennials are far more likely to volunteer in their community than previous generations. In a survey of American adults, 43 percent of millennials said they volunteer regularly, a number 10 points higher than the volunteerism rate for Baby Boomers. Millennials are also famous for feeling the need to find meaning in their work—often with a willingness to sacrifice some salary for the opportunity to do a job they can go home at night feeling good about.

In that light, running for political office would seem to make a lot of sense. Work as an elected official is all about making the world a better place for your constituents.

However, that’s not what’s happening. Not even a little.

A 2012 report by the Government Business Council found that, despite public service being a seemingly good fit for the millennial mindset, only small number of young adults want to go into government service. A survey of college students found that only 6 percent wanted to work in a public sector institution. When narrowed to the federal level, that number dropped to a minuscule 2.3 percent.

In an article published in the Washington Post, Rutgers University political science professor Shauna Shames described her research into the opinions of 750 young people studying law and public policy in the Boston area. She found that even though the people she interviewed were among the best positioned to run for office, few found it an attractive prospect. The combination of a lack of privacy afforded to public figures in American and the average four hours per day of fundraising members of Congress are expected to grind through makes serving in the legislature a decidedly unappealing prospect—especially when the federal government’s infamous dysfunction makes the entire institution seem far too “sclerotic” get anything done.

“It seemed obvious that if we wanted to solve our political challenges, we needed to have different people because people solve problems.”

“I’d hate [running],” one young woman told Shames. “I just feel I can effect a lot more change and do good work from the outside and find it much more satisfying.”

Despite being the most diverse generation of Americans in history, Shames found that the young people she talked to who expressed the most interest in running tended to adhere relatively closely to the type of people who already populate Congress—white males from well-off backgrounds. Atlantic writer Ron Fournier conducted a similar experiment by interviewing some 80 high school and college students in the Washington, D.C., and Boston areas and had trouble finding people who said they wanted to run for elected office. Fournier wrote that even students at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government seemed disinterested in the prospect.

Instead, civic-minded young people want to change the world by working for innovative nonprofits like DonorsChoose.org, which pioneered the crowdfunding model and applied it to public school classrooms, or companies like Tom’s Shoes that build a social good element into their for-profit business models.

“Politics just doesn’t seem relative to a lot of us and our world. Since the Great Society, tell me one big thing that has come out of Washington,” one Kennedy School grad student told Fournier. “Results are important to us, and sadly, politics isn’t a place for results.”

LinkedIn the vote

On Tuesday, Run for America posted a job ad on LinkedIn. On one level, the job isn’t all that different than the thousands of job openings on the business-focused social network. At the same time, it is worlds away.

The gig has a base salary of $174,000 per year and an annual allowance of just under $1.5 million for mailing expenses and a staff of up to 18 people. The full benefits package includes complimentary travel to and from the organization’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, as well as immunity from arrest while on the job. As an added bonus, hires are only required to work 132 days each year.

In section providing background about the company, Run for America wrote:

The United States House of Representatives is a public sector institution incorporated in 1789 to assist in the governance of the United States of America. Comprised of 435 members and over 10,000 support staff, the House served more than 316 million people in 2014 and had a budget of $3.02 trillion. The House must work closely with its sister organization, the United States Senate, and the chief executive to accomplish its goals.

The whole thing is dryly tongue-in-cheek, but the form here is instructive for Burstein’s entire endeavor. The problem with Congress, he argues, is that most elected representatives don’t treat it like a standard job that they’’ll hold for a certain period of time before moving on to the next. Instead, once they get in, they start making themselves comfortable and focus on raising enough money to ensure reelection. Burstein wants young leaders who are interested in serving for a limited period of time and then moving on with their lives, which he hopes will allow them to make the hard choices that may hurt them at the polls but help the country in the long run.

It’s certainly a millennial mindset—always keep an eye out for the next career left turn.

It’s certainly a millennial mindset—always keep an eye out for the next career left turn.

“We are looking for folks who come from outstanding backgrounds, people who have a track record of being problems solvers, people who have a tendency to think creatively and differently,” insisted Burstein. “People who are entrepreneurs and people who may not be entrepreneurs, but have entrepreneurial spirit in them.

“These are really the qualities we need to help us in Washington,” he added. “The current qualification is how many political connections do you have and how much money can you raise. That tends to lead—surprise, surprise—to people who are exactly like the current politicians and are thus part of the problem.”

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Run for America’s plan is to select a dozen congressional candidates to run for the House of Representatives in 2016. While the candidates will run inside the two-party system—either as Democrats or Republicans—Run for America aims to fill in the role traditionally played by party officials or party-affiliated political consultants. After identifying a candidate, Run for America will also run the campaigns of those candidates, handing everything from polling and fundraising to legal work and marketing strategy, all of which Run for America will charge the candidates for. The organization is split into two parts, a for-profit benefit corporation (essentially a designation that indicates that an independent third party has verified a company has a legitimate social mission in addition to making money) that does the campaign work and a nonprofit 501(c)(4) focused on grassroots organizing and mobilization.

