No Party for This Young Man: A Millennial Storms the Gates of Washington

Independent congressional candidate Nick Troiano launches bid to bring generational change to Congress.

Nick Troiano, Co-founder of The Can Kicks Back, speaks at a discussion about Generational Equality and the National Debt at the JFK Jr. Forum at the Harvard Kennedy School. (National Journal)

Nick Troiano started a small business, ran a nonprofit group, and was named "Future Leader of Pike County" in Pennsylvania before turning 25. Like most millennials, he loves public service — but only when it quickly and clearly improves his community.

Many members of his generation (young adults born between 1982 and 2003) are drifting away from politics and government because they believe there are better ways to help people, using the connectivity of technology to feed their passion for social entrepreneurship. Not so, Troiano.

He's an independent candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania's 10th District. If you believe, like I do, that politics needs an injection of young disruptors, you hope that Troiano is the future — now.

"If I win, it will send a signal to Washington that you better watch out, that there's a huge generation of millennials poised to disrupt politics as usual," Troiano told me before announcing his candidacy Sunday. "We're about to turn things upside down."

Despite Troiano's pragmatic and forward-looking platform, his youthful enthusiasm and intelligence, the odds are stacked again him. He's running against a Republican incumbent, Rep. Tom Marino, who won reelection in 2012 by a ratio of nearly 2-to-1.

"Troiano has certainly gained more attention and traction than 99 percent of independent candidates for Congress," said David Wasserman, House editor for The Cook Political Report, "but at the end of the day this is still as safe a Republican district as they come in Pennsylvania."

Also, Troiano is a bit of a millennial outlier in that he still believes that politics and government can effect positive change. Despite being statistically the most civic-minded generation since the Greatest Generation, nearly half of millennials agree that "politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges the country is facing," according to surveys by Harvard University's Institute of Politics, and believe that "politics has become too partisan." Nearly one-third agree that "political involvement rarely has any tangible results." Every down-on-government metrics is surging among millennials.

Political scientist Michelle Diggles of the moderate Democratic think tank Third Way recently argued in a landmark study that both major parties are at risk of losing the millennial generation. For instance, the number of self-identified independents among young Americans has increased by 11 percentage points, nearly twice the rate of all other generations. "They aren't satisfied with either side," Diggles said.

That's why Troiano's candidacy is worth watching. He's a young man in a hurry to prove that there is a future in politics for millennials.

With a platform built around the notion of "generational equity," Troiano believes that millennials will be more likely than their parents and grandparents to make the hard choices required to tame the U.S. debt, reduce income inequality, increase economic mobility, fight climate change, and reform 20th-century political institutions that favor an ossified two-party system.

Troiano is cofounder of The Can Kicks Back, a nonpartisan campaign that advocates for U.S. debt reduction. His supporters include deficit hawks Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, and Alan Simpson, a Republican, as well as Russ Verney, who advised the presidential campaign of independent Ross Perot.

"In order to fix the challenges facing our country, we must first fix our political system, so that our political process is focused on conciliation rather than conflict, is representative of the people rather than the parties or the special interests, and is led by those who believe in public service rather than self-preservation," Troiano said Sunday in announcing his candidacy.

"To be clear, the solution is not necessarily to end the two parties, but to transcend them; 60 percent of voters in our district agree that one way to break the gridlock in Congress is to elect more independent leaders to Congress," he said, citing a poll commissioned by his campaign.

The conservative-liberal debate over the size of government bores millennials, Troiano says. Young Americans are far more interested in debating how to reinvent government for the new century, a governing system that "sets national goals but empowers local and state governments and civic institutions to create solutions and bring successful ones to scale."

He has found inspiration in The End of Big, a book by Harvard professor Nicco Mele, who argues that a modern government should resemble a computer operating system upon which individuals, organizations, and companies build services and offerings that suit the times — flexible, transparent, and accountable.

"Essentially, government as a platform presume that government should provide an underlying infrastructure and then let us build on top of that infrastructure in a wide variety of ways," Mele writes. "It does not necessarily mean smaller government — but it does mean the end of Big Government, with many smaller units of government."

Troiano is the first to admit that such thinking will sound naïve to most political professionals and journalists. It might scare some voters in northeast Pennsylvania. Partisans will dismiss, even mock, any talk of an independent-minded insurgency. Yes, he is a long shot — a clear-eyed one.

"I plan on winning," he told me. Tugging on the lapels of sharply creased suit coat, Troiano objected to a suggestion that he was leading a revolution of millennials. "I'm a young person leading a movement of more moderate, pragmatic voters of all generations," he said.

"But even if I don't win, I hope this campaign demonstrates a model that other candidates can build upon moving forward." He shrugged, and spoke for his generation: "Our time will come."


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"Millennials Abandon Obama and Obamacare"

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