The Outsiders: How Can Millennials Change Washington If They Hate It?

So will elite Millennials abandon Washington?

Nicco Mele believes so. A Kennedy School professor who oversaw the groundbreaking digital strategy for 2004 Democratic candidate Howard Dean, Mele said it’s already happening -- and it’s a devastating development. “These kids are starting their own things at a rapid rate -- in part because there isn’t much of a job for them in the old institutions,” he told me. “If you’re a super-talented, super-smart 22-year-old and it looks like you need to take an unpaid internship and lick envelopes to get into a field you’re interested in, forget it. Better to start something new.” Mele is an investor in ShoutAbout.org, Morgan’s website.

In a book he published this spring, The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath, Mele warns that governments, political parties, corporations and other national institutions are crumbling before the power of the individual and the “radical connectivity” of technology. “Should present trends go unchecked,” Mele writes, “it is easy to imagine a nightmare scenario of social breakdown.”

While that may be the extreme scenario, Mele and other experts on the Millennial Generation say they can easily envision a future without a two-party system. The GOP and (less likely) the Democratic Party could die. Government itself, Mele says, may shed its hierarchical 20th-century approach and evolve into a mere “platform” that creates room for groups of citizens to do start-up ad-hoc projects or for small government groups to provide services in a coordinated manner.

California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a forward thinker on digital-age governance, says a Millennial government will be peer-to-peer: ideas and actions bubbling up from citizens. “We need to acknowledge that for a whole generation of Americans under the age 30,” Newsom writes in his book, Citizensville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government, “their reality is not like the reality of the over-30s grew up with.”

This is what Steele had in mind when the former GOP chair told me to watch the scene in Iron Man 3 when Tony Stark takes a fistful of data about a criminal investigation and throws it onto a 3D screen, where it disaggregates into a collage of microbytes. Using these electronic puzzle pieces, Stark assembles a better picture of who carried out the crime and why. “That scene tells you all you need to know about what Millennials are poised to do to Washington,” Steele told me. “They are going to destroy the old silos, scatter their elements to the wind, and reassemble them in ways that make sense for them and the new century.”

Predicting the future of U.S. politics is risky business. But this much is certain: In a Millennial world, nothing will be sacred. “Millennials will produce radical reconstruction of civil institutions and government,” says Michelle Diggles, a senior policy adviser at the Democratic think-tank Third Way and an expert in demographics and generational politics.

Diggles is the first to admit that, contrary to conventional wisdom, her party does not have a lock on the youth vote -- and thus Democrats are not immune to the withering forces of generational change. For instance, she says, 51 percent of Millennials believe that when government runs something it is usually wasteful and inefficient, up from 31 percent in 2003 and 42 percent in 2009: “Hardly a ringing endorsement for a bigger government providing more services.” There’s more: 86 percent of Millennials support private Social Security accounts and 74 percent would change Medicare so people can buy private insurance. Sixty-three percent believe free trade is a good thing. Only 38 percent of Millennials support affirmative action.

In 2008, President Obama spoke directly and successfully to the Millennial experience. But his inability to overcome polarization and gridlock has cost the president support among young Americans (even if they blame the GOP for Washington dysfunction). Not only did Obama’s share of the youth vote decline from 66 percent to 60 percent, but fewer young people participated (45 percent turnout in 2012 compared to 51 percent in 2008), according to Harvard pollster Della Volpe. The drop was most pronounced in swing states where Obama didn’t target and mobilize his voters.

Of course, young Americans tend to like the GOP even less. That’s why a plurality of Millennials (45 percent) describes their affiliation as independent this year, an increase of 6 points just since 2008. Winograd and Hais predict that the next generation of voters will reject traditional liberalism and conservatism. “The Millennial civic ethos,” they wrote, “will instead allow for both consensus and customization.”

Diggles agreed: “This tension -- two parties thinking they are in the trenches dueling it out, and a burgeoning generation who reject trench warfare altogether is, for me, the key. Washington doesn’t get that change isn’t just a slogan. It’s about to become a reality.”

“Neither party,” she said, “gets what’s coming down the pike.”

What’s coming are kids like Shayan, the keen-minded Langley High senior who laughed at my question about public service. “Let me tell you what’s going to happen to government and politics when we get ahold of them.” he told me. “We’ll destroy them.”

Shayan paused to let me stew on that a bit before shrugging his shoulders as if to tell this Baby Boom reporter: It’s not the end of the world, old man -- just the end of your world. “The thing about social institutions is when you destroy them,” Shayan said, “they get rebuilt eventually, in a different form for a different time.”

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Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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