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Alaska millennials need to jump in, not drop out of politics

  • Author: Forrest Dunbar
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published August 29, 2014

The young men and women of my generation -- the so-called "millenials" -- are turning away from electoral politics. Increasingly, they identify with neither party, and believe that who runs and wins elections makes little real difference. They are thus expected to sit out the midterm election.

The story of disaffected youth voting in low numbers is an old one, of course. The more worrying trend is the tendency that I see among the potential leaders of my generation -- both here in Alaska and in the Lower 48 -- to also reject the electoral process.

Politics is too partisan, too nasty, and life is more fulfilling elsewhere, say many of these Millennial leaders, who increasingly turn to the nonprofit world, seek an apolitical government position, or head into private sector work.

Don't get me wrong, these are all worthy endeavors, and I have great admiration in particular for the entrepreneurs of my generation. But I hope this idea of the irrelevance or impossibility of electoral politics does not take deep root.

We need good people in the business and the nonprofit world, no doubt, and in some smaller outfits one person can make a huge difference. But in other cases, those jobs are so competitive that if the current occupant leaves they are soon replaced by another equally able employee.

In contrast, if millennials refuse to step up and take part in electoral politics, those elected positions will not simply default to someone fighting to move this state or this nation forward. If millennials truly care about women's health, immigration reform, indigenous rights, education costs, growing income inequality, or LGBT rights -- all issues that we do in fact claim to care deeply about -- turning away from electoral politics means not only a lack of progress; Hobby Lobby proves politicians, and their appointees, can absolutely take us backwards.

People often tell me I am crazy to be running for office. "Why go through that?" they ask. There are so many ways to have a rewarding life, minus the personal attacks and the loud, passionate, public arguments with fellow Alaskans.

True. But it is also true that there is no place where so much change can be made, for good or for ill, as within our political system.

I worked on the Hill in 2003, in the era of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Tom DeLay. When President Bush decided in March of that year to send troops to Iraq, it was his choice alone. Whether or not you agreed with the reasons given -- weapons of mass destruction -- you must acknowledge Bush's own assessment of the situation: he was "the decider."

We saw a similar "decision point" in this state when Gov. Parnell personally rejected Medicaid expansion, denying coverage to between 10,000 and 40,000 Alaskans, depending on which study you consult.

Not every elected official faces decisions so dramatic. But there are moments in politics when one person, or one small group of people, can make a difference to a degree seldom seen elsewhere.

The counter-argument, of course, is that there are large, structural forces at work that one person cannot change. That argument has some truth, and I am not saying that millennials should jump into the fray because each will personally bring about a revolution. I am arguing that if we as a generation leap in together we can collectively make things better, at the local level, in Juneau, and even in our nation's capital.

Washington, D.C., where I seek to represent Alaska, has become particularly dysfunctional. This dysfunction, more than any other factor, explains why so many millennials are abandoning electoral politics.

My message to millennial leaders, and indeed anyone hoping for change in DC: dysfunction is not inevitable. The campaign finance system that drives many of our problems can and must be changed. The institutions that hide responsibility for the gridlock, notably the Senate filibuster, are not written in stone. The hyper-partisanship, driven by Fox News and MSNBC (but -- let's face it -- mostly Fox News, which crushes MSNBC in the ratings), needn't last forever. Our participation in electoral politics can accelerate its end.

To the generations that raised the millennials and now run our system, I ask: please join us. Please help us change things. Surely this hyper-partisan stew of anger and inequality is not what you wish to leave your children or your grandchildren? Let us fight together for structural reform in our politics. Let us create a politics that the potential leaders of my generation, and the generation following mine, actually aspire to, instead of turning away from.

Forrest Dunbar is a Democratic candidate for U.S. House of Representatives. He's a lifelong Alaskan, a former commercial fisherman, wildland firefighter, and congressional staffer.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)