Burstein argues that he’s designed a new model for doing campaign work based on using shared services between all of the Run for America candidates, which he hopes will allow the organization to charge one-third of the prices offered by traditional candidates. Campaigning on the cheap reduces the need for constant fundraising—one of the realities of political life that’s strangling Washington. It’s a relationship that Burstein wants to maintain over the course of a candidate’s career, helping them get reelected after their term is up.

“We’ll be there for them as long as they want to be there and as long as they stay true to their values,” he said.

Everyone runs as a Washington outsider, and the system gradually turns everyone into a Washington insider. It’s the circle of life.

However, the core of how Burstein plans to keep costs down is by being extremely selective in where Run for America runs candidates. The first thing the organization did was a comprehensive data analysis of every single congressional district in the country based on 40 different data sets. The goal was to find the districts with the type of voters who would be the most willing to vote for the type of candidates it would run—places where it could mount a successful yet thrifty campaign. Run for America based those calculations on variables like percentage of the electorate under the age of 35 and where there was a high volume of registered independents. Run for America is now soliciting both applications from hopeful candidates themselves and outside recommendations for candidates.

Burstein remained vague on precisely what the Platonic ideal of a Run for America candidate would look like.

“It could be really interesting for educators, engineers, or veterans, or people who have run nonprofits. Their current job titles are less important than the quality and caliber of who they are,” he said. “One thing we’re not looking for is people who are planning on being politicians for the rest of their lives. We have a lot of that. What we’re looking for is people who don’t want to run for office—people who can be drafted into service. They don’t have to do it forever, but do it for a period of time and serve your country in that way.”

Listening to Burstein, a lot of this doesn’t seem particularly revolutionary.

Calling for citizen legislators to rise up and take back Washington from professional politicians is nothing new. It was, in a large way, the same mantra of the Tea Party movement, except the Tea Party put an intense focus on installing non-politician politicians at the state level, something with which Run for America doesn’t concern itself.

Everyone runs as a Washington outsider, and the system gradually turns everyone into a Washington insider. It’s the circle of life, and it moves us all.

Burstein didn’t respond to questions about precisely what type of hard choices a youthful Run for America candidate, unconcerned about their future electoral prospects, would be able to make that older, career politicians might not be. Cut Social Security benefits to ensure the entitlements system security for time immemorial? Repeal the popular but regressive home mortgage interest tax deduction to fill a big hole in the federal budget? Impose a carbon tax to fight global warming?

Besides, it’s only as legislators spend longer and longer in office that their seniority grants them more powerful committee assignments. In a study about what makes an effective legislator conducted by political scientists at Vanderbilt and the University of Virginia, the authors argue that the biggest advantage for a majority party in taking control of the House of Representatives is in its ability to determine which bills get to the floor through control of congressional committees.

“What we’re looking for is people who don’t want to run for office—people who can be drafted into service.”

However that same study does give some credence to Burstein’s insistence on how—note the language—entrepreneurial lawmakers can cross party lines to get things done. “In usually gridlocked areas like health care, skillful policy entrepreneurs make a big difference in whether anything happens,” the study reads. “On health issues, Democratic Representative Henry Waxman of California has a record of propelling action. Similarly, Republican Representative Lamar Smith of Texas turns out to be an effective entrepreneur on labor issues and job creation. Because today’s Congress is so gridlocked, tracking the activities of such entrepreneurs is essential to assessing the likelihood of any policy changes.”

There is also something to be said about getting past partisan gridlock by simply putting younger people in office.

“You see a lot less bickering about petty issues [among younger people]. You see a lot more unification on things like social issues,” Burstein noted. “It’s not just a culture war question. On global warming, for instance, you see the gulf between Democrats and Republicans being very, very small; whereas, with older people, it’s much wider.”

In a lot of cases, the data bears that out. In a recent survey on the attitudes of college freshmen, over 93 percent of self-described liberals were in favor of gay marriage, and 56 percent of conservatives were too. Washington has been fighting the culture wars for half a century now; maybe a getting more representatives another generation removed from the divisiveness of the 1960s wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

In the end, all of this depends on Run for America’s candidates getting elected in the first place. The Beltway is littered with the metaphorical graves of similarly idealistic reform-minded organizations looking to clean up Washington. Mayday PAC, a super PAC set up by visionary Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig with the admittedly ironic goal of raising boatloads of money on behalf of candidates who pledged to get big money out of politics, ended up spending $10 million only to see the majority of its candidates go down in flames.

Even still, Burstein is hopeful in the way that young people are often hopeful. That maybe, just maybe, someone resourceful, ambitious, and armed with an ideal and a dream could have some kind of impact on a system expertly designed to corrupt ideals and leave shredded pieces of smart, effective legislation scattered across the Senate floor.

“Millennials have a lot to offer when it comes to politics and problem solving. This is generation that is interested in getting things done and action,” Burstein said. “If there’s an ideology behind what we’re doing, it’s an ideology of action. You can be more liberal or be more conservative, but it’s time to get moving and it’s time to get things done.”

It almost breaks your heart.

Illustration by Max Fleishman