Don’t Laugh — Millennial Leader Serious About Easing Political Polarization

You didn’t need to go further than the opening moments of the “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program in the Lubar Center at Eckstein Hall on Tuesday to grasp the challenge his guest for the day has taken on.

Gousha was introducing Steven Olikara, founder and president of the Millennial Action Project. “They’re hoping, sort of, to re-establish political cooperation,” Gousha said. That brought an audible snicker from a member of the audience, which brought a larger laugh from the group. “This is a cynical, cynical group,” Gousha said, with a laugh. Olikara responded, “That’s OK, my parents laughed, too.”

But Olikara is serious about it and he exuded confidence that improvement in the tone of American politics will come. 

Olikara founded the nonpartisan organization in 2013 on the premises that partisan gridlock is blocking constructive action on major subjects and that millennials – today’s younger adults – can play leading roles in changing the political climate for the better. “Political cooperation through millennial leadership,” the organization’s web site says prominently.

The project now is active in 22 states, as well as in Washington, D.C., and is supported by elected officials from both parties, Olikara said. It is developing what he calls “future  caucuses” in each location, groups of people who want to be involved in advocating for less partisan, more open-minded work on issues and who aim to find common ground and solutions.

Olikara, who grew up in Brookfield and is a gradate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said his interest in doing something about partisan polarization began with his concerns about the deep partisan divisions in the Wisconsin legislature and the ethnic and economic separations that mark the Milwaukee area. He said the inability of many politicians to think about long-term benefits rather than short-term politic advantages worries him. He used the term “tribal” to describe much political activity.

“A consequence of polarization is inaction,” he said – yet action is what is needed to move many issues forward. “The current trends are totally unsustainable for American democracy.”

Olikara said the organization has three goals: Building trust in relationships among legislators of different views; identifying innovative bipartisan opportunities; and “amplifying a narrative” about young people making a difference in politics.

“Things are happening.” Olikara said. “I’ve already seen that red and blue can come together.” He gave examples of success for project the organization has been involved in, such as a bipartisan agreement in Ohio to end gerrymandering of political boundaries. He said the project is building support for proposals such as giving returning military veterans more help in getting jobs and lifting a federal ban on research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on anything related to guns.

Olikara said young adults are not too young to have big impacts. He said Martin Luther King Jr. And Thomas Jefferson were both the age of current millennials when they took steps that shaped America’s future. And he praised the impact people even younger than millennials could have now, namely high school students who are campaigning for gun law reforms in the aftermath of the murder of 17 students in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14. ”I think the young people in Florida are going to mobilize the country,” he said.

To view the hour-long program, click here.  


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