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
Ron Fournier
April 6, 2014, 8 a.m.

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.”

RE­LATED FROM FOURNI­ER:

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

“Mil­len­ni­al Mad­ness: What Hap­pens If Mil­len­ni­als Bolt Polit­ics”

“Mil­len­ni­als Aban­don Obama and Obama­care”

